How to Build an Effective Design Portfolio

Essential graphic design portfolio tips

In high school I carried my art portfolio around with me everywhere I went. Not only did it weigh 20lbs but it was probably about half my height, twice as wide and attracted stares as I lugged it onto the bus every morning. Then all the big art schools required that we present them these things and they’d decide whether we were cool enough or not based on it.

I like to consider the portfolio as the best forecaster to a designer’s success. In the industry we’re in, visuals play the most major role. You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but us designers are  judged by our portfolios daily. And for that reason, it’s our duty to show off how cool we truly are. Here are some must-follow graphic design portfolio tips to help ensure a bright career path.


Your Visual Identity

The most important goal of any design portfolio is exhibiting a particular visual identity. Bottom line, if I can’t recognize that your work was all done by the same artist, it’s gonna be a tough ride for you! A solid identity is an essential design career asset.

Businesses generally call this “branding”, but while your brand ecompasses more than just the visual aspect of the impression you leave on others, as a visual artist 99% of your brand is visual. With so much importance weighing on your visuals, it’s essential to develop a style that is distinguishable.

HOW TO SOLIDIFY YOUR IDENTITY

  • Define the look you want to present to the world. Is it serious, polished, technical, whimsical, or trendy?
  • Narrow down some of your best work. Chances are you’ll notice something you’re doing that’s working for you. Keep doing that!
  • Compile a moodboard of other artists’ work that you’d love to be mentioned in the same sentence with. Take cues from their visual identities.
  • Replicate your “look” over and over a million times until you’ve mastered it. Can you imagine how many times Kaws (street artist) has drawn X’s for eyes?

Treat your portfolio like you would a brand identity client. Fine tune your look to make it instantly recognizable. If I’m hiring you to design for me I want to know exactly what I’m getting, and that’s what building a visual identity is all about.

Breadth & Depth

One of the most helpful things I learned in high school art class is that every portfolio needs breadth and depth. Breadth is the variety in your collection of work. Let’s say you’re a print designer. You’ve gotta let it be known that you can design business cards, brochures, pamphlets, all that stuff. That’s breadth.

But what’s your focus? Maybe you specialize in print work for footwear companies and dive deeper into that. That’s depth. The balance of breadth and depth is the artist’s way of saying “hey I can technically do a number of things but I specialize in THIS”

BUILDING BREADTH

  • Experiment with a variety of project types. Build a website, paint a mural, design a t-shirt.
  • Not all variety is beneficial. Narrow down the types of things that matter to your industry. If you’re a digital designer keep your work digital.

BUILDING DEPTH

  • Determine what your depth is in by deciding what you’d never get sick of doing. Love fashion? Highlight that as your specialty.
  • Depth can also be a specific project type, like landing pages or packaging.

graphic design portfolio tips

Research Your Niche

When it comes to making improvements to nearly anything, having something to model yourself after is beyond significant. You wouldn’t make renovations to your home without looking at hundreds of other beautiful homes you’d want yours to look like. No NBA player steps foot on the court without having studied tapes of the greats.

As a designer, studying the niche you’re competing in is essential to not only being on par with your peers, but giving yourself a competitive edge. As a web designer I couldn’t even begin to count the number of hours I’ve spent browsing sites like Awwwards for research purposes. Researching my niche keeps me up to speed with what’s going on in the industry and gives me a good idea of whether or not my work is still professional enough to keep up with the big boys.

WHAT AND HOW TO RESEARCH

  • Your research doesn’t have to be formal. No need to collect data. Keep it casual and make it a habit.
  • Identify the top 3 blogs in your niche and visit them 2-3 times a week
  • Identify your favorite artists or design studios within your niche and follow them on social media to keep up with their projects.
  • Keep an eye out for new techniques or trends. Exhibiting savviness to your industry pays off.

There’s your homework for the day. Treat your portfolio like a term paper and put in some research to back it up.

Speed Design

A surefire way to add new work to your portfolio fast is equipping the speed design strategy. Speed designing can actually be a lifesaver. Imagine you specialize in branding and have a prospective, on-the-fence client who wants a hand lettered logo, but is hesitant to hire you because you only have one example of what she’s looking for.

Now, if that one example is the only example of a hand lettered logo you’ve got to offer, you may very well lose that client. But if you were able to produce 3 more hand lettered logo designs over a few hours or days, you’d have a much better shot of closing that deal.

The same can be said for your portfolio. You can build an attractive portfolio filled with the type of work that is in demand in your niche in a short period of time by committing to speed. At the same time, you’ll fine tune your technique.

SPEED DEMONING

  • Set a short time limit for producing 3-5 new works. I like to keep it to no more than three days. One day sprees are also fun.
  • Don’t stress about perfection when speed designing. Focus on quantity with this strategy.
  • If you’re a multi-faceted designer, focus your speed designing efforts on one specific project type at a time. For example 3 logos in a day vs 1 logo, 1 landing page, 2 business cards.

Unsolicited Redesign

Sometimes it can be hard to accumulate a solid body of work at the earlier stages of your career, if you 1) haven’t done much client work or 2) had a real design job yet. Or it could be that you have built up a portfolio but none of the work really gets you excited.

That’s where the unsolicited redesign strategy can be a major tool in your portfolio building arsenal. An unsolicited redesign is a case study project that involves taking something you think is poorly designed and redesigning it the way you would’ve done it. This type of case study gives you a chance to show off your design process while producing an end result that you’re proud of.

REDESIGN PROCESS

  • Start with either your favorite big name brands, or obscure / defunct businesses
  • Pick an element or business niche that you specialize in (ex. User interface or health industry)
  • Document your approach to the redesign, so prospective clients or employers get a feel for your workflow

These essential graphic design portfolio tips are just the first few steps in a long journey to a successful design career. Once you define your visual identity and begin to implement effective strategies to producing top quality work, you’ll be the envy of all your peers, and one step closer to becoming iconic in your industry.

More Resources

How to Build a Design Portfolio (Early in Your Career)
4 easy steps to create a beautiful design portfolio
Format – Online Portfolio Platform

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