What do you put in your portfolio?

Whether you’re starting out or you’re a seasoned graphic designer, one of the biggest headaches you might have is what to put in your portfolio. We get decision paralysis, because in most cases you’re pretty close to your projects. It can be difficult to decide what needs to go into your portfolio and what may need to come out.

It’s something that I’ve struggled with. On this episode, I want to go through a few things that I’ve formulated over the years that have helped me curate my portfolio and made it effective for me, whether I’m finding new clients or a new job.

First thing, I’ve discovered that it helps to have a limited number of pieces. I tend to see this with younger designers that throw almost everything they do into their portfolio. From somebody who has browsed other portfolios, it’s overwhelming when I land on a page and I see 20, 30, or even 50 different design pieces in a portfolio. Most include filters to narrow it down, but it’s a chore to dig through. So limit the number of pieces you have. In my experience, 10 to 15 tends to be a sweet spot.

You also want to make sure that the projects that you’re selecting are indicative of the future work that you want. I know this is a bit tricky, so let me explain this a little bit. For me, I did a lot of web work. But I also wanted to show that I was looking for more branding work. Anytime that I was doing a website for somebody where I also designed a logo, I broke the logo out as a separate project. From there, I included a case study with it to show my expertise. As a result, anytime someone came for me to me for design work, they quickly understood that I offered web design and logo design services — even though the logos were part of other projects.

This rolls into the next bit of advice: write case studies.

You don’t have to do this for every project. At least pick two or three. Explain what it was you did from start to finish. Include challenges you had to overcome, or describe the problem the client had before you started. It doesn’t have to be a 10,000 word blog post, but give the viewer enough to understand what the scenario was.

Show some progress shots while you’re at. If you have any WIP shots, sketches, or things of that nature, it can help guide people through the story of your project. It gives them some insight as to how you thought, or an insight into your process. You can show where you got inspiration from or sketches of concepts that didn’t make the final cut. It shows that you’re doing more than just churning out work in Photoshop or Illustrator. 

Constantly be refreshing and updating your portfolio.

It goes without saying that as designers, the more you do it, the more you’re going to improve. It doesn’t help your portfolio if you still have that project from college five years ago. Toward the end of every year, I like to sit down when things slow down and look my own portfolio over. I’ll take the time to add or remove things and I try to write up new case studies as well. It’s a bit of a two for one. 

It’s easy to push this off when you’re busy, but you almost have to treat your portfolio like a client. I’m not suggesting that you need to completely redesign your portfolio site (although you could). But it’s worth your time, especially if you’re shifting into new areas of design for the following year.

As a bonus, I know some projects that you work on, you may have a client that doesn’t want you to publicly show it off. And that gets to be a bit of a frustrating thing. It can be effective to include a message that mentions you have addtional portfolio pieces to view upon request. For me, this works out great, because it still allows me to include some things in my portfolio without making it public.

If you don’t want to write a long-winded email to someone who asks for these projects, you can include a password protected page in your portfolio for these. No matter what, it’s great to include projects like these somehow — especially if you were a part of a larger team. It also allows you to control who views it, if that’s important.

So those are my tips for what to put in a portfolio. I know there’s a million different right answers to this question. But what I found over the years is that these few points that I’ve got here have definitely contributed towards clients better understanding what I do, and even getting me a couple new jobs along the way as well.

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