Create An Awesome Design Portfolio With These 20 Pro Tips

These days designers can easily have their work on the internet with a theme, website or a few clicks.

Back before the internet, designers had to put together physical, printed portfolios and hope to get an interview so SOMEONE would look at their work. These days EVERYONE connected to a device can see your work. Sure, you can put your projects on a website and tweet or share it, but is just being out there enough? How do you want to get in front? What will make your work stand out from the crowd?

Creative director, writer, marketer, and professor of advertising at Boston University, Edward Boches’ advice: “The answer might still be idea-generation. The ability to come up with an original, relevant, useful, worthy idea — be it an ad, an app, an experience, a video or a digital platform — that solves a problem.”

So knowing you have a get eye, lots of creativity and original ideas, how do you put those all together to really wow a recruiter or creative director? Here are a few key points to follow:

01. Be thoughtful about what you include.

Don’t grab everything you’ve ever created, snap a few photos and include it with a title. Set aside time to go through all of your pieces, exclude anything you’re not proud of or don’t think is your best work.

Liz Grant’s portfolio is clean, simple and beautiful. It isn’t overwhelming and is so easy to navigate.

“I’ve found that what you put in your portfolio for people to view, you get in return.So if you don’t want a certain type of client, don’t show that type of work in your portfolio. Also, show the best of what you have, you don’t need to show it all. People have short attention spans, especially on the web, so show your best first – don’t make them dig through tons of projects to find it,” says Grant.

02. Select only your strongest pieces.

These are the projects you know were successful, got rave reviews and had good results. The agency Nowhere Famous highlights their strongest and most beautiful works in an in-your-face kind of way. They’re all so dramatic that you just want to click on each one! Stefan Lucut’s portfolio only shows a few pieces that show like a small gallery with lots of variety.

03. Showcase your most unique and creative work.

These pieces are bucking the latest trends. It doesn’t follow a WordPress theme nor is what everyone else is doing. Make people think “wow, now THIS is cool!” This portfolio by Duoh! — and entire site — is supremely unique! Rain Creative Lab shows their work large and bold plus the viewer scrolls through their portfolio up and down and across.

04. Go for variety.

Don’t include only one form of design such as website design or illustration. Though this doesn’t mean that everything shouldn’t work together. Make sure it all still looks like it’s one person’s work. Art director and designer Corina Nika includes a great variety of projects in her portfolio and they all flow together nicely. Studio Mast includes quite a variety but keeps everything tied together with consistent solids backgrounds.

05. Decide on how many pieces to include.

The suggestions vary depending on who you ask. Go for quality not quantity. My suggestion is 10 on the low end to no more than 20. You don’t want to lose the attention span of the viewer.

No matter how great your work is, the viewer will still only click through a few projects before moving one. Designer Thuy Truc has a simple style that you can see the moment you click on his portfolio page. He’s selected a handful of successful projects that are inviting and eye-catching, not overwhelming.

Olly Sorsby’s portfolio features one project and then shows a handful of additional projects. Using this format draws the viewer’s attention directly to the project he wants them to see first so it’s not overwhelming.

06. Do you need an online and physical portfolio?

Most designers are using online portfolios these days but you should think about creating a physical one for those in-person interviews, especially if you’re a print designer. This one designed by Abra Design has a magazine quality about it that’s will always be timely or you can get really creative like Alex Fowkes and create a an elaborate piece that’s a work of art itself.

07. Go high-resolution.

Even if your portfolio is 100% online, you never know if you may need a physical one down the road or if you need to print any pieces. Having high-resolution photos of all your pieces is a great idea whether you’re producing a portfolio or not. Nainoa Shizura’s work is all featured as stunning, large, high-resolution pieces.

Plus, clear close ups are perfect for sharing on social media, they create drama and give your portfolio a high-quality look. “I basically rotate my favorites, and try to keep a good balance. Keep the format consistent in your portfolio, and if possible, incorporate great photography and photos of your work,” says designer Coco Tafoya of Miss Modern Design House. Her portfolio incorporates gorgeous photography.

She says it’s sometimes a struggle deciding what to include in her portfolio since she turns out so much work but her advice to designers — “Make sure the layout works if someone wants to share your designs on social media – mainly Pinterest.”

08. Stay current.

Don’t include anything older than 3 years. Trends, techniques  and technology changes quickly. You don’t want to look dated. Designer Robert Gavick has created a one-page, very hip and trendy online portfolio and John Jacob displays his pieces very non-traditionally and eye-catching instead of using flat photos or PDFs. These both show they’re up on the latest trends.

09. The chosen few.

Once you have the final pieces selected, make sure they’re cohesive, that they form your “brand.” You don’t want your portfolio to look like it’s a group of many peoples’ work. Designers Jessica Comingore and Mhou both keep their portfolio clean and consistent. Each look like a complete family of design work.

10. Make sure the pieces flow nicely from one to the next.

That doesn’t mean you have to group all web design together and all logos together. Look at the colors and how angles work together. Down With Design and Tractor Beam’s portfolio are great examples as how to make your portfolio flow: keep images consistent until they’re rolled over. This has a nice feel to it without making the viewers eye jump around.

11. Snap a pic.

If you only have print piece of a project and want to use it online, take a few photos of it. If you don’t have a great camera don’t use your iphone, hire a photographer for a quick photo shoot or even work out a barter.

Many of Lisa Hedge’s and Son’ Emirali’s designed pieces are photographed instead of using a static PDF.

12. Make them interesting.

If you only have a PDF of a magazine or poster you designed, search online for mockup resources such as Graphicburger. They have free downloads of layered PDF files to drop your artwork into so they look like you hired a photographer. These are perfect for websites and apps. Taking a photo of a website on your monitor is not acceptable. Designer Kendra Schaefer uses them throughout her portfolio and the agency uses mockups for their entire portfolio.

13. Non-client work is OK.

What you include doesn’t always have to be paid client projects. If you love to self-start your own projects, go ahead and include them. Illustrator and letterer Jessica Hische includes illustrations and letterings for self-started projects that keep her creative. Brand and package designer Paul Currah includes a few of his non-client work in his portfolio as well.

14. Get them some street cred.

Many projects are probably self-explanatory but others aren’t. Including notes about the project, who the client was, what talents were used, and how the project was marketed are all great to include.

Emma Dime’s portfolio includes projects notes and how she solved the clients problem. She also includes a quote from the client. Smart! Studio Faculty goes beyond crediting the design team — they also give credit to the paper and fonts.

15. Results.

If you designed a marketing campaign, it’s great to include who else worked on the project, how they measured results and how successful it was. Joy Cho’s project notes also include how the results will be measured and the agency Supremo actually showcases the results of the project in call-outs.

16. Get a close up.

Viewing a piece in person is different than seeing them online. You can touch them to see what kind of paper they were printed on and you can see little details of color. Online, include an overall image of the project then zoom in to some of the most interesting areas of each piece and showcase those too. This wedding project highlights the many different materials used. And the sleekness of Steven Bonner’s vodka label shines through his portfolio.

17. Showcase the design process.

Maybe your client didn’t select the logo you really loved so can you include it in your portfolio? You can absolutely have a portfolio piece that shows your design process and the five logos you designed for your client to pick from.

They may not have chosen the one you wanted them to but you can still show your creativity with the others you designed. It’s interesting to creative directors to see your design process.

Here you can see Kelsey Cronkhite’s thought and design process throughout the entire project. Her site includes even more behind the scenes looks. The Hanger agency also includes sketches that show the beginning of the design process.

18. Don’t use flash or animation to your online portfolio.

Keep it clean, simple and non-distracting. Let the viewer click through at their pace. Using parallax or other scrolling features are acceptable and are very hip today. Philip Andrews uses different forms of scrolling that moves the viewer along nicely. Arun’s portfolio has simple pop up windows for each piece that aren’t distracting.

19. Get a second opinion.

You’ve looked at these pieces three dozen times. They’re becoming a blur to you. Before you finalize your portfolio, get another set of eyes on it. Get someone else’s reaction and opinion.

Does it flow, look professional, is easy to click through and correct? “Nothing kill your credibility faster than a portfolio full of grammatical errors and misspellings. Not proofing your content is a glaring indication that your work habits are sloppy as well,” adds designer Eric Noguchi.

20. Review, add, delete, repeat.

Think you’re done once you’ve hit “publish” on your portfolio page? If so, go back to #8. You want to stay current so set a schedule to review your portfolio every six months. Add any new projects and delete anything that’s looking dated or tired.

Ta-da! Your portfolio is ready to shine. Now what?

You’ve looked through your pieces, chosen them with care, shown lots of variety and creativity and are ready to launch it out to the internet world. What now?

  • If you already have a website, then adding a Portfolio section is an obvious choice. Many Squarespace and WordPress themes are made purposely for portfolios. You can title it Portfolio or some people go with Work.
  • If you’re right out of school or don’t have your own website, check out Behance or Dribble. These are free creative global communities to show off your work and discover other designers. You might even find a gig on there too!
  • Flickr started as a photo sharing site but has been evolving into a portfolio site. Group your work into categories much like you would in a regular portfolio.
  • Instagram is also an up and coming platform for an unofficial portfolio. Start a second account so your selfies don’t show up in between two ad campaigns you’ve designed though. Take a look at this tutorial on tackling an Instagram portfolio.

“A portfolio is the backbone of a creative as it shows what you’re capable of,” says graphic and interactive designer Jacob Cass of Just Creative. It’s a showcase of your blood, sweat, talents and triumphs. It’s your brand, be proud of it. Now go show it off!

Karen DeFelice is an award-winning graphic designer who loves magazines, business cards and blending fonts, colors, images to help clients make a big splash with their branding. When she’s not assisting business owners with their image, she can be found on a sunny, white sand beach; obsessing over chocolate and shoes; or enjoying her new Florida life with her husband and Boxer. Say hello on Twitter @defelicedesign