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Portfolio Advice in 2016

How to Build and Set Up Your First Portfolio

One of the biggest topics your professors will be pressing on you is your student portfolio. I know when I first started learning about how to build my portfolio, I was bombarded with tons of contradictory advice. I was so confused on what to do and how to build it, I didn’t know where to start. It might seem like a daunting task because of the pressure put on your portfolio to land you that dream job or dream client. I’m here to share with you my very recent experience doing the same thing and the best strategies for you to build your best starter portfolio.

Now I typically write targeting the graphic designer, but this portfolio advice can be easily applied to photographers, videographers, animators, writers and pretty much any creative position.


Defining Your Portfolio

Now I start by saying “starter portfolio” or “first portfolio” because the longer you stay in the field the more your skills and talent will evolve which will leave you with better work and more clients and projects and this advice may not be the best for more experienced designers. I will provide more information for advanced designers about updating your portfolio in future articles.

You need to think of your portfolio as a living entity and your design pieces and artwork as food for it. You only have to “feed” your portfolio every two or three years, but if you don’t, it will start to die. To best market yourself as a designer you need to constantly update your portfolio and showcase your best work. Since you’re starting out you might not have that much work to showcase but we’ll get into creating work later in future articles.

So for your first portfolio you first need to decide what you want your portfolio to say about you. This may seem convoluted, but we’ll simplify it even more. Think about what career and job title you want. Now think if this is an entry level or further in your career. It’s great to have goals and to move up the corporate ladder, but remember everyone starts from zero, so you have to pay your dues. So you might want to start as a graphic designer or photographer before you move on to creative or art director position. So you have your job title in mind now insert it here:
“I am a __________!” Actually write this down on the top of a blank piece of paper. This is the statement you want your portfolio to say about you.

Go Deep Not Broad

You might want to do multiple things like photography and design which is fantastic, but there is only room for one word in your statement. This doesn’t mean you can’t do both, it just means you need more than one portfolio. It is better to clearly market yourself deep rather than broad. Let me explain this a little more.


T portfolio model

Keeping in mind this is for entry level portfolios, you have to understand, no matter how great you are at something, you are a beginner. The reason you are a beginner is because you don’t have the experience to market yourself as an intermediate or expert. It is because of this you want to find your niche and position yourself showcasing your best work in a similar aspect of your field. This can seem confusing so let me give you an example. As a graphic designer I need to know how to do photo manipulation (Photoshop), custom illustrations (Illustrator) lettering and typography (InDesign and Illustrator) and web design (WordPress and coding) but even though I know how to use these programs and I’m pretty good at them, I know my best program and skill is through photo manipulation and Photoshop. I, therefore, want to highlight this skill in my portfolio above the others and show many examples of my photoshop expertise.

And this is a mistake I first made when starting out, I thought it was better to go broad and showcasing I’m very well rounded. However, hiring managers, although they might appreciate it (and it will give you a leg up eventually), don’t have the time to delve into such broad aspects and skill sets especially on the initial intake of your portfolio. This is why it is better to go deep at first to catch their attention and then, when they are narrowing down the applicants, they will see you are at a beginner or intermediate level at other applicable skills but you are an expert level at this one thing, which is what they are looking for and gives you that edge.

Always keep in mind you have about 1 minute to capture your potential hiring manager’s attention so you need to put your best foot forward and make an impact.

Which Pieces Go in Your Portfolio?

So you now know what you want to market yourself as and figured out which skill you want to highlight. Now you have to figure out which pieces’ best showoff your skills. The answer is simple in that you put in your best pieces. Defining your “best” is where a lot of people hit a snag though because they confuse “favorite” with “best.” Because something might be your favorite piece because you created that art when you were going through something hard and it helped you work through that moment in your life, it has a lot of value to you. That’s fantastic and you should treasure that, but you have to look at all your work objectively when you put it in your portfolio.

Look at it from a technical point of view only when narrowing down your best pieces.
Is your figure drawing proportional? Is your sound synched up right with the video? Are your exposure levels accurate in your photo? These are the type of questions you need to focus on when narrowing down what pieces you want to market yourself.

Insert Your Personality in Your Portfolio Design

Even though you want to put your “technical” best pieces in your portfolio, you also want to show off your personal style as well. This may sound contradictory because I said don’t’ put in your favorite pieces just because they are your favorite. Part of applying to a job is marketing yourself, and your personality and your style is a big part of what you’re selling to potential employers. If you are very casual in your personality and only own one tie or one business suit or dress, you need to think if you that corporate culture is really right for you. Be true to who you are and the right fit will come along.

Now I understand right out the gate, you don’t care where your first job is at as long as they pay you and you can start your building your career. That is OK and you can always go buy more ties or blazers while you learn the industry and get your feet wet. But always keep in mind if you’re going to be happy working for a company. If you hate going to your job every morning, your design and creativity will suffer as well as your quality of life. I will go over more about finding happiness on your path to being a designer in a future article.

How Many Pieces Should I Put in My Portfolio?

Finally, this is a probably the most common question that many people have and people will disagree on. A lot of professors say no more than ten, while other professionals in the field say twenty or more. So who is right on the quantity of pieces after you’ve already calculated your best quality pieces? The answer is that it depends. I know you don’t want to hear that but it honestly depends because it varies on the designer and the field.

An example would be that a photographer might want to have a lot of photos showcasing her portraiture skills where as a videographer might only need one, 1-minute reel showing his editing and directing skills. As a designer and figuring out what aspect of design you want to focus on and if I had to put a number on it, I would say try to have at least 5 solid stand-alone pieces that showcase your highlighted skills. I say five because a lot of you are just starting out and you may not have built up a large body of work yet, and that’s OK. That all comes with time, dedication, and hard work, but you do need to demonstrate you can back up what you’re marketing. You can’t just talk the talk; you have to walk the walk.

As far as a max number, I think that as long as all your pieces are of the same high caliber, put in as many as you want. I honestly think that as long as the quality is all top notch the more work you have displayed showcases that you are an expert in this field.

Now I do have to point out that in this scenario I am talking about an online portfolio, not a print or PDF portfolio. I will go more in depth on print and online portfolios in another article. However, if you have to submit a print portfolio I would not exceed ten pieces unless explicitly stated by the job application.

*Side Note* Always make sure you read carefully and follow the instructions in a job application! Often times hiring managers won’t even see your great portfolio if you can’t follow the instructions on the application. If they ask for three pieces, give them your best three, no more no less.

For online portfolios, keep in mind that the more work you have presented your site might slow down when loading. If your hiring manager can’t see your work because it is taking too long to load, they are going to move on to the next candidate. I will go over in a future article how to set up an online portfolio and walk you through the process for optimal speed and quality.


Take Away

So now you know who your portfolio is showcasing, how to build your setup and which pieces to put in your portfolio. Now all you have to do is put in the work or make the pieces to showcase yourself. Remember, you’re not bragging about yourself either, your work will speak for you and show you off. You’re great and on a great start to building your best starter portfolio that shows that!


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