Graphic Design Portfolio Tips – Built In

Jeff Link is a Chicago-based freelance reporter covering technology, design and architecture. His work has appeared in Built In, Fast Company and dwell.
Jeff Link is a Chicago-based freelance reporter covering technology, design and architecture. His work has appeared in Built In, Fast Company and dwell.
Three years ago, Odes Roberts launched the Brooklyn-based design agency Almost Studios to work with likeminded people on cool branding projects. He was fed up being in the position he often found himself: the only Black person on corporate design teams, his ideas pushed aside and not given a fair hearing.
An experienced multidisciplinary designer who got an early break doing in-store graphics and signage for Victoria’s Secret, he’s gone on to work in prominent design roles at Shutterstock and Verizon, where he’s hired design teams. He’s also built out his own small team at Almost Studios, taking on projects with clients like Product Gym, Adobe and Vimeo.
For graphic designers seeking to set themselves apart with their portfolios, he stresses that design sensibility and software knowledge is less important than enthusiasm for the work itself.
“I do a bit of UX design, a bit of product design, but, at the same time, you know, in a previous life, I designed clothing,” Roberts said. “To me, I think the best thing you can do is just show how passionate you are for whatever it is that you’re doing.”
Still, the bar can be quite high when it comes to portfolio design. Hiring managers may review thousands of portfolios each year, and customization options on DIY portfolio builders like Semplice, Cargo, Readymag, Wix, Squarespace and Carbonmade have upped the ante on what’s expected. At the same time, social networking sites like Dribbble, Instagram and Behance have given graphic design a public face, making it easier to get noticed by colleagues or hiring managers — but adding to the pressure to stay current.
Still, when it comes to presenting your past work to hiring managers, many of the same rules that applied a decade ago still matter, says Michael Johnson, executive director of design and experience at the New York-based design agency Happy Cog. Do you have a unique point of view? Can you tell a coherent story about a brand or product? Do you play nicely with others? 
And it’s not always the flashiest portfolio that stands out, Michael Sacca, an executive vice president and general manager at the design portfolio platform Dribbble, told me. Overwhelmed hiring managers tasked with scanning a high volume of portfolios may be drawn by big names — say, Nike or Adidas — but it’s often the writing embedded in case studies that sets candidates apart.
“We don’t hire designers for their technical skills,” he said. “The medium in which you create — Sketch, Figma or Photoshop — doesn’t matter as long as you’re open to learning and adjusting to the company’s method. Tools can be learned: the deciding factor is how you approach problems and solve them.”
Built In spoke to these design leaders, along with Cielle Charron, a freelance graphic designer and the instructor of a senior-level portfolio-building course at Portland State University, to compile this list of dos and don’ts for graphic designers seeking to strengthen their portfolios.
 
To the broader public, the term graphic design applies to virtually any type of digital design. The design ecosystem, however, tends to be discipline-specific. Drilling down on the type of work you want to do, whether that’s creating logos or custom illustrations for a digital branding agency, designing social media cards for a marketing department, or working on an app’s iconography as part of a product team, can be crucial to getting pegged for an interview.
Make a decision: You can’t be everything to everyone.”
“I started as a designer eons ago,” Sacca said. “The biggest mistake I made, which applies at Dribbble, is not making it clear what you do well. You might be okay at everything, but what do you excel at and where have you focused your attention? Make a decision: You can’t be everything to everyone.”
 
Giving the hiring manager a glimpse of your personality is equally important. A short bio on the landing page of a personal web portfolio can illustrate this well. On Almost Studio’s website, Roberts introduces himself in a large, sans serif font that dominates the screen. A biography on the ‘“about” page gives viewers an immediate sense of who he is and how that identity manifests in his design ethos. “Everything real comes from honesty,” the site announces candidly. 
That touch of individuality can make a difference, not only to potential clients, but to hiring partners.
“When you’re hiring, you’re not just hiring a set of hands, you’re hiring a brain, you’re hiring somebody with lived experience, everything they’re bringing with them,” Johnson said. “And however that comes through, that’s something that I’m definitely looking for.”
 
A web portfolio is a good place to house a gallery of case studies that showcase the breadth of your work. Whether this is scratch-created or produced from a template, the important thing is that the layout matches the designer’s personality. 
“There are tons of website builders out there: Webflow, WordPress or Squarespace,” Roberts said. “The main thing that needs to come out is you, not only you as a designer, but you as a person because that’s what sells what you know how to do.”
Roberts showcases work by clients such as Shutterstock and Northwestern Mutual, as well as more personal projects like MixTapes (in which he designs cover art for friends’ playlists) on a carousel because it reflects his design sensibility. “I enjoy a little bit of interactivity when I look at something,” he said. But other designers may prefer another format — a masonry grid or a long page of stacked cards — and that’s just fine, as long as it reflects their distinctive points of view.
That said, portfolio builders like Semplice, co-created by New York-based designer Tobias van Schneider, the director of the design publication DESK and the former lead product designer and art director at Spotify, can help spark ideas. Many template-based sites offer drag-and-drop workflows and options for interactive features such as page transitions, block layouts, cover effects and split grids.
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It’s easy to overplay the interface gymnastics, though. When it comes to the layout, what you really want to do is arrange your work in a way that is direct, accessible and easy for a hiring manager to navigate.
“You don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Charron said. “I think UX and UI designers, especially, feel they need to make something completely new and completely custom. But in reality, the portfolio should be more about the work than the format itself.”
Yet the form of the written content is often its own proof of competency. Sacca recommends structuring the narrative hierarchy of each case study after author Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle model, a value proposition that leads with “the why.”
“Why does the project matter?” Sacca paraphrased it. “What problem were you solving and how did you solve it? That should be your opener.”
The framework doesn’t necessarily follow conventional wisdom, he added: “The problem isn’t that you got hired to design a dashboard. Why did you get hired to design a dashboard for the client, and what problems does it solve for the people using it?”
 
Roberts is unequivocal in his belief about the function of design: “Design is not art. Design is solving problems. Art is for whatever you do outside of design.”
Not all designers share this view, but many will tell you that treating a portfolio like a pristine art object sends the wrong signal.
“From a hiring perspective, you want to know the kind of person that you are hiring,” Charron said. “Not just that they can make beautiful work, but how do they arrive at that? What is their process like? So thinking about how in a portfolio you can show not only the glossy, beautiful final product, but also the messy bits in between.”
For each featured project, this might include a brief description that outlines the goals of a creative brief or project assignment, describes the designer’s role, and includes web pages, sketches, wireframes, user testing studies and other visual artifacts that trace the narrative of the project.
“Explain what your role was in the project and how you felt about it,” Roberts said. “Two to three paragraphs, max. Everything else should just be a visual of how you actually work. That way, when we have a conversation on the phone, or online, or in person, we can actually start sussing out your experience and how you work with teams.”
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Design doesn’t operate in a vacuum, and failure to acknowledge one’s colleagues can leave a smudge on an otherwise strong portfolio. In fact, it’s one of Johnson’s biggest pet peeves.
“If you have been working at an agency or studio or whatever, you had partners in this work,” he said. “You may have had a strategist or researcher help you. You had a creative director, an art director, who might have been guiding the work. Anybody who is involved in the work deserves a mention and it can be terribly frustrating and feels almost deceptive when you get somebody in a room who has misrepresented their contribution to this great, big beautiful thing when what they did was, maybe, put the style guide together. And it can harm your reputation.”
Roberts goes even further: “Let’s say I was doing some work for Samsung, and Samsung had a very unclear vision of what they wanted. In my head, that means that I have to come up with a couple different options that will not only hit the notes that they’re looking for, but also sell what my version of their vision is, and sell it in a way — and this may sound kind of shitty — that it seems like it’s their own idea. The way I’d speak about that is that they gave me the freedom to create what they needed.”
Acknowledge your colleagues and properly attribute your work. Full stop. End of story.
 
While some light name dropping might get you noticed or help you slip past screeners, it’s not likely to set you apart in the end.
“Young designers get really caught up in big names, like, ‘Oh, I need to have an Apple or Microsoft,’” Roberts said. “But I think what’s more important is how you feel about the design that you’re creating and putting up there. And as you’re curating, even if you’re just starting off, show me the stuff that you care about, even if it’s a mom-and-pop art gallery and you’re just doing signs. Why do you like it? Why is it important to you?”
 
Sacca calls social platforms like Dribbble, Behance and Instagram a “front door to opportunities for freelance or full-time work.” Though they don’t replace a personal website hosted on a designer’s own domain, they can help you get your work in front of chief design officers and design leads, and reveal a snapshot of your evolving style. 
“These are totally valid, valuable tools,” Charron said. “I’m also sensitive to the fact that they aren’t necessarily for everybody, and you have to find a platform that plays to your strengths. But as gross as it sounds, networking really does help in the job search process, and even if you’re just a Twitter mutual with somebody and you’ve had some nice conversations, you never know how that might lead to a job.”
Design agency websites can also offer a good model for portfolio building. 
“Agencies can often make something look a little bit overblown or self important,” Johnson said.” But, at the same time, a lot of consultancies are really good at selling design work and putting together some very good case studies. Pentagram’s always the obvious example, but BSM Consulting, Wolff Olins — agencies that lead with the visual to give you the hook and bring you in — can be good models.”
 
If you’re applying for a role at an enterprise-level organization, your portfolio may go through several screeners before arriving on the desk of a hiring partner. Ensuring that your portfolio matches the requirements laid out in the job description is important to being considered for a role. 
“They might be looking for names they recognize, they may have some design sensibility and feel confident, based on a portfolio — and they’re gonna eat with their eyes first — that they feel it is okay to pass it on. [The candidate’s] work has demonstrated some facility or sophistication with respect to type, color, all the formal stuff, such that they show real potential.”
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In 2021, it may seem almost heretical for a graphic designer to submit a portfolio as a PDF, but Johnson said doing so has certain advantages (assuming you’re not applying for a job as motion designer). 
While PDF files have size constraints and animation and video are impossible to convey, PDFs offer “a very quick, almost holistic evaluation of a candidate,” Johnson said. “I know they’re a bit of a boogeyman within the web profession, like, ‘All PDFs are bad,’ but in some cases it’s fine.”
‘Here’s what I made for you and why I’m sending it to you.’
Charron, who in addition to her freelance design work and teaching duties runs a risograph print studio called Secret Room Press, agrees that PDFs can be effective, largely because they offer greater control over the viewing experience and can be produced quickly when an open position has a short hiring window.
“So as opposed to just being, like, ‘Here’s a link, I hope you find the projects that are relevant to you,’ you get the control of saying, ‘Here are three projects that I think are really specific to what you might be looking for in an employee or a team member,’ Charron said. “I also love having a title card for a targeted PDF that is specific to who you’re sending it to. If you have a name, specifically, it’s almost like a cover letter that says, ‘Here’s what I made for you and why I’m sending it to you.’”
 
Be careful of aping the latest fads. The current obsession with supersized fonts and transparent prismatic color overlays (looking at you, TikTok) probably won’t last long.
“A lot of designs are trendy, so you can be like, ‘Oh, I just look at Pinterest and mimic what I see,’” Roberts said. “I can immediately pick that out.”
In fact, according to Johnson, it’s work that flies in the face of design trends that often leaves the strongest impression: “You want to know that somebody knows the rules well enough to execute them, they understand conventions, etc., but they also know how and when to break them. So there’s this sort of awareness and consciousness of what’s appropriate in a given context.”
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A portfolio submitted as part of a job application should be ruthlessly curated, Charron told me — more of a highlight reel than a compendium.
“A lot of people have this idea that their portfolio needs to showcase everything,” she said. “When in reality, what you should be showing is what you’re excited about and what you want to do. Giving yourself the permission to say, ‘I don’t like illustration, and I never want to do it.’” 
Roberts said any more than seven or eight large case studies “is a little too much.” (Five to six projects is a good target). And, in some ways, big, ambitious portfolios have become passé.
“Pre-2012, or 2013 or so, the way that designers, in a lot of cases, would demonstrate their ability would be to have this really big, beautiful, like, very expressive of themselves, portfolio site,” Johnson said. “That has fallen out of favor, partly out of convenience. But, also, I think managing a custom portfolio in an environment today with different viewports and responsive design considerations can be pretty difficult.” 
Still, you want to include a large enough range of work to show you’re not a one-trick pony. Let’s say you’re responding to a brief from a children’s museum calling for a vibrant color palette. A thoughtful case study might show how you adapted your style — gothic black lettering and faux- metal logos — to suit the client’s needs. 
Work that doesn’t make the cut in your personal web portfolio can still be useful on social sites.
“Like Dribbble and Behance,” Roberts said. “Just use those as side things to kind of pat everything that goes out. That way people know you have new work that’s coming in. Like you did this huge campaign six months ago and that’s super cool, and you’re probably going to be working on the next big campaign in another month or two once things cool off. ”
 
Above all, it’s important to see your portfolio as a work in progress, not a measure of your self-worth.
“I have a lot of these conversations with students who are like, ‘I’ve been out of school for a few months, and I’ve sent so many portfolios, and I’ve had so many interviews, and I’m still just out there struggling,’” Charro said. “It’s good to be aware that’s totally normal. You could have a beautiful portfolio, and maybe the company just hired somebody else already and the timing was wrong. You can’t get down on yourself. It just kind of comes down to persistence.”

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