Strengthen Your Presentation and Charge More For Your Work: My Top 5 Portfolio Tips

Nubby Twiglet | 5 Portfolio Tips

Portfolios are like all great things in life: on the surface, they tend to look effortless but behind that facade is a ton of blood, sweat and self doubt.

I’m no stranger to portfolios. My first one was pieced together back in 2006 inside a cheap, borrowed vinyl cover full of thin, plastic sheets. Even with its lack of prestige, it helped me land my first design internship. From there, I refined the look, invested more money into assets and eventually, translated my print book over to digital.

With nearly 10 years of creating portfolios behind me, you would think it gets easier but the same sticking points always pop up. Creating a portfolio is pressure-packed because it’s a culmination of your entire career sandwiched into a handful of projects. And that, my friends, is no easy task!

Nubby Twiglet | 5 Portfolio Tips

As I’ve been reworking my own portfolio this month, I wanted to share my top 5 tips to make your process easier:

1. Focus on quality over quantity

It doesn’t matter how prestigious the client is if you don’t feel strongly connected to the work. Bottom line: if you don’t want more of it, don’t share it. I’ve completed projects for the NBA, NFL, Forever 21, Foot Locker, Virgin Records and Adidas but the aesthetic no longer fits my current style of work so I’ve chosen to leave them out.

Tightening up your portfolio and focusing on only your absolute best work can be scary because you’ll have less work to show. That’s okay! Always remember: you don’t need to be everything to everyone. With this fine-tuned approach, you may get less inquiries but the ones that do come in will be more solid and lucrative.

As a side note, If you’ve done work for big name companies but don’t want to share the outcome due to a nondisclosure agreement or it just not being your style, the solution is to add them to a list of clients you’ve worked with on your website. That way, you still get the recognition.

Nubby Twiglet | 5 Portfolio Tips

2. Tell a story through your order

What kind of story are you trying to communicate with your body of work? When you’re arranging projects in your portfolio, there needs to be a beginning, middle and end.

The golden rule is to always start and end with your strongest projects. These are the bookends of your portfolio that make you memorable. In between, this is your opportunity to tell more of your story but make sure to mix it up! If you have two strong projects from the same genre, don’t put them next to each other because then it then becomes a comparison game to the viewer. “Oh, the last one was WAY better.”

When I’m deep in the zone of arranging, I’m thinking about the following: genre, services offered, masculine vs. feminine styling and the color story. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to arrange your projects but you should have a reason behind the order.

3. Include brief but powerful descriptions

While a picture is worth a thousand words, it’s important to frame up each project with a brief backstory. A few sentences is plenty. And, if writing isn’t your strong point, it’s totally okay to hire a copywriter to polish up your ideas. Portfolios are a direct gateway to your next job so spelling and composition must be spot-on.

To get you started, a basic project description usually includes this three part format:

1. Title: client / project name, date completed

2. Subtitle: services offered

3. Description: explain how you helped them achieve their desired outcome

Nubby Twiglet | 5 Portfolio Tips

4. Mock it up

If your client only had a budget for a brand identity but it’s one of your best pieces of work, show its full potential with mockups. While people viewing your portfolio do care about your actual work, they also want to see the bigger potential of transformation. They want to be moved and inspired enough to hire you.

A logo on its own doesn’t express its full breadth but when mocked up on business cards, websites and products, it becomes larger than life. My favorite sources for mockups these days are Pixeden and Creative Market.

Nubby Twiglet | 5 Portfolio Tips

5. Specialize, specialize, specialize

A truly great portfolio attracts and repels in equal measures. Stand your ground and be confident in what you want more of. The immediate effect of being confident and selective is that you can position yourself as an expert in certain areas instead of being a jack of all trades. And by doing this, over time you’ll be able to charge more for your services.

These days, I want more lifestyle, beauty, food and fashion brands so that’s nearly all I show. It’s amazing, too — once I elevated the two beauty brands I’ve worked with in my portfolio, larger beauty offers began rolling in.

Saying no isn’t easy but drawing a line in the sand will allow you to have more time to focus on the projects you truly love.

Portfolios are a constant work in progress but it feels good to know that what you’re showing is your best possible presentation.

If you still have questions about your portfolio, let me know in the comments!

Featured projects: Aroha Silhouettes, Kay Li, Brand New Ways, Shien Cosmetics and Olivine Atelier.

14 Responses to Strengthen Your Presentation and Charge More For Your Work: My Top 5 Portfolio Tips

  1. Emily says:

    As someone who’s had a few design jobs and over 7 years of corporate experience, i’d be curious on your opinion on the whole digital/physical portfolio in 2015.

    Though I am working full time these days, I constantly struggle with the idea that I should use this time to perfect my print portfolio – because I have the time and no tight deadline for a specific job I may want in the future.

    I think your tips are great for a digital portfolio, but any tips for a job interview once you’ve gotten their attention with your virtual portfolio on your website/a pdf attachment? Personally, I don’t love bringing an ipad to a interview, especially if there ends up being multiple interviewers. I like to have a physical version.

    thank you!

    • Shauna says:

      I still like the idea of having a print portfolio if you’re in certain design industries because the people interviewing you will probably be older and really respect the time and thought it takes to create a book.

      At the same time, it’s important to be prepared. If you can also load your portfolio onto an iPad and maybe iclude a few bonus projects if they want to see more, even better. If I was interviewing for a job today, I’d have both formats so multiple people could check out my work at once if needed.

      It really depends on the industry, though — obviously if you’re applying for a web design job, the portfolio needs to be digital.

      I’ve interviewed for a lot of design positions and always did well by being on time, humble, genuine and just generally nice. Talent only goes so far — design companies are so busy that they really just want someone who is dependable and easy to get along with!

  2. zsara says:

    Hi there Shauna
    I have been following your blog for a few years now and I have put the time and effort to go back and read from post one. I love your work and the passion you have and how it shines through. Brilliant. You have been so inspiring to me. In regards to this post I have a major dilemma and here it is:

    I have a portfolio which varies in theme and clients but no matter how hard I try, I just cant get to like it and putting together a simple pdf to showcase to potential recruiters is a nightmare for me. I made a huge move to the Netherlands ( having never lived here before ) and now that it’s time to face the music and send in my work, I’m too shaky in the knees. What would you suggest? :-(

    • Shauna says:

      Thanks for reading — that’s serious dedication to go back through a few thousand posts! EEK!

      My advice: pick your top 5 to 7 projects. You should be able to explain why each makes the cut. Variety is good because it shows your breadth when you are applying for a job and companies want to see how you handle different briefs.

      Once you’ve chosen the group of projects you feel are strongest, start with mockups. Ignore any restrictions and just have fun and push the boundaries. Now you’ll have plenty of content to fill the pages.

      Next, write up all the project descriptions.

      Finally, put the full portfolio together. For layouts, always stick to white backgrounds and create a really simple grid for your master pages. Description up one side, layout on the rest.

      Once that’s done, you can take a look at what you have and figure out the best arrangement of the projects.

      By batching the tasks, it feels more manageable. Hope this helps!

  3. Alana says:

    Awesome info, thanks Shauna! I think there’s a possible business idea if someone offered a service to arrange and create beautiful portfolios for designers… I find all of my time is taken up with client work and my portfolio gets ignored.

    • Shauna says:

      Ha, so true! The big issue is that designers can’t even keep up with their own portfolios, let alone someone else’s’. A never ending, guilt-filled battle!

  4. Hahaha, this made me remember how in the beginning I printed out my design school projects, glued them onto A3 cardboard paper and schlepped them with me to apply for internships. Later I took a stack of magazines, flyers and stuff to my applications to show off what I had done.

    But for my oversea job search I just created an online portfolio on a free website. How the times have changed XD

  5. Ah, may I ask you a question (I hope it doesn’t come across stupid).

    As background, I think I am really good at delivering things for other people, like in my job I do the work, aim for the best quality and my coworkers are always satisfied. But I want to do something outside of my work spectrum, because it’s just a small portion in the design field and I want to expand more to step higher.
    The thing is, when it’s not for someone else, I can’t really get going. :-/

    Do you have any tips how to start own projects? (In my case, I wanna expand my skills in webdesign and branding.)

    Thanks so much! >.<

    • Shauna says:

      It can be hard to get motivated on your own so if that’s your big struggle, I’d recommend reaching out to small businesses you admire or friends who have services / small businesses and offer to work with them on a trade or discounted basis. It’s so much easier when you have real deadlines and a reason to stay accountable!

      The other thing you can do is share the work you’re most proud of on Dribbble, Behance and in your own portfolio and let people know you’re actively seeking more clients. This way, you’re essentially getting paid to expand your portfolio. 😉

      • Misaki Shimizu says:

        These are some good tips, thank you very much (^з^)-♡

        Showing things on Dribbble really could help. (On the other hand, the competition might be really big, like Behance? I feel the standard on Behance is so high, everything needs to look really polished now. What do you think?)

  6. Justine says:

    Hi Shauna,

    I have a query regarding the working process that goes into design and the best way to show this. I have been involved in a few magazine rebrands and I’m struggling with the best way to show the development/before & after. The rebranded projects stand strong enough on their own, but I think the journey is just as important as the final product.

    Do you have any tips about how I might address this issue within the confines of a portfolio?

    • Shauna says:

      Great question! It’s totally okay to have a process book or to even include a spread showing the process for that specific project in the portfolio itself. Even though a portfolio shouldn’t be more than probably 6 to 10 projects in length, it’s okay if the projects themselves have multiple pages.

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