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Putting Together an Effective Portfolio

Save perhaps his personality, the freelance graphic designer’s portfolio is, undoubtedly, the most valuable asset in his professional life. I have written elsewhere that the portfolio is the freelancer’s shop window, an intimate glimpse into his or her being for all who view it. We have to love our portfolios, agonise over what goes into them, and tend and nurture them as we would a sapling we’d once planted. Nothing should be left to chance, not even tiny details, as it’s these, at times, that we may be judged on. So let us not delay any longer, but instead plunge into the sober, matte black folds of the portfolio…

Contained Therein: What to Include

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What graphical wonders might reside within…

What should a freelance designer’s portfolio contain? For starters, it should include no more than 6–10 projects. Any more and you risk your interviews dragging on and prospective employers and clients hurrying you along whilst glancing at their watch. Try not to include two too similar projects, even if you’re equally proud of both. Each piece in the portfolio should come with its own unique narrative. There is an exception to this rule; it can be ignored if you have a series of projects designed for a certain client, say a triptych of biannual trade brochures, which together demonstrate the development of a concept or narrative and can be presented, from your point of view, as a single project.

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Your portfolio truly is your shop window to the world, offering others a glimpse of your priorities, competencies, predilections and professional level. Sweat blood over it. Image courtesy of © Juan Pablo Cambariere.

For traditional ‘paper’ portfolios, high-quality printouts of uniform size are recommended. These printouts could include developmental and conceptual work alongside the final solutions. Attempt to inject a dose of uniformity into things; it looks neat and consistent and your efforts won’t go unnoticed by those on the opposite side of the table. Just be sure that each project tells its own unique story, and go to brow-furrowing lengths deciding just what to include, and the order in which you present them. Print-based designers will naturally enough want to include finished printed pieces, but these may still be combined with printouts explaining the ‘journey’ of each project. Exactly the same rules described above apply to web-based designers. They can, if they choose to make use of printouts, show frames from websites they’ve designed, which can in turn accompany actual visits around the websites themselves, if a laptop is present.

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A dazzlingly original portfolio concept. A series of perfect-bound books contained within a slipcase and all bound with an elastic band. Image courtesy of © Zoo Press.

The Receptacle Itself

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A great alternative to the traditional “paper” portfolio, the laptop is an increasingly appealing method for showcasing one’s work. Image courtesy of © François Proulx.

“Don’t fret, it’s what’s inside that counts” we are told by our mothers when spurned by a playground sweetheart. But with regard to the portfolio, the exterior, the actual, physical receptacle you carry your work around in, matters a great deal too. The slim black case, once beloved by all, has, over the decades, become ubiquitous and predictable. It has an evergreen appeal, in the same way that gallery spaces’ white walls and beech blonde floors do. Because of its very ubiquity though, here in the 21st century, the slim black case is no longer going to raise any eyebrows or get hearts a-thumping. Employers will have seen thousands of them. Therefore, I’d advise you to think about something a little different. The key here remains discretion; a receptacle whose appearance visually or tactilely overpowers the work contained within has failed in a basic aim, much as a gallery in charge of a Mondrian retrospective would if it hung the great Modernist’s canvases on garish flock wallpaper, if you can imagine so undesirable a thing.

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Photographers’ archive boxes make handsome receptacles for a freelancer’s portfolio. They are sturdy, protecting, beautifully made from acid-free materials and discrete in their design, much in the same way the slim black case is. Their self-folding covers carry just enough weight for them to open and lie flat with a pleasing ‘clunk’. Also of immense value, they allow the freelancer to carry his work around loose-leaf fashion. To carry your work loose-leaf is an infinitely more desirable system than having a ringbound portfolio, which requires the designer to frequently turn the case around and (if the case is on the larger side) awkwardly turn the plastic sleeves as he goes. Loose-leaf printouts allow the freelancer to pass them around to those they’re presenting to, and this is A Good Thing.

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“Thou shalt not use Powerpoint to present thy portfolio”. Image used with kind permission of © Ian Ruotsala.

If you have a laptop, you may wish to make this your main portfolio receptacle. Laptops are good for this, and a modern, not-too-scuffed Apple laptop can help make a slick impression on others. Be sure to have all the technical bases covered before presenting; arriving to a meeting with an uncharged laptop, sans mains charger isn’t going to impress anybody. Choosing to carry your portfolio on a laptop allows for expedient and rapid updating of work. You can shuffle things around, add and omit projects as you see fit and effectively tailor your body of work to suit each new meeting and interview you bag. You can of course do the same with a traditional paper-based portfolio, though high-quality printouts can represent a not negligible expense. A final word on using laptops, if you do choose to pursue this route avoid using Powerpoint in your presentations; everybody by now should know that this software is the last word in corporate uncool.

This Is The Modern World

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Portfolio site of successful designer Fabien Barral.

Of course, most freelancers with a decent body of work nowadays will also have an online presence, used, in the main, to display their work. Take as much care with your online portfolio as you would your physical one. Strive for a uniformity and dynamism in your photography of projects, and make sure that images and pdfs saved from the computer are of sufficiently high and consistent resolution. Write concise, foolproof explanations to accompany the work and organise it all in an intuitive level-based fashion, much as you would a website. Sites like Flickr and View Creatives go some way to aiding the freelancer in this professional-feeling endeavour, but you’ll still need to pour energy and vim into the whole enterprise to create the right appearance.

A Dynamic Process

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Don’t, through neglect or complacency, allow your portfolio to become stale… “Retro” bedroom image used with permission of © Steve Collins.

If not tended regularly, and updated at least periodically, portfolios can make their owners seem stale and static-seeming, much as a restaurant that hasn’t updated its menu or decor since the 1970s would appear. Your relationship with your portfolio (for that’s what it really is), should be a dynamic process which engages your thoughts and labour continuously. A portfolio assembled two years in the past may have once seemed the sexiest thing alive, but if not updated and cared for as and when necessary, projects may become vaguely dated, printouts and interleaves may ‘stick’ together and, if you spend a lot of time carrying them around, projects inside the portfolio may become dog-eared and crumpled. Keep things shipshape and Bristol fashion as best you can. If printouts look a little worse for wear, replace them. Rotate, add and omit projects when desirable.

Useful Top Tips

  • Keep things small. A portfolio any larger than A3 is really too big
  • Keep things clean & uncrumpled
  • Loose-leaf sheets are better than ring-bound sleeves
  • Assembling a portfolio should not be a one-off exercise, but a dynamic and continual process
  • Request and absorb other people’s comments and allow this information to flow back into the way you maintain your portfolio
  • Interleave your loose-leaf sheets with a bold and dazzling substrate, though choose something that doesn’t overpower the work contained within
  • If you choose to carry your portfolio on a laptop, for pity’s sake avoid using Powerpoint in your presentations!
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The “restless and questing” disposition of the freelancer when putting together his or her portfolio is an asset, not a fault. Image courtesy of © Humminggirl.

In Sum

A restless disposition when it comes to the freelancer’s personal portfolio is, according to Adrian Shaugnessey, a strength, not a weakness: “Designers are never happy [with their portfolios]. I’ve known many competent and talented designers who’ve begun portfolio sessions with an apology: ‘I’m just about to redo it,’ the say; or, ‘Sorry, it’s a bit out of date.’ It seems to be a designer foible that the portfolio is ‘never finished’ and ‘never representative of current work’. Yet far from being a sign of weakness, this is a good sign: It indicates a restless and necessary desire to improve and develop.”

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Keep things on the smaller side; a portfolio any larger than A3 for the graphic designer is, nine times out of ten, unnecessary. Image used with permission of © Stefho74.

To reiterate what I stated at the top, your portfolio is your second most important asset after your personality, and thus requires the thought, care and attention this level of importance deserves. Like a Savile Row tailor, your success as a freelancer may depend on tiny details, and the portfolio is a complex enough animal to through up lots of details-based challenges. Pour thought and care (not to mention funds) into things, leave nothing to chance and be unswerving in your commitment to the upkeep and presentation of your portfolio. Perhaps most important of all, remember that each project included should not be composed of merely an arresting image or piece, but tell a compelling story about you as a designer and the process you went through. This is the key to an effective and resonant portfolio!

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Aim for your portfolio to make a spectacular impression on others. Image used with kind permission of © Guiniveve.
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