Crafting a Focused Portfolio

by Taylor Slattery | September 14, 2021
For creatives at any stage in their career, but especially for those at the start, a polished portfolio is of monumental importance. Our portfolios act as our stand-in online and often serve as the only means by which we can make a first impression. Beyond just demonstrating your abilities and taste, your portfolio can dictate the direction your career takes. Whether this happens consciously, via strategic decision making, or completely unbeknownst to you depends entirely on the content you choose to include in your portfolio.

More often than not, you won’t be in a position to receive feedback. If you’re passed over for a job you’ve applied for, chances are the hiring director won’t be so generous as to provide critique or explain their rationale for not choosing you. That’s why it’s important to proactively take measures to demonstrate the sorts of qualities those in charge of hiring are looking for.

Crafting a Focused Portfolio - Order

Put yourself in their shoes. They’re looking through lists of strangers for someone to whom they can entrust their brand’s image. What sort of qualities do you think they want to see? They want someone they can trust. To earn that trust, you need to use your portfolio to sell yourself as dependable and polished. There should be no question about what they might get if they choose to work with you. You may be fresh out of school but your portfolio doesn’t have to look like it.

Your goal is to demonstrate your value as a designer. Naturally, your ability to create something eye-catching will be the thing that pulls them in, but beyond that, you need to keep their attention by showing your ability to solve problems in a systematic fashion. Design is about process and the more of it you can show, the better.

That doesn’t mean to include every single preliminary sketch you do, but just enough to show your thought process and decision-making. Regardless of the work you’re applying for, the ability to communicate your initial ideas with clarity, demonstrate reasoning, and provide evidence of a linear workflow will undoubtedly be appreciated.

Crafting a Focused Portfolio - Direction

Another quality you’ll want to demonstrate is intent. Your portfolio will be judged by the weakest piece, so everything you decide to include should have a reason to be there. If you’re hired, you’ll be in a position where they will be relying on you to make decisions. A portfolio full of random pieces from various student projects communicates indecision. It feels like you don’t yet know who you are or what you want, neither of which instills confidence.

At the beginning, when your body of work is still small, it’s tempting to include everything you’ve ever worked on, but there’s good reason not to. You may think that it’s important to demonstrate range, and in some instances, this might be the case. Say you’re applying for an in-house position in which you’ll be responsible for everything from print campaigns to web design and social media content. For such a role, it would make sense to create a portfolio that demonstrates your capabilities in each area. The problem with using your student work in this scenario is twofold.

First, your student work spans your entire time spent in school, and the quality of any given piece will reflect whichever stage along that journey in which it was made. Your portfolio should reflect only your current abilities. Including anything less can do more harm than good. The second problem with using student work is that as a whole, it isn’t cohesive.

Crafting a Focused Portfolio - Building

If the goal is to demonstrate range, rather than using individual pieces from various school projects, try creating a hypothetical brand and design a branding system that includes all the sorts of collateral you would be making for an in-house role. Personal projects like these will give those in charge of hiring a better idea of how you would tackle various applications while working within the parameters of an established style.

Personal projects also provide you the means of steering your career into a direction of your choosing. Say, for example, you’re a graphic designer and over the course of your student career, you’ve found packaging design to be the most enjoyable. Build a portfolio that makes it clear this is the kind of work you aim to do.

Take some time to complete some personal projects reflective of the type of work you want to do and allow these to serve as your portfolio. Think about how to highlight your skills within the scope of each project’s collateral. Even if your sole focus is package design, think about how you can demonstrate your knowledge of graphic design fundamentals and principles within those parameters. Even within this somewhat narrow scope, you can still demonstrate range by designing different types of packaging like beverages, cosmetics, and food.

Personal projects often lead to more interesting results, as you are in control from start to finish. Your portfolio is your stand-in, serving as your first point of contact with potential employers, so the more accurately you can convey yourself through the work, the better. Choosing something of personal interest will make the process more fun as well as make you more invested in the outcome. If you have fun while designing, it will show through the work and increase your chances of landing work in a similar vein.

Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.