A strong portfolio opens doors, a weak portfolio closes them. Your portfolio is often the only thing a person sees before deciding whether or not to contact you, and in many cases you may not be present to explain it (particularly on-line portfolios). There are fundamental qualities that all outstanding portfolios share, and a variety of principles and techniques that can help take your portfolio from average to excellent.
If at all possible, your portfolio should be appropriate to the situation and reviewer, and all portfolios should show creativity, skills, range, thought, and ambition. It is the overall combination of these, plus that “special something,” that makes one designer stand above the others.
The Right Type
There is no single “right” way to prepare a portfolio. A different presentation is appropriate for each person, each situation and each interview. You need to understand what kind of portfolio you are creating. Is it to get into school, to get an internship, to get a first job, a second job? Each of these will require a different selection of projects. Also consider what type of presentation are you preparing. Is it an on-line portfolio, a leave-behind book, a one-on-one interview, a cold call, or something else? Each of these scenarios calls for a different type of media, so you should spend some time thinking about what you will show in each of these cases and prepare accordingly.
The level of presentation in your portfolio must be excellent. Indeed, if your book is full of beautiful photos, renderings, sketches, and finished projects, you have only met the minimum requirements for designers these days. The pages in your book must demonstrate that you can quickly and effectively communicate complex ideas in a professional manner. Excellent, interesting and varied compositions are expected. Dramatic use of scale, focus and color will make your work stand out. Make an effort to communicate your level of skill with a wide variety of tools typical for your chosen field. This may include any and/or all of the following; a plethora of software packages, drawing skills, color, composition, model making, production techniques, manufacturing/fabrication, CAD, 3D modeling, and an understanding of basic engineering.
Your portfolio should celebrate your ability to work on different types of projects. This lets the reviewer know that you are flexible and can work in a variety of situations. If possible use examples from different product categories, demonstrate your familiarity with a variety of media, or indicate experience with a range of technologies. Integration of varied disciplines is always interesting and shows a willingness to collaborate with a variety of people, another important skill. Make an effort to show your contributions to a project from concept through production. This demonstrates a holistic design sense that is invaluable to most employers. Also make sure to show a full range of abilities, including sketching, rendering, model making, finished products, photography, 3D modeling, etc.
A designer who can take initiative, resolve a wide range of problems, and manage projects from beginning-to-end is a valuable addition to every team. Your portfolio, combined with a written resume, should illustrate these traits. Self-driven projects are great examples of this. If possible, show measurable contributions conceived and implemented by you, repeatedly, on a wide variety of projects. Indicate that you can work with limited supervision. Show that you can generate ideas–no one is looking for a designer that needs someone else to think for them. Make an effort to fill gaps in your employment history with an interesting variety of projects and activities.
That Special Something
If your portfolio has excellent examples of everything listed above, congratulations–you are free to compete with thousands of other hungry designers. To rise above the rest and truly stand out in an extremely competitive field, your work needs to go the extra mile. Your projects should show insightful, conceptual foundations, indicating that you think about your work on many levels. Layers of meaning in your work allow people to explore and enjoy your projects repeatedly. Beautiful compositions that show a variety of techniques, colors and scale make your work stand out. If you are particularly strong in one area–typography for example–make sure every entry in your book celebrates this fact, but without throwing it in the reader’s face. The quality of your work and your presentations is much more important than a fancy, unique, or tricky presentation. Keep it simple, and let the work stand for itself.
This may sound like a daunting task, but it is the reality of the design world in the 21st century. If you take the time to review and select your work, and put together a well thought out book, you’ll be rewarded many times over throughout your career.