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Graphic Design Portfolio

Two graphic designers drawing a design in a notebook

Graphic design is a competitive, evolving field with a broad range of job opportunities available across many industries. Learning how to create a graphic design portfolio is the key to standing out among a large pool of job seekers.

"Graphic design is a very visual profession, so a designer really needs to be able to showcase their core competencies, their abilities and the diversity of style they can present," said Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) career advisor Sonja Moffet. "The people that are going to be evaluating their skill sets really need to see what they've done. Some brands will be looking for specific abilities, and a portfolio will demonstrate those competencies."

When considering how to create a portfolio for graphic design, it's important to ensure your portfolio contains the right information to clearly demonstrate who you are as a designer and who would be as an employee or contractor.

At the most basic level, a graphic design portfolio should contain:

  • An introduction or cover letter
  • A table of contents
  • A resume and biography
  • Examples of your past graphic design work
  • A list of your credentials, including education, training, industry certificates, awards and membership in professional groups
  • References and letters of recommendation

Personalizing Your Graphic Design Portfolio

While certain information should always be presented to a potential client or employer, customization is key when determining how to create your graphic design portfolio. It is important that your portfolio not only reflects your personal artistic abilities and style, but also the needs of the client, company or agency to which you're presenting the portfolio.

Think of a graphic design portfolio as a fluid project, said Moffet, that changes as your experience grows, as your personal style develops and as you present your work to new and varied clients. The person or group reviewing your portfolio should inform how you select and organize your examples of past work, ensuring you're always presenting your most relevant work during the hiring process.

"When considering what to include in your portfolio, think about what your specialty is and what path you would like to take," said Hilary Coles, an art director at Drive Brand Studio. "Do you want to work for a digital agency designing apps or websites? Don't put a bunch of print work in your portfolio. My expertise is in branding and digital work so the majority of my portfolio conveys that. Show the work you want to be hired to do."

Personalizing your graphic design portfolio also helps clearly represent who you are as a designer and demonstrates your versatility, said Karolyn Masters, national creative director at iPartnerMedia, a web design and digital marketing company.

"Versatility is a winning quality that will separate you from the masses," she said. "Can create with a pencil and paper? Can you also do so with software like Illustrator? Show all of the areas that you can offer, and the process of how you arrived at the final product. Showing the process of your portfolio pieces will foster trust in your a designer, showing you put thought into your projects and the process of creation."

Portfolios for the Digital Age

In today's increasingly digital world, it's important that your graphic design portfolio can be represented in both a physical print and digital form. While physical print portfolios are ideal for bringing along to interviews and meetings with prospective clients, digital portfolios are useful when applying to jobs, networking and looking for freelance or consulting work.

"Having a portfolio in a digital format enables a job seeker to distribute it more widely, for example, on social media," said Rich Grant, an SNHU Career advisor in southern Maine.

How you present a digital graphic design portfolio can vary, from a PDF version of your physical print portfolio to a personal website or even LinkedIn profile.

Designing Your Portfolio

Whether you're creating a print portfolio or a digital graphic design portfolio, the design of the portfolio itself is just as important as the work within the profile.

Designing your portfolio so it has a consistent layout, color scheme and design elements develops your personal brand as a designer, and helps prospective employers or clients better understand who you are.

The same attention should also be paid to how your portfolio is organized, Moffet said.

"The organization of your portfolio is a representation of who you are and how you think," she said. "The organization of a portfolio can show how you would handle multiple projects in the office. To be able to quickly show relevant content in an interview speaks volumes about you professionally."

The Value of a Portfolio

Building a graphic design portfolio is a must when getting ready to apply for work in the graphic arts. Whether your goal is to work for a thriving ad agency, work for a company as an in-house designer or work independently as a freelance designer or consultant, a portfolio will represent you and your abilities to prospective clients.

While a graphic design degree program is important preparation for a job in the graphic arts, a graphic design portfolio is the most important tool when seeking work in the field.

"It definitely gives a job seeker a leg up to be able to show the quality of the work, not just claim it in a resume," said Grant. "When I've talked with job seekers about portfolios, I've used the expression 'show, don't tell.'"

Pete Davies is a marketing and communications director in higher education. Follow him on Twitter @daviespete or connect on LinkedIn.

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