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How to Create a Graphic Design Portfolio

Two men sit at a table and discuss how to create a graphic design portfolio

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) early engagement partner 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.”

Sonja Moffet with the text Sonja Moffet

It's never too soon to begin creating your portfolio. and many students in graphic design programs add their best assignments from their course work to their portfolios.

While working towards your bachelor’s in graphic design, you may have the opportunity to take courses on personal branding, self-promotion and creating a brand identity. These courses include building a portfolio to showcase your graphic design work and assist you in preparing for your career

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 you 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.

Krysta Arabudzki with the text Krysta Arabudzki

“As you craft your portfolio, think about your personal brand and how it integrates across all mediums ranging from your resume, your online portfolio and your physical portfolio/book," Krysta Arabudzki, assistant creative director of environmental and experiential design at SNHU, said. "Visual storytelling and consistency are key components for landing your ideal design job."

She said if you have a specific tract or design strength, then play that up to present your personality and design aesthetic.

Should you have either one or a handful or dream employers, Arabudzki said, work up a self-promotion piece that can set you apart from your peers. "Find a creative way to get this into the hands of the decision-maker/hiring manager," she said. "It is a highly effective way to get your foot in the door and start the conversation as well as being memorable.”

Portfolios for the Digital Age

Rich Grant with the text Rich Grant

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.

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.

Jennifer Jacobson with the text Jennifer Jacobson

According to SNHU Assistant Creative Director Jennifer Jacobson, variety is always preferred when building your design portfolio.

"The more you can show, the more appeal you will have to your potential employer. But, depending on the position you’re applying for, you may want to tailor your portfolio to that specific area of design," Jacobson said, "For example, if you’re interviewing for a digital position, include projects that show knowledge of responsive design, email marketing campaigns and animation rather than packaging or print design."

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.

Ben Van Beusekom with the text Ben Van BeusekomThis is something SNHU graphic design alum Ben Van Beusekom knows works firsthand. After a colleague saw potential in his artwork, he began to build his own portfolio to show his artistic and technical skills. Continuing to build upon his portfolio helped him land a job as a Disney Imagineer, where he has worked since 2002 and has worked on big projects, including the 2010 expansion of Magic Kingdoms Fantasyland. 

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.’”

Jacobson said that personality also plays a crucial role when her team conducts interviews. "Find a way to stand out from the crowd and make yourself memorable," she said. "Whether you’re into oil painting, surfing or playing the guitar after hours, make sure the passion for your craft comes across in your portfolio."

And, above all, give your portfolio a thorough, final review before sharing it out. "Details are everything so ensure accuracy not only from the design end but also content (spell check, spell check, spell check),” Arabudzki said.

Discover more about SNHU’s bachelor's in graphic design: Find out what courses you'll take, skills you’ll learn and how to request information about the program.

Danielle Gagnon is a freelance writer focused on higher education. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.