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What exactly is a design portfolio?

If you want to get super technical, a design portfolio is a flat case, preferably made of leather, that is used for carrying, drawings, artwork, photographs and other designs.

At some point in history, the paper contents of these flat cases took on the verbiage of the container and they too became know as an artist’s portfolio.

Nowadays, with the advent of online galleries and such, a design portfolio is simply a collection or a sampling of an artist’s work, regardless of the means or medium used to present them.

What is the purpose of a design portfolio?

Taking it down to it’s most fundamental level, a design portfolio is simply a way to say “look at me, see how great I am, you should hire me”.

A design portfolio is a way to showcase what you are capable of doing in the hopes of impressing potential clients to want to work with you.

Let’s face it. You may want to deny it, but deep down we all know, we designers are a conceded bunch. And that’s OK. If we didn’t think we were good enough we wouldn’t be in this profession. Nobody says “I don’t think I’m a good designer but I’m going to start a design business anyway” No! We’re all doing this because we believe we’re good at what we do, and we like having people confirm that assumption. Why else would we showcase our work for everyone to see? And what better confirmation than having a client hire us for a job.

We’re no different than the proud peacock displaying his plumage in the hopes of attracting a mate. We just do it to attract work.

That’s it, really, there are no other reasons to have a portfolio.

Do you need a design portfolio to be successful?

The short answer is no, you don’t. I use myself as an example. My own business website has been “Coming Soon” for several years now. During all that time I have not had a visible portfolio, and yet I’m running a very busy and successful design business mostly through word of mouth referrals.

In fact, during the past year, I can count on one hand how many times I was asked to provide samples of my work before a client hired me.

Could I attract more work with a visible portfolio? I’m sure I could. But I just want to point out that a design portfolio is not the be all and end all of your marketing efforts. It’s a great tool to have, but it’s only one of the many in your toolbox.

What goes into the perfect design portfolio?

I hear this question a lot. Especially from newer designers just entering the field. And it’s a valid question. Even if a portfolio isn’t a requirement to be successful, it sure does help to establish yourself, especially at the start of your career. And it can help you attract clients.

Whether you have a physical or a digital portfolio, and if you want my recommendation you should have both, the contents within should represent your best work. The culmination of your skills and talents.

But where does that work come from if you're new and don’t have any clients yet?

This answer is simple. It comes from anywhere and everywhere you can get it.

Remember when I said that a portfolio is a way of saying “look at me, see how great I am, you should hire me”? That means your design portfolio should contain things that showcase how good you are.

A portfolio shouldn’t be a showcase of “look who I’ve done work for”. Although there’s nothing wrong with name dropping well-known clients, providing the work is actually worth showcasing.

What potential clients are looking for when they look at your portfolio is whether or not you have the ability to help them. They’ll be able to judge that regardless if the samples you show are for real or fictional companies.

You see, the work within your design portfolio should display your diversity as a designer. It should demonstrate the skills you possess. It should show your knowledge of good layout, colour theory, and design technique.

It doesn’t matter if the work you’re showing was something you did for a client, something you made in school, something you did for fun for yourself, or something you designed specifically to go into your portfolio. As long as it demonstrates what you have to offer, it’s good.

And yes, you can showcase work you did while working for a previous employer as long as you don't have an agreement with them stating otherwise.

Showcase what you have, when you have it.

As your career progresses and you design newer and better things, you simply replace the older pieces in your portfolio with new ones. or in some cases age isn’t what matters, you replace your previous good designs with your newer great designs. It’s as easy as that.

Don’t go overboard with your design portfolio

The best design portfolios I see are the ones that are sparse in what they show.

When building your portfolio. Show only a handful of your best work in each category. Be confident in the few you display and keep a few more aside in case a client asks for them.

The worse thing you could do is to show too many samples. Showing a few samples invites the viewer to admire what you have to offer. Showing a large number of samples invites the viewer to criticise your work and find flaws in what you have to offer.

Keep it simple. I the client wants to see more let them ask for it and then tailor the extra samples specifically to their needs.

What to leave out of your design portfolio

Simply, don’t display anything you don’t want to do! If you don’t enjoy designing logos, then don’t include logos in your portfolio. If you’re not into web design then don’t display any websites you’ve created.

This should go without saying, but unfortunately, I see this all the time with new designers who include almost every school project in their portfolio regardless of their lack of desire to do many of them.

If you’re an artist who draws robots and science fiction scenes.  Don’t include the cutesy teddy bear drawing your mother guilted you into doing for your cousin Millie’s baby announcement. Because if you do, it’s almost guaranteed that’s the kind of work you’ll be asked to do.

What’s in your portfolio?

When was the last time you looked at your portfolio? Could it use updating? Have you designed anything really good lately that should be included? Why not take some time this week to go over it? It might just help land the next client that looks at it.

What are your thoughts on design portfolios? I’d love to hear about it. Leave me a comment for this episode.

Questions of the Week

Submit your question to be featured in a future episode of the podcast by visiting the feedback page.

This week’s question comes from Marselo

Can I Buy Adobe Photoshop outright? I want the Adobe software but honestly I am a bit lost with all the monthly payment options and extras that are offered. So what is the “common practice”? or what are most freelancers doing in general?

At the moment I am using Photoshop, Illustrator and Premier Pro but I ideally would like to buy all of them as you know we are continuously expanding and experimenting with new things as we never know what the future holds.

To find out what I told Marselo you’ll have to listen to the podcast.

Tip of the week Google Advance Search

This is a simple little trick that has helped me out fo a jam many times over the years. If you find yourself in need of a certain company's logo and don't want to jump through hoops trying to get it. Use this trick. In the Google Search Bar type “site:companywebsite.com” followed by “filetype:pdf”. What this does is return search results displaying all PDF files at that particular domain. Open the PDFs one at a time until you find one with a good looking logo (you can usually tell by zooming in). Download the PDF and open it in a program such as Adobe Illustrator. If you're lucky you will have a perfect vector logo you can use.

You can also accomplish this by visiting Google's Advance Search page, but I find simply typing the paramaters into the regular search bar is much faster.

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I want to help you.

Running a graphic design or web design business all by yourself isn't easy. If there are any struggles you face running your design business please reach out to me. I'll do my best to help you by addressing your issues in a future blog post or podcast episode here at Resourceful Designer. You can reach me at feedback@resourcefuldesigner.com

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