Create A Better Portfolio

Whether online or in hand, your portfolio is the primary means of landing a job or finding clients. Art school graduates have focused on developing and fine-tuning their portfolios during the last terms of their educational career, but even for those who are self-taught or have been professional for years, the “book” remains the primary thing for promoting your work. In reality it does more than a resume in determining whether a creative is the right fit for a particular design position or project. You cannot get by as a creative professional without one.

I’ve been managing my own portfolio and advising students and working pros on their portfolio for awhile now, and I wanted to share with you some tips and insights about managing your own portfolio.

Use physical and digital portfolios

Styles of physical portfolios have changed over the years. When I started out, I had large format transparencies made of my work and presented them sandwiched between acetate and bound in hand-made black mattes. Currently, hard-cover post binders are popular environments. Format aside, you need both physical and digital versions.

While many creatives use Behance, Creative Hotlist, Design Taxi, and other online portfolio sites to present their work, I cannot stress enough the importance of having your own web site. Whether you run with a done-for-you  option such as Squarespace or a self-hosted WordPress  site, an online presence is a requirement for doing business.

For go-sees, portfolio reviews and in-person meetings with prospective clients, a physical book is necessary. While showing work on your tablet is an option, it’s useful only when wifi is available. The binder or box portfolio allows clients to interact with your work in a tactile sense. In an agency setting where you drop off your book and are not present during the review, the art buyer is able to flip through at her leisure and also compare it directly with another book to determine the best creative for their project.

If web design is your sole focus, a printed portfolio is still a good idea. It allows you to present your work in a broader context, and when wifi is not available, it’s a reliable showcase of  your design talent and thinking ability. Printed portfolios are not subject to the whims of technology. And, as pointed out here, walking into an appointment with your book under your arm gives you a certain authority and command in the meeting. You have something to show that’s worth looking at. You present a credible bearing. Digital, remember, is virtual. Print is real.

A recommended portfolio strategy

Once you have your portfolio, what do you do with it? You need a strategy for management and distribution. Include portfolio updates in your annual marketing plan and be sure to schedule them on your calendar.  A well-managed portfolio goes a long way in convincing prospective clients that you’re the person for the project. I wanted to offer some tweaks and tips for managing your portfolio:

Your portfolio is never a finished work. You will always be updating with new work, and your book is constantly evolving. This means you need to be willing to exclude older work, and newer work that is not relevant.

Not everything you create should go into your book. Select only your best work. If you are not sure what your best work is, engage the help of a mentor or creative pro to figure it out. Take advantage of portfolio reviews (AIGAPalm Springs Photo Festival, ADC ) that are scheduled in your area.

How big should your portfolio be in terms of amount of work? A general rule of thumb is 12-15 pieces. In some cases 20 pieces may be appropriate.

The purpose of your portfolio is to present the type of work you want to get. It is not a showcase of past work. It is not a portable art exhibit. It’s all about the kind of work you want to do, and the type of clients you want to serve.

This means that you need to be strategic and ruthless about what you include and why. Your favorite project may not be suitable for your portfolio because it does not address the needs of your prospective clients. When you are deciding what to include in your portfolio, ask the question, “Why in my including this?” If it’s simply because you like it, then it doesn’t fit. If it’s because you like it and it solves a problem, then include it.

Your portfolio should be editable. Whether you are meeting with a prospective client in person or dropping off your portfolio for review (a common practice with ad agencies and publishers), you need to target the portfolio toward the particular prospect. For example, as an illustrator wanting to work with children’s book publishers and trade magazines, you would essentially have 2 portfolios. Because children’s books and trade publications are very different markets, what is suitable for a children’s books is not appropriate for magazines and periodicals.

Editing your portfolio to fit a specific prospective client means that you need to get to know your prospective client by doing some research. You need to know what their business sector is, and also if they use what you create. If they use it how do they use it?

To be editable, you should not present a traditional bound book. Some creatives use online services such as Blurb to print hardbound books. Strategically, this can be expensive and impractical. A worthy alternative is to use a post-binder system with clear sleeves which allows you to change out work with ease.

The order of work in your portfolio is important. You want to tell a story about what you do, who you do it for, and why you do it. You want to communicate your approach to creative problem-solving, form, function and purpose clearly through the work you include. Ideally your portfolio should contain your best and most effective work. Open with a strong piece, have a strong peak in the middle, and close with a strong piece. So your best work appears at the beginning, the middle and the end. Position your weaker work between these peaks.

Why should you employ this strategy? Because when we are presented with a series or sequence of things, we most remember the first thing we see and the last thing we see. This is the principle of serial position, which is an attribute of memory in which things shown at the beginning (primacy effect) and end of a list or series (recency effect) are more likely to be remembered than items presented in the middle of a series.

The opening images in a portfolio create the expectation of how the rest of the portfolio will flow. When I’m reviewing a portfolio, the first two or three images presented tell me what to expect of and how to interpret the rest of the images in the book.

So when laying out your portfolio, position the work that you want the reviewer to remember best at the front of the portfolio, in order to maximize their recall. Showcase your most compelling work that demonstrates your ability to solve the problem, manage the project and your mastery of technique.

Show your process. For specific assignments, you may want to include some of your preliminary work to communicate how you arrived at those solutions, or a case study describing the problem or need and how you met it in your creative solution. Illustrators may want to show some preliminary compositional and character sketches, research and color explorations. Designers may want to include a few concept sketches. Photographers may want to include screen captures of their imaging process or the original photos used in a composited image.

Showing your process adds authority — you are the creator of the work and this is how you solved the given problem. Showing your process reveals how you think.

But don’t show your process on everything in your portfolio. Select just a few works. Ultimately, the final design or image is the thing.

Have several versions of your portfolio ready to go. Use a physical book, a digital PDF which can be emailed and downloaded, and a website. Each of these formats can be easily customized to target a specific prospective client. The same rules apply for all versions: present the kind of work you want to get, keep serial positioning in mind, and be ruthless in editing your work. Update your portfolios regularly. I recommend a minimum of four times a year.

It’s okay to include personal, self-determined projects. Become your own client. When you are not working on client work, or if you’re just starting out and have no clients yet, create work that will get you clients. As a freelancer you should have a marketing plan, and the hero of that plan is your portfolio. Make time to create work that will get you work. I advise that you always be working on something, and that you work on things that appear to solve specific visual communications problems. Here’s what I do to target logo and branding clients: Think up a fictitious business or organization and design a logo for it. Then design a standards manual, a communications system, a website wireframe, a collateral brochure, and any other pieces that are appropriate. No one’s going to know that it’s not a client project if you do it well. If you are a children’s book illustrator, develop a series of 5 to 7 images that tell a story. If you’re a photographer focusing on architecture, go shoot images specifically for your portfolio, and be sure to edit them well.

Announce new work. When you add new work to your online portfolio, share the news with your clients, colleagues, friends and family. Share it will prospective clients (be sure you are building a list) via email and with the world on your social media platforms. Do not be shy about letting the world know. This is a different approach than with targeted self-promotion. It’s  a form of free publicity.

By managing your portfolio well you have an effective vehicle for self-promotion that you can use to expand your reputation and increase your income.