Learning how to be a designer is all about tapping into your creativity and leveraging the latest technology to make your creative vision come to life. So why does it feel so hard to put together just the right appealing, tech-savvy portfolio to land that first job, coveted internship, or freelance gig?
You’d think it’d be a snap, given all the design projects you’ve done for school, for friends and family, for clients, or even to hone your own creative process. But somehow many early career designers and freelancers get stuck, wondering how to create a portfolio that will catch a hiring manager or new client’s attention.
Creating a portfolio that engages and activates
According to career coach EB Sanders, portfolio problems usually start because designers don’t put enough value on their own unique creative voice.
Those hiring for entry-level jobs, freelance spots, and internships know when they’re evaluating “greener” candidates and, in these cases, don’t expect significant “real-world” experience. Instead, hiring managers are looking more for creativity, personality, and originality than they are a jam-packed resume of professional work.
They want to see candidates who can clearly showcase their perspective, skills, and technological knowledge through a vivid, curated portfolio — and that, easily, can be you.
“A lot of students get tripped up on this idea that they have to show the most polished portfolio ever, that it has to be crammed full of tons of work,” says EB. “But what your portfolio really needs to be at this point is clear. It needs to excite. It really needs to show your creative thought process, who you are as a creative, and the type of work that excites you. You really just want it to be the best example of you and what you’re going to be able to do for that creative team.”
To achieve this, EB recommends some tips for putting together a portfolio that will help you shine, regardless of whether your best work was done for an employer, for a professor, or for your sister’s school fundraiser.
1. Focus on what excites you. Put the work you’re most excited about front and center in your portfolio, even if it’s not technically your best work. If that type of work is what you want to be doing more of in your career, make sure that comes across loud and clear. “You don’t want to take jobs in things you’re not excited about,” EB says. “That’s not going to work well for anyone. Start with the work you want to do in your career.”
2. Be direct and concise: A long-winded biography or extensive resume will not engage your reader as much as one well-crafted paragraph about who you are, your interests, and what you’re excited about. Same goes for your portfolio.
“A lot of people try to pack their portfolio full,” EB says. “They try to make it seem like they have more experience than they do. Don’t do it. You really want your portfolio to be well curated and, really, just the best example of you and what you’ll do for that creative team.”
3. Include diverse work. Make sure your portfolio shows that you can work on a range of different problems and satisfy many types of client needs. The projects you include should vary in style, purpose, technical complexity, and technology used. If your work all looks the same, consider broadening your portfolio by doing a few freelance gigs or helping out some friends with free design projects.
4. Keep it clean, clear, and beautiful. Your portfolio is a creative project in itself, but be careful not to clutter. “Having a digital portfolio that is clean and clear is going to be so much better at the end of the day,” notes EB. “Think interesting, but not overwrought.”
For images, remember collages and carousels are your friends — you can easily make these in Photoshop — and If you really want to impress, incorporate gifs in your portfolio to showcase multiple photos, and also check off some marketing skills while you’re at it.
Adobe Dimension is also a great tool for bringing creative solutions to life. You can easily take that branding project out of Illustrator and mock them up using your assets in your Creative Cloud Library — one of the easiest 3D programs built for the tools you already use.
5. Reveal your personality. This part should be easy. Hiring managers are hiring you — as a person, not a set of skills — to take part in a team within a company. Selling your originality will help employers see how you fit the culture. Whether it means adding a personal logo, their bio, their creative projects, or maybe the color scheme, these solutions help you stand out.
6. Make it digital and mobile friendly. Put your portfolio in a format your employers can easily access anywhere. If you’re any type of designer, having a website is pretty much expected — how you curate your projects in a beautiful, seamless display is the biggest challenge. With Adobe Portfolio, half the work is done for you, with beautiful, customizable templates like Matthias Heiderich, and others, for a sleek, chic, professional look — no coding necessary.
Adobe XD can help to build out a compelling live mobile design — even if those designs don’t extend beyond your portfolio.
7. Evolve your portfolio. Keep up with advances in technology and make sure to showcase pieces for which you used new software. Doing this is as much about showing employers your ability to adapt and learn new tech as it is about proving the tech skills you already have. “Knowing Adobe Photoshop and becoming really familiar with it, it’s absolutely necessary,” EB says. “In design, knowing Adobe software is essential — it’s very, very much in demand. It’s something people expect to see, especially if you’re doing things like responsive web design.”
8. Try the “unique” approach. There’s no doubt digital is the industry standard, but there are plenty other unique approaches that’ll demand attention. If you’re a copywriter, consider using InDesign to lay out your work in a book or zine, and wow them at the interview.
Ever wondered if those clever portfolio review tactics work? Bring a project to life and use it to start the conversation — even the most senior designers can admit having an appreciation for a good ol’ well-executed review tactic.
9. Showcase your passion projects: Your portfolio should include a section for miscellaneous projects you’ve done purely to fulfill your own creative impulses. Don’t be afraid to include idiosyncratic projects, whether that’s yarn bombing, dystopian tattoo art, carving fruits and vegetables, improv comedy, or whatever else you do for art’s sake. Let your uniqueness shine.
Besides, EB says, this addition could be unknowingly relevant — and it could be the thing that separates you from the rest. “If I’m looking for someone to do work that has a humorous tint and I see a candidate happens to write improv plays on the side, I know they have that sense of humor,” says EB, “and that they can do things on the fly and likely have a quick wit that will serve them well when the third change rolls in — at 11 at night.”
Whether you’re looking for that first (or next) job, eager to land an internship, or seeking a new freelance client, a compelling portfolio is essential. But, again, there’s no need to let a lack of experience in the working world slow you down. Focus on creating a book that reflects your unique point of view and is proud of the work you’ve done and the perspective you’ve gained.
“Listen to that voice telling you to showcase your weird, at least a little bit,” EB says. “You want to be professional, but company culture is such a big deal. Personality is such a big deal. The unique person you are is going to be a big piece of the hiring puzzle.”