7 Tips For Creating a Print-Based Design Portfolio

This is a bold statement, but building a portfolio is quite tricky because everyone seems to have a differing opinion on how it should be done. Building a portfolio is about showcasing your work and therefore, it should be an expression of your personality and design style.

Most online articles tend to offer advice on just web-based portfolios. I’ve found that information addressing print portfolios is sorely lacking even though many design programs still require them to graduate.

Though PDF and web-based portfolios are becoming more acceptable, I still believe that nothing takes the place of a well-executed print portfolio that a potential client or employer can physically hold and flip through during a meeting.

What steps can you take to make your print portfolio your absolute best?

Get as much professional work in your portfolio as soon as possible. It’s never too early to start seeking freelance clients. As soon as you feel comfortable with your skill level, hit the pavement. I did a massive magazine project a year before I went to school for design and landed a freelance job from Virgin Records in my second semester. The work gained from these two clients helped me get my first internship.

I’ve now been out of school for about a year and in that time, I have replaced nearly every class-initiated project with client work. Showcasing client work in your portfolio projects a level of expertise and professionalism. It demonstrates that you are able to work in the real world with companies who have actual deadlines and budgets. Client work implies that you can handle feedback on your work while delivering solid results.

Invest in a format that you’re passionate about. Most designers stick with a standard portfolio cover and fill their ‘book’ with printed pages of work but I’ve heard of others who create a set of cards (with their work mounted on heavyweight paper) and some even take it a step further, designing handmade books. Custom-made cases and personalized portfolio covers are also legitimate options. The sky’s the limit.

For the last year, I’ve been using a white glossy acrylic 11 x 17 portfolio cover from Office and I absolutely love it. The simplicity, durability and expandability all played prominently into my decision to go with this format.

No matter your concept, keep in mind that your interviewer usually has a limited amount of time. Don’t make your portfolio so complicated that it becomes a nuissance. Remember that the overall goal is to keep the focus firmly on your work.

Limit the number of projects that you choose to showcase. There is varying feedback on the maximum number of pieces that should be included in a print portfolio and many designers are encouraged show no more than 6 to 10 of their best projects. I usually try to keep the number as close to 10 as possible but I am not afraid to go over this amount if I feel that a project is a must-see (though, it should be noted that most of my projects take up only one page).

If you keep your descriptions short and concise when showing your book and flip through at a consistent pace, a potential employer usually won’t mind a few extra projects (as long as they’re good). Test yourself: can you flip through your book and describe each project in a total of 10 to 15 minutes? If not, revise.

As you gain more clients and a wider variety of work, it becomes harder to narrow down the amount of pieces that you feel are worthy of inclusion. Just use common sense and don’t go overboard; I’ve seen student portfolios that had upwards of 40 pages!

If you haven’t had many actual clients yet, it’s okay to take on low paying or even unpaid projects in areas that you need work in to fill out your portfolio.

Simple Layouts are Good. When you’re building your first portfolio, it’s understandable that you’ll want to show off how awesome your work is. But, I suggest that you keep the focus on the actual work, not on the portfolio.

These pages are from my 11 x 17 print portfolio. An emphasis is placed on typography in the opening pages since this is one of my main interests but the page layouts of work are always white with descriptions limited to a few sentences at the bottom.

The pieces that you’ve chosen to showcase should speak for themselves; keep flourishes, gradients, drop shadows, patterned backgrounds and textures to a minimum.

Create an order that works for you. This is another area where everyone has a differing opinion but you really have to weigh what’s right for your needs; go with your gut instinct. Creating an order usually begins with selecting two of your strongest pieces to begin and end with. The middle should be ordered in a way that creates an interesting mix through varying color schemes, styles and formats.

Though, when building a portfolio, don’t be afraid to break the rules. A few months back, I had a meeting with a designer that I really admire. She had some interesting advice about how a portfolio should create a vision. Her idea revolved around beginning with flat, 2-D based work (such as print design and logos) building to interactive, web-based work and ending with 3-D based work (packaging design, retail displays, etc.) Though this advice won’t necessarily work for everyone, it’s always interesting to hear a new perspective.

Get feedback. Before taking your portfolio out into the world for interviews and client meetings, have a handful of people that you trust flip through it and ask for honest (yet constructive) feedback. Though, this is where your gut feeling comes into play once again.

I’ve had reviews on the same day where one professional offered me work on the spot while another had a laundry list of changes that I should make. You know your work better than anyone else so it’s up to you to decide which feedback you should take (and leave).

Accept that your portfolio is never really finished. Think of your portfolio as a constant work in progress. There is always something that can be improved upon, even if it’s freshly printed. In the last three months alone, I’ve made three rounds of revisions.

Once you have a solid layout and order of work that you’re proud of, the updates come much more easily. Consistently add in new client work, self-initiated projects that show off a new skill set, projects that you’ve reworked, updated (improved) product photos and refined descriptions.

In Closing. Everyone will have an opinion about your portfolio but it’s up to you to filter this information and then do what suits your work best. When you walk into a room for an interview, your confidence about what you’ve created has to shine through. A portfolio is about your vision as a designer, not anyone else’s.

We can be our own worst critics and feel that our portfolios are never good enough. But in truth, as a designer, your job is never finished. Even when you hand a final project over to a client for approval, you’re probably still making changes in your mind, questioning what you could have improved upon. A portfolio can be the same way but at some point, you have to learn to let go.

You have to accept your portfolio for what it is while having a vision of what it will (eventually) be. Take a deep breath and let it venture out into the world, for better or worse. As you grow, it has the potential to grow with you. Each project, each internship, each job should be viewed as a stepping stone to an even better portfolio.

Portfolio Resources.

• Office has an amazingly comprehensive website of portfolio options. My personal favorites are by Pina Zangaro. They even have portfolio covers in bamboo!

• Bryony and Armin of Under Consideration are working on a book all about portfolios!!!

They recently announced that “For our next big project we have decided to focus on a subject that is the cause of both stress and excitement for want-to-be-employees and employers: Portfolios. The book will explore best practices in putting the physical portfolio together — not the work itself — and achieving the best presentation possible. The book will feature case studies of portfolios as well as insight from people that review portfolios about what they expect as well as insight from those presenting.”

• Mark Bowley has penned an excellent article on preparing and talking about your design portfolio.

• I never get tired of reading Michael Beirut’s May I Show You My Portfolio? in which he gives us a peek at the actual contents of his portfolio, circa 1979. Good stuff.

Your Turn: If you’re a designer, do you have a print portfolio? What format do you use? How many pieces have you included?

14 Responses to 7 Tips For Creating a Print-Based Design Portfolio

  1. NOSIPHO says:

    Your 7tips are help to me .I am a student.and I would love if you can sand me other tips about how to apply for a proffetional job in graphic design,uyou can send using my email address.Thank you very much.

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  3. Louise says:

    This is so helpful! Lots of really useful, practical advice in this post, and you’ve created a beautiful portfolio. I’m really excited to update mine now!

  4. Amanda says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this! It’s enormously helpful.
    Question – I read that you are using an 11×17 portfolio cover; what is the paper size you are using? The same? Or a bit smaller?

  5. Michael says:

    Hello Amanda,

    I stumble upon your page seeking how to better my portfolio and you gave some very useful tips. At first I wasn’t as confident showing off my pieces because mine didn’t have no structure to it, but I’m getting better daily. I notice in your portfolio you numbered your pages, is it necessary to do so?

  6. Lindsay Aquilina says:

    Great portfolio! 😀

    I’m a graphic designer who just finished my degree. I’m currently updating my portfolio from last year, but as the portfolio as part of an assignment, we had to make it in the form of a proper book and I can’t add pages to it. And now the problem is that I am on a very tight budget. :/ any suggestions on how can I make it look professional please?

    I know that it all goes down to the content, but as there is a lot of competition, employers tend to consider the physical quality of a portfolio as well.

  7. David says:

    Hello Shauna,

    Thank you for sharing this I really love some of what I’ve seen I also felt that I’ve needed to read something like this for a long time now.

    I am a graduate graphic designer and I had an interview for an ‘unofficial internship’ back in September I was really unlucky to not get the position due to unforeseen circumstances (don’t want to get into that now) but nonetheless, the person who interviewed me gave me some much needed feedback that I guess you could say I’ve been waiting for, this one was more in depth compared to a few that I’ve received from others.

    Now having read what you’ve written here in conjunction with the feedback he gave, I feel I now have much more of an angle on how to improve the basis of my portfolio, so thanks for sharing, I really appreciate it.

  8. Stephanie says:

    Thankyou for the tips and the oh so important ‘learn to let go’. As a part time and freelancer I have hopped from one job to the other and forgot to keep my formal folio going. One job seemed to get me another and all I would take is a couple of magazines or books. Being in jobs so deadline driven with strong client personal involvement/opinion means I am often not quite satisfied with what goes to the press. Now at a new job crossroad I am wading though what work I have access to to put a folio together and am overwhelmed by it all….but there have been some nice surprises. As a designer that is trying to upskill with web etc one realises the broad range of disciplines one has picked up and how to display the best of them. Which ones to I want to keep exploring? How to keep upskilling? and show that desire to keep learning but still be considered adept. Its hard work distilling a folio down to its best. It is taking days. Keeping focussed seems to be important.
    Let this be a lesson. Don’t ever let your folio fall behind. Make it part of your regular To Do list.

  9. Gina D. says:

    Thoughtful, well written and has given me an idea of what to look forward to once I get to designing my first portfolio. I am an Interior Design student and would appreciate any additional websites where I can further my understanding of portfolio creation. Thank you

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