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A Portfolio Survival Guide

A Portfolio Survival Guide

Written by James Earnshaw, Creative Talent Manager, Aquent

Portfolios are a designer’s first weapon of attack whenever they are putting themselves out there in the creative jungle. In years gone by, a beautifully printed and bound folder not only contained a designer’s work, but also was an expression of their individual aesthetic — today it is all about interactive PDFs and online portfolios.

So where does that leave either the young designer starting out, or the veteran with reams of collateral to display?

What are some of the trends and what works to land you that dream job in the studio with the hip AD’s and air hockey tables?

Portfolios can be very different depending on where you are in your career.
A portfolio for someone just starting out with a few years under your belt will need to demonstrate your ability to take a brief from start to finish if you have been freelancing or have just left college.

Clearly outline what your role has been with each project when working agency-side. There is nothing more annoying than getting a portfolio with lots of pretty pictures but no explanation to support the images. Were you a finished artist? Did you do the conceptual work? Did you help with the roll out across multiple pieces of collateral?

A good example of this was when I had seen the same logo design in two talent’s folios. One had the scamps and initial design, and the other contained final art and the implementation across packaging and wobblers. One belonged to the art director who conceived the logo and the other took it to its final production. Both of these talents had a valid right to the visual representation of the image as they played an equally important role. Remember your future client/employer will be looking at your work in context, so be clear as to your involvement and how you met the objectives set out by the client.

Always make sure you get the final printed versions. Call them up after the fact, or ask them to mail you a copy. Never settle for the PDF files that were sent to the printer.

What is the best way to present all this collateral you collect?
Well from my standpoint, if you are working in the print arena—and many of us still do, despite what the naysayers are predicting—the best way to present your work is with photography.

Not just any photography though, it has to be as good as the design itself. So nice and tight, create a depth of field—all the emotive things photographs can do to a subject will work when presenting your designs. One talent took photos of his work being held, but the person was monotone and therefore the samples stood out in colour. The messages conveyed are not just that you can design, but that you can create objects and consider their presence in the real world.Have you selected nice paper stock? Did the client have the budget for foils or embossing? A flat, digital file or a PDF can convey none of these. Another aspect that can be conveyed through photography is the shear volume of collateral you might have created.

As with any aspect of design you want your audience to engage and connect emotionally, not analytically. Heart vs. brain stuff is what design is all about and that is exactly what you want your prospective employer to do when looking at your portfolio.

But what if your portfolio is only initially seen digitally? How can you still get that connection? Well all the same rules apply, but here it is crucial for your layout to suit the medium. It should be landscape—nothing worse than having to scroll down pages in portrait when you are viewing onscreen. As a designer you need to always be aware of your media and sending an A4 portrait word document, as a CV is not going to get past the PA’s inbox, let alone to the creative director.

PDF is the format that works best, but you need to keep an eye on the size and ensure it is under 5MB. You don’t know what kind of computer your future employer might be using and something that is too large could well cause download problems. Plus you should not need too many pieces to convey who you are as a designer.

PDF’s can be much more than just pages of your work. Interactivity has been available for years in Acrobat and now it is even easier to embed functionality into your portfolio straight from InDesign. That being said, I still see very few interactive PDF portfolios. Keep in mind that it can get a bit gimmicky if you have too much, but tabs, a content page with links or “next page” button can still be very useful.

A PDF portfolio should support the printed one you will present in the interview. Hopefully you will have whet their appetite, so they will expect to see more in the interview. It does impress the interviewer if they have seen all your work already. A good way to break this up is on your email versions, have a single page for each project, but in your printed version, have a few pages allowing you to talk more in depth about the projects and its development during the interview.

Of course every one has an online portfolio now. This can be your own website custom-built, either by you to demonstrate your blended skills, or there are great sites that will display your work. Sites like Carbonmade, Behance, or ones that develop the social and connective side like The Loop and the Inspiration Room. These sites can take the hassle out of having an online presence, which is really important for all designers.

I had a friend ask me the question awhile back when I was active in the job market, “if someone Googles you, what are they going to find?” Not only will future employers find your work, but you can also get great feedback from peers about your work through these sites.

What to put in your portfolio

When you have decided how your portfolio should look and what format your online/email version will be in, what should you actually put in there? How do you sum up who you are as a designer, whether you are someone starting out, or a more experienced designer?

Consistency and trends are two ways to define yourself. Consistency in the quality and overall style of design, for example, if you are designing mainly clean, corporate, minimalist work, it probably will just confuse the client if at the back there are examples of your street art and tattoo designs. This is not to say diversity is a bad thing, but it needs to be presented consistently. Ensure that the layout has its own design i.e. the description text is in the same place and there are elements that carry across the spreads. Just having images on blank pages does not show your skill as a designer. Your portfolio is the biggest design job you have and it needs to contain what you did and how you did it, whilst showing what you can do. Even footers on every page,which states the client, your role and the result for the client is enough to give context to what you do. These need to be brief, as you will want to expand on them in the interview.

If you are someone who is passionate about brand and the strategy that’s behind it, don’t just have all the logos you designed for companies on one page. Have the logo you developed, the style guide, and perhaps examples of it in the marketplace. Show a broad range of their collateral form letterhead, business cards, company signage and even their promotional hats. If you have done work that was large format or outdoor, make sure you photograph it in place. These are the contexts your future client is thinking of, so including a broad range will show them how it could look in the real world. Your work should show a clear progression from when you started out to how you handle the design process? Illustrate that with grouped work and discuss it through with the client.

As long as you have created a great design for your work to sit within, it is nice to see work that is personal, whether that is a small client that you have handled or other skills you can represent like object design, photography or illustration.

You do not want your portfolio to be too lengthy, yet too brief will not give the viewer a sense of who you are. It really is the same as a length of string; it really depends on your intentions. A lean portfolio that is specific to the clients needs and in context, can have a lot of impact illustrating your suitability. Similarly a broad portfolio that demonstrates your well-rounded design abilities can work just as well. You would not want to include less than eight pieces or projects, but each might be more than one page.

So with all these decisions, the next one is whether to have a printed version or not. Does pulling a laptop out work just as well as a printed and nicely bound folio or the elegant box with mounted cards and some samples? It’s going to come down to whom you are seeing. There are plenty of old school creative directors who will expect to have a portfolio to flick through.

A candidate that stood out recently had done the best of both. He presented his portfolio on his iPad with a nice case that doubled as a stand, but he also had a box with his own branding where he had the samples to hand over as he went through the iPad version. I was able to connect with his work and got a better understanding of him as a designer through the process.

Ultimately whether its big folios, laptops or an iPad, your work will speak as long as it is presented in a way that allows the client or employer connect with it beyond the surface.

Top Portfolio Tips
  1. Photograph your work
  2. Write about your role and what the outcome was for the client
  3. Landscape format – especially if it’s going to be viewed on-screen
  4. Keep email version under 5MB
  5. Have a printed version with more in depth details on projects for interview
  6. Ensure any electronic portfolios are backed-up
  7. Have as many pieces as need that you can be passionate about

About James Earnshaw

James Earnshaw is the Creative Talent Manager at Aquent ( in Sydney. He has 18 years of publishing experience, eight of which as a manager/art director, and has worked for some of Australia’s leading newspapers as well as a stint in New York. He has worked as a graphic artist, designer, and has managed large teams of artists and designers. James can be contacted via:

About Aquent

Aquent is the only global staffing company dedicated to marketing and design. With over 60 offices in 15 countries, they have an unmatched network of professionals that enables them to deliver the right solution for any client need and provide exceptional career opportunities for their talent. Today Aquent has over 11,000 professionals working at over 3,000 companies. Over the course of its history, Aquent has made over half a million matches of professionals to our clients on an individual, team or through an onsite or offsite managed service basis. The company’s Asia-Pacific headquarters are in Sydney.


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