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What to Include in Your Graphic Design Portfolio: Experts Weigh In

We asked graphic-design thought leaders to give us their best advice on what to put in your design portfolio to land more clients. Here are the actionable tips they shared with us.

Marc Schenker April 30, 2021 · 22 min read

What to put in your graphic design portfolio is the age-old question that has hounded graphic designers of all experience levels for the longest time. No matter whether you’re a beginner in the field or a seasoned veteran, there’s always a difference of opinion on what should go in there.
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Naturally, you want to impress your prospects and clients, but you also want to present a showcase of your design work that’s an accurate representation of your abilities as a graphic designer. There’s so much to consider when you think about what to put in your graphic design portfolio. Do you show only your best work? Do you present a more balanced representation of your work to show your growth or evolution in your career?
Here at Creative Market, we pride ourselves on having our finger on the pulse of the design community at all times. To settle this question once and for all, we approached the leading graphic designers in the country to find out where they stand and what they’ve done in their careers.
Here’s their collection of actionable tips and tangible takeaways that you can implement right away for your own graphic design portfolio.

1. Know That What You Put in Your Portfolio Leads to What You’ll Be Hired for

Knowing how your prospects and clients think goes a long way toward getting the new projects that you’re really interested in. Take that into consideration when assembling the elements of your graphic design portfolio, reveals JUST Creative’s Jacob Cass.
“What you put in your portfolio is what you will get hired for, so ensure what’s in there is the work you’re actually wanting to do,” Jacob said.
At the end of the day, having something which to call your niche is what matters.
“For example, if you wanted to work on branding projects, a focus on logos and identity would be more beneficial than featuring a mixed bag of websites, packaging, and identity. Having a niche and specialization greatly improves your chances of being hired.”

2. It Comes Down to the Trifecta

Some designer professionals believe in a trifecta of must-haves when deciding on whether to hire a graphic designer or not. Therefore, it’s a good idea to consider having these three elements as part of your broader graphic design portfolio.
Crown Creative NYC’s Alejandro Rodriguez explains.
“When we review a potential design candidate, we want to see the trifecta: their website, their portfolio, and their Instagram. If you’re not posting your work on Instagram, then you should be,” Alejandro said.
His other actionable tips include:

  • Present your work in a unique way – If someone is reviewing a bunch of portfolios at once, they can begin to blend together. You want to catch them off guard and stand out in the crowd. This can be done with unique layouts and original mockups; ensure they are super-realistic, or create your own. Seeing the same, typical mockups on repeat can devalue your work. Think outside of the box; showing your actual work in situ tells a story and shows proof of concept.
  • Always cater your portfolio to who is receiving it and be mindful of short attention spans – Put your most relevant and strongest work in the forefront, and try to align your portfolio with the job you are pursuing. There is no need to include everything you’ve ever worked on, just your best work.
  • Create some work – As designers, we have the ability to create conceptual work and projects for little to no cost, so, if you don’t have projects that align with a job you’re pursuing, create some. This shows that you’re willing to put in hours of your own time to land better jobs and opportunities.

 

3. Think of Your Graphic Design Portfolio as a Resume and Make It Personal

Here’s some advice that may catch you by surprise, especially those designers just starting out: Your portfolio is actually analogous to your resume.
A Perfect Graphic’s Chris Flechtner points out that having a letter of introduction to accompany your portfolio allows him to be personal with prospects and clients.
“For a potential employer, I start off with a letter of introduction. I get personal and maybe a little corny by telling of my pre-teenage days and how much I loved art and graphics from a young age.
For example, I tell about studying the masters like Da Vinci and Michelangelo and my parents’ patience as I set up a rickety scaffold in my bedroom to paint a fresco on my ceiling. I also include notable things like winning a design contest at the age of 12. I want people to feel like they knew me a little, so I want to be candid and forthcoming,” Chris indicated.
“As far as showing my art, I try to present myself or my company as professionally as possible. I show samples of as many different styles and applications as possible. I try to avoid showing work that all looks the same. Rather, I display as much diversity as I can because you never know what somebody will like or what they are looking for.”

4. Understand What You Specialize in and Communicate That Well

When your prospects and future clients are evaluating your graphic design portfolio, they are trying to figure out what your specialty is. After all, any designer can be a jack of all trades and a master of none. That’s why this differentiation is so crucial, as Kgrafix’s Kim Jones points out.

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“I think it’s important to understand the services or those things that you specialize in as a graphic designer, as you build your portfolio. If you specialize in packaging design, it’s important to show work that you’ve done for customers showing your packaging design,” Kim said.
“I offer a variety of services and consider my business a one-stop shop. I have a background in printing, so it’s important that my portfolio shows work from graphic design to the final printed piece. Showing pieces that have been printed on a variety of substrates from postcards and manufacturing products to signs and tradeshow booths emphasizes that my business offers services from graphic design to the printed piece.”
And let’s also not forget the usefulness of showing your work the way that your client and the public will see it.
“I think it’s also important to show a variety of your graphic design work in its true form. Many graphic designers today have been trained strictly on a computer screen, never really seeing their work in its final state. If you have an opportunity to get samples of final printed work, do so and include it in your portfolio,” Kim continued.

  • Kim Jones, Graphic Designer and Owner at Kgrafix

5. Broaden Your Concept of What a Graphic Design Portfolio Should Be

It’s helpful to think of your design portfolio as something more than just a visual work that you show prospects and clients. Think about the effect your portfolio has on them and how its elements impact the types of projects you win and the work you end up doing.
To that end, Elise Grinstead of Elisign Design recommends the following, four points to land more clients:
Showcase work that solves real-life problems and challenges: While you may produce beautiful and creative design products, the client needs to see that you are able to understand a communication challenge and how to apply graphic design to it to most effectively carry the intended message, action, or effect. Good design is about more than just creating “beautiful” or “cool” results. An effective way to do this is to write descriptions with your work that break up the project into:

  • Background
  • Client/Industry
  • Targeted Audience
  • Communication Challenge/Problem that was addressed
  • Strategies used in design solution
  • Mediums used

If you do not have relevant client work that fits this, do a hypothetical work using a real-life company and example (and be sure to mention in your portfolio that it is only hypothetical!).
Showcase work that demonstrates the best of your abilities: Don’t put every project you’ve ever designed into your portfolio. Curate it to only show the best of your work.
Consider curating your portfolio to match the industry you want to work in: If you want to be in book design, show long-form typographic pieces, creative imagery concepts that could carry over to cover art or, better yet, an actual book product. Don’t make prospective clients or employers think too hard about if or how you could be a good fit for them—show them right away.

  • Pro tip: While you may have a digital portfolio online, consider creating separate PDF portfolios that are customized for the job you are seeking, along with a cover page that lists the prospective client/employer name with yours. Curate the work relevant to them. This shows your insight into what they are looking for and the time you’ve spent to carefully consider the match you could be for them, instead of sending them your website URL like everyone else does!

Your portfolio is an extension of your own visual branding: If you cannot design your website or portfolio well and just put the content of projects in, it does not show that you will steward a future project or client well. Remember to present the full visual package of who you are—this is a bonus of being a graphic designer! Make your portfolio a cohesive design piece, not just the pieces within.

6. Don’t Be Shy About Showing Off Your Best Clients

The whole point of your graphic design folder is to impress prospective clients. Impress them, and your chances of being hired drastically go up. One of the surest ways of doing this is by using the concept of social proof—as in using your connection with recognizable brands you’ve worked with in the past to tell your prospects that you’re in demand and trusted by important clients.
That’s how SullivanPerkins’ Mark Perkins, founder of one of the country’s leading creative service firms, sees it.
“If the purpose is to attract more clients, then you want to show work from the verticals (healthcare, manufacturing, real estate, whatever) that you hope to attract, and you also want to show the most recognizable client names,” Mark stated.
In essence, if you’ve worked with more well-known clients, then, by all means, let them take center stage in your graphic design dossier.
“There’s no real need to show that innovative, pro-bono work for the experimental theater company or the fabulous posters volunteered for the local graphic arts club that got in every award show. The pharmaceutical client is going to be far more interested in your pedestrian packaging for Pfizer than in the clever, pro-bono logo for the local animal shelter.”

7. Always Have a Multi-Pronged Approach to Your Graphic Design Portfolio

You never want to put all your eggs in the same basket, and so it is, too, with your design folder. Use creativity when thinking about how to present your portfolio to prospects; after all, your penchant for being creative shouldn’t be limited to just your projects.
According to Tribu’s graphic designer, Stefan Barber, the following checklist is critical for any designer who wants to put their best design foot forward:

  • We love to see work that extends past a single print ad. How can you accomplish the same thing in 15 different ways? Use email, social (all platforms), and various other digital media.
  • How successful was the work? In a quick writeup, tell the reviewer why the work is/was important.
  • Variation in style. You can do graffiti art, but how does your corporate portfolio look?
  • If the portfolio is limited because you’re a young designer, make something up. Do a mock campaign/branding effort. The world is your oyster.
  • The amount of pieces you should include varies. If you flesh out three, badass campaigns, you’re set. We’re all fighting against the clock, so less is more (considerate). If you are showing branding, the same applies: E x t e n d the brand.
  • Turn to your friends. If you’re worried about what to put in a portfolio, show your friends your portfolio, but act like it’s someone else’s. They’ll give more honest feedback.

 

  • Stefan Barber, Graphic Designer at Tribu

8. Get Better Results by Implementing This Three-Step Sequence

It seems like doing things in a cadence of three is popular with more than one of the experts we reached out to! These three action items are designed to reduce the friction for graphic designers who want to create a strong portfolio that’ll attract more leads and actual work.
Jansy’s senior graphic designer, Matt Keefer, swears by these three steps.
“First things first: Determine what kind of career path you see yourself going down as a graphic designer. Your career could take you in the direction of a print designer, web designer, UX/UI designer, illustrator, animator/motion designer, film/video editor, and so on. It’s important that your pieces of work within your portfolio visually reflect and communicate exactly what career path you are trying to aim for,” Matt explained.
“Second, limit the number of pieces within your portfolio and keep it compelling. Ideally speaking, you want to show anywhere from seven to 10 pieces of your BEST work within a portfolio. Whether you’re sending this off to a potential employer or potential client, they will need to get an immediate impression of your work. A portfolio that is too long or drawn out can lose the viewers’ attention or simply get lost amongst the rest,” Matt continued.
“Finally, provide insight into your design process and how you got to your design solution. No matter what field you’re in, design is all about solving an issue and providing a thoughtful solution. Each one of your portfolio pieces needs to provide a short brief about the assignment, ‘The Challenge,’ and then explain how you got to your design solution, ‘The Execution.’ This helps provide further insight to your design process and how you problem-solve as a graphic designer.

  • Matt Keefer, Senior Graphic Designer at Jansy

9. Evolve the Contents of Your Portfolio

Your graphic design portfolio is a living, breathing entity. It should never be static; it should always contain samples of your work that show your evolution as a creative.
Movement and change are always healthy, constructive concepts in life. Apply them to your portfolio to show your leads that you have what it takes to grow. headTrix’s Mark Itskowitch realizes that this is also a core aspect of marketing, which your portfolio supports.
“When it comes time to creating a portfolio, you want to share your best work. If you are just starting out, you can post school projects, personal projects, etc., to show off what you can do. Then, as you get more work and create more projects, it’s important to constantly update your portfolio and put a variety of your best work forward,” Mark said.
“You can focus on the kind of work you are looking to do more of or, if you have a variety of skills, I think it’s great to share a diverse set of skills which can make you more marketable and enable you to pick up a wider variety of clients and work.”

  • Mark Itskowitch, Creative Director and Principal at headTrix

10. Build a Portfolio Around Range and Concept

Showcasing your range as a designer, along with your grasp of concept, is just as important as the actual samples of work inside your folder. Use your samples to demonstrate this range and grasp of concept that clients and employers will want to see.
Scout Driscoll, from DesignScout, bases this advice on her agency’s own criteria when it comes to evaluating new hires.
We look for a portfolio that shows a designer’s range and for designers who demonstrate that they can nimbly jump from one style to the next, putting the brand voice and strategy before trend or personal style. In any given day, our troop jumps from an international, wine label design to a legacy-driven, architecture firm re-brand to an active lifestyle-inspired, fast casual concept. Make sure that each project in your book speaks to your range to attract studios with a wide variety of clientele,” Scout advised.
Then, there’s the concept behind your design samples. How you think and relate to your audience should be visible in your graphic design portfolio, too.
“Consumers read design faster than words. What is your design saying? When you present your portfolio, be sure to highlight the strategy behind your work,” Scout continued. “Demonstrate how that strategy was used for each design you present. It’s not enough for your design to be beautiful, edgy, or on trend. It has to say something specific to the end user about what makes the product or brand different and better. How you think is just as important as pixel-perfect design.

11. Study Your Audience Like a Hawk

Remember that your graphic design portfolio is a marketing tool—you’re marketing yourself as the best designer for the project. One of the most vital rules of marketing is understanding what your target audience needs and then positioning yourself as the designer with the best value proposition for said needs.
This actionable tip is less about what to fill your portfolio with, as it is about researching the clients you want to work with.
903 Creative’s Aaron Gibson expands on this idea.
“If your portfolio is being shown to a specific studio or client, curate the included pieces to reflect their unique services, styles, or needs. This will illustrate that you are equipped to solve the unique design challenges they face. If interviewing with a design studio, do your homework. Study their portfolio to see which of your pieces will best complement and enhance their body of work,” Aaron said.
“At the same time, look for opportunities to showcase a unique skill or style that you can bring to the table. Photography, illustration, copywriting, and lettering are only a handful of ancillary design skills that can increase a candidate’s value to a potential employer or client. Consider which elements of your portfolio and skillset make you the best fit to the person viewing your work, and tailor your presentation accordingly.”

12. Keep up With Design Trends

It’s important to showcase diverse views, so here’s a bit of insight that may be controversial to some. Keep up with design trends, not to show that you’re into fads, but to show your prospective clients that you’re always working and understand the latest developments in your industry.
Arctic Lynx Media & Design’s Cesar Jaramillo believes that using your portfolio so demonstrate your understanding of different trends is key to getting clients.
“The main key to attracting clients is in the process of keeping up to date with design trends. As you are building your portfolio for clients to see your work, it’s important to understand how design has been evolving over the past years. I’ve always favored clean and simple designs that hit right to the point of execution,” Cesar stated.
This tip ties into client education: The more trends you have in your folder to show clients, the more you show your capacity.
“Composing your portfolio with a variety of your work is going to give others who view it a more in-depth idea of what you’re capable of. Anywhere between 15 to 20 pieces will suffice.”

13. Be Selective and Put Your Work in Context

This interrelated strategy comes down to how your prospective clients see you when you apply for work. Crème Brands’ Kathryn Joachim suggests that paying attention to how your portfolio comes across to your clients is key to winning projects.
“People will assume you are only capable of the type of work they’ve already seen from you. This may mean that you only show parts of a project that stylistically align with where you want to take your aesthetic. This may mean you need to do some case study projects, where you rebrand or re-wireframe an existing company in the niche you want to pursue. Be selective. This means you will have work you’ve done that’s incredible — but doesn’t align with where you are taking your business,” Kathryn revealed.
Context changes how your clients perceive your work, too. The many templates we have here at Creative Market can certainly help with that.
“My second piece of advice would be to show your work in context. Make sure you’re showing the full experience of the design you’re delivering. Mock up the logo on real products and storefronts — wherever you’d ideally see it exist! For years, we have hired a photographer and stylist to create flatlays for our portfolio and clients to show off their new brand and site design. Now, with sites like Creative Market growing in their offerings, there are more high-quality templates and mockups than ever that you have available to you to create a realistic backdrop for your creations.”

14. Represent Yourself Honestly

Honesty is still the best policy.
Hokey sayings aside, being honest in how you present yourself through your portfolio establishes your credibility with a prospective employer or client. It’s actually one of the 10 traits of highly sought-after designers.
It’s a mistake to do otherwise, says Cody Tilson of Leviathan.
“The projects we work on are complicated and require collaboration every step of the way. Be honest and forthcoming about your involvement in every project—no one is going to expect that you work in a vacuum. There is nothing wrong with clearly outlining your role in creating something bigger than yourself; we’ll respect you more for doing so,” Cody stressed.

  • Cody Tilson, Creative Director at Leviathan

15. Tailor Your Portfolio to the User Experience

In all likelihood, your portfolio lives online, whether as your personal website or a dedicated portfolio page. As such, it’s imperative that you ensure a one-of-a-kind user experience for your client or potential employer who lands on your site.
Aaron Sanfillippo from Two by Four gives us the lowdown.
“Your portfolio’s design should be simple to navigate and straightforward enough to easily understand. If your portfolio’s layout or content is somehow distracting, it’ll likely lead to someone leaving your website. Don’t clutter your site with unnecessary content and fluff. Someone is looking at your portfolio because they want to see your work and understand a little bit about who you are as an individual (or team). The best portfolios are able to showcase these two simultaneously, not separately. What do you want someone to be able to take away from your site? What impression do you want to leave them with? Find out what that is, and cater your portfolio’s viewing/reading experience based off your answer.”
Today’s UX also means mobile, more than anything else.
“In today’s world, your portfolio needs to be digestible on a phone screen. You don’t get to choose when or how potential clients look at your portfolio, so you need to keep in mind all viewing possibilities—an even better reason to keep your portfolio simple and straightforward,” Aaron conveyed.
Finally, your graphic design portfolio needs to compel your leads to take action—which means getting in touch with you.
“Want someone to reach out to you for work? Want to learn how you can help them and their business? Make that clear. Find a dedicated spot on your website for a direct call-to-action and simple ways for someone to communicate with you, like an email address and/or phone number. Don’t make someone work to find this information. Avoid a project form asking clients for their project’s budget, what type of project they’re reaching out about, etc. — that can all come later in the process. People want to talk to people—not forms. This is your opportunity to make a personal first impression with a potential client, so make it count.”

16. Put Your Unique Value Proposition on Full Display

Your unique value proposition (UVP) should be top of your mind when compiling your graphic design portfolio. Your leads need to come away with knowing what you do better than all the other designers around you, who are vying for the same project or position.
Shook Kelley’s Sabrina Fan recommends that graphic designers differentiate themselves by highlighting the value they bring.
“Feature the thought process and rationale behind projects, to help prospective clients see the value you offer beyond aesthetics. On-trend and turnkey aesthetics are easy to buy online nowadays. The real value of hiring a graphic designer is in how design can be used to address, enhance, or solve their specific business objectives and challenges. Be seen as a guide who can lead businesses to solutions they wouldn’t have thought of independently.
Show the success of the work. Bring prospective clients full circle in understanding how projects impacted clients you worked with before. Frame successes around client objectives rather than design objectives, which they may not understand or care about,” Sabrina said.

  • Sabrina Fan, Graphic Designer and Principal at Shook Kelley

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Marc Schenker

Marc is a copywriter and marketer who runs The Glorious Company, a marketing agency. An expert in business and marketing, he helps businesses and companies of all sizes get the most bang for their ad bucks.

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