How To Craft The Perfect Portfolio

How To Craft The Perfect Portfolio


Discover how to impress a creative director and win your dream design job. Today’s new design graduates face a unique set of challenges – and how to present a portfolio is one of the biggest.

Portfolio formats are evolving all the time. Just as big agencies and studios struggle with how best to present work to potential clients, designers searching for jobs have all sorts of decisions to make when it comes to creating a stunning portfolio to show a creative director.

Do you put it up on Behance and email out a link when you apply for a job? Should you make a flashy iPad presentation to swipe through in the interview? Would it be better to buy a big, old-fashioned folio book and fill it with high quality print-outs of your latest and greatest projects? Maybe something even more imaginative is what’s expected?

01. Think about who’s doing the hiring

It would be lovely if there was one sure-fire answer to all of these questions, but really it depends hugely on who’s doing the hiring. Every creative director has different needs in terms of the job itself, and they all have different tastes when it comes to presentation. But instead of trying to guess what’s expected of you, the best thing to do is to focus on your work and let it guide your decisions.

02. Be versatile

“I do like a physical portfolio – an iPad presentation can be good too,” muses Karen Jane, head of design at Wieden+Kennedy London.

“Ultimately, your discipline is likely to dictate how the work is best presented. If you have a range of work you may want to present on screen but have some printed pieces too. Or your work may be entirely screen based. It’s about putting the work across in the best way.”

03. A range of work is important

Working in a big, global agency with so many different clients, Jane oversees a huge variety of projects. So it makes sense if you’re aiming to work for a big agency to develop a portfolio that demonstrates your versatility.

“A range of work is really important, one that shows off how you tackle different projects. The range of projects we work on here at Wieden+Kennedy is pretty broad so it’s good to be able to see versatility in a portfolio.”

04. Show some personality

Employing 10 people – though they’re hiring a few more designers – Leeds-based Golden is much smaller than W+K, so co-founder and creative director Rob Brearley takes a slightly different approach to portfolios. Personality often plays an important role in a small organisation, and showing that you understand the studio and its mission helps.

“We’re looking for ‘golden people’ who share our vision, talented visual thinkers, who can turn their hand to anything,” says Brearley. “Initially I’d prefer to be contacted with either a link or PDF attachment of work examples – a brief, well-presented taster of who you are and what you can do,” he continues.

05. Let the work shine

“For face-to-face interviews, I don’t mind what format the work is presented in, either print or digital. The format should be invisible, allowing the work to shine through,” says Brearley.

“It should be bold, simple and ultimately relevant to the work and the personality of the presenter. Folio presentations should flow smoothly, without awkward paper folds or software glitches. Think it through carefully.”

06. Give a snapshot of important skills

It’s a similar story if you apply to Steve Richardson, co-founder and creative director at Mr B & Friends in Bath. The agency started off small but has grown fast and roles they’re recruiting for include artworkers and middleweight developers. There might also be a spot coming up for a senior creative.

What Richardson looks for is a practical and direct form of presentation.”I don’t mind how someone shows their portfolio, as long as it gives a really good snapshot of their skills and talent,” he explains.

07. Be engaging

If impressed, a creative director like Richardson will then want to find out what you’re really like via an interview. As with Golden, it’s a case of proving you’re the person they’re looking for in terms of work and personality.

“I’m much more interested in the individual, hearing from them what they have achieved and what makes them tick, to make sure the cultural fit is right for my team. Then it’s about the portfolio, how they present, is the candidate engaging, do they look interested, have they credibly done this work and can they talk about it fully,” says Richardson.

08. Craft a narrative

Telling your story, as well as the stories behind your work, is a crucial criterion for a successful portfolio if you’re applying to Kjetil Wold at the Norwegian agency Anti.

Wold is co-founder, creative director and consultant with the company, where there’s a growing emphasis on motion at the moment. Because motion work requires narrative, Richardson is keen to find designers and animators who understand this. The ability to explain concepts and show purpose is what he looks for.

09. Don’t neglect your online showcase

“We always look for people who understand concepts and storytelling, and can make excellent visuals. We want to see work that’s anchored in a reason for being there. Right now we’re searching for more motion-graphic designers because everything needs to be in motion these days,” he says.

“The best thing is to start off with an online reference to give us a reason to say, ‘Hi’. It could be a link to your work on Behance, or impress us even more with a well-designed personal site. Then we might meet up and see if your personality and the arguments behind your solution actually match what we’re looking for.”

10. Explain your role honestly

Most effective graphic design, online or motion graphics projects require more than one set of hands. If you’re including big pieces of work in your portfolio that had many contributors, be sure to explain not just the project but what your role was. If you’re vague about this, or try to claim more kudos than you deserve, it might trip you up in the end.

11. Email a portfolio link first

“If you’re a digital creative I’d expect a web-based format like Behance or Squarespace, or your own design and development work. If not, a really well considered PDF at email-able size – under 5MB,” says Mr B & Friends’ Steve Richardson.

“Receiving a link in an introductory email works, then if we’re interested we’ll call people in to chat to them,” agrees Jem Robinson, creative director at AllofUs, a major digital agency in London specialising in interaction and user experience design. At this stage we tend to just chat, but bringing additional works on an iPad or laptop is useful thing to do here.”

12. Include at lease five pieces of work

How many pieces of work should you include in your portfolio? Well, for Jem Robinson at least five projects of a decent size is ideal, and for each one she’d like to see images of different aspects of the job. For Kjetil Wold, five is again the magic number, but he emphasises that each piece needs to be killer. If you’re not sure in your heart that something is good, then you should leave it out.

13. Explain experimental projects

“One watch-out is to not put anything in your portfolio that you don’t feel really good about – it can end up tainting the book and will be hard to talk about enthusiastically,” says Karen Jane at W+K. “But don’t confuse this with something that was experimental that didn’t work out. We talk a lot at Wieden about embracing failure through taking creative risks – those kind of projects can be great conversation pieces.”

14. Show your thinking

If you’re including several images for each portfolio piece, remember that they don’t all need to show aspects of the final output. Some of your sketches, concepts, written thoughts or work-in-progress projects might help you tell the story behind the piece better, particularly if you get to interview stage. It may help you explain how you solved a design problem, which is interview gold dust.

15. Evolve your folio with your career

As your career moves forward, your portfolio needs to evolve. It’s not just a case of adding new things to it, or heightening the visual quality of the work. The selection of items will also need to demonstrate that you are growing as a professional.

16. Think strategically

“I think the more senior you are as a designer the more you can curate your work selection, because you’ll have more to choose from at that stage in your career,” says W+K’s Karen Jane.

“Being a good judge of work also becomes more important. As a key part of the creative team here at Wieden+Kennedy a senior designer would need to lead the direction of the work, so judgement is key. You may show fewer projects, but they will show the breadth of your capabilities – that you can tackle a variety of design problems including larger more complex pieces – and these will all be stellar projects.

She continues: “I think when you are more junior you are more likely to show a few more, smaller projects and have lots of ideas, energy and experimentation. At that level it’s about trying things out, seeing what sticks, moving things forwards. And it’s more about seeing the raw ingredients: interesting thinking, craft skills and a wide interest in design.”

17. Junior? Prove you learn fast

Do creative directors want to see self-initiated projects? If you’re going for a junior role, definitely. Many of them enjoy seeing what the new blood in the industry are up to.

“In a junior designer’s portfolio I want evidence of them being hungry, referring to self-initiated projects and giving us a view into something new. You should show you want to learn, that you’re fast, and that you understand concepts,” says Kjetil Wold at Anti.

18. Middle-weight? Solid design skills

When you move on to applying for middleweight positions, client work must come to the fore – show you can work from a brief and come up with solutions, or execute other people’s ideas. “It needs to show consistent, solid design skills on larger scale projects as part of a more senior team,” says Jem Robinson at AllofUs.

“You might not necessarily be the one originating the design, but with a bit of good art direction you can show you were able to pick up a project and run with it, create assets and demonstrate some flair and design abilities.”

19. Senior? Leadership is important

For senior design roles, the creative director is looking for leadership and good judgment as much as great design skills. “A senior design position is tricky, we find it means different things in different agencies,” says Rob Brearley at Golden.

“I think a senior designer should have credible experience across key areas of the role: ideation, art direction, leadership, responsibility and design competence. We would expect a senior to adapt to various briefs. We look for a breadth of diverse work, showing evidence of leadership and client interaction.”

Brearley adds: “At this level they should be proficient in most design software, feel comfortable art-directing photoshoots and capable of bringing their ideas through to finished artwork.”

Words: Garrick Webster
Featured Image: Creative Bloq


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