As they say, the proof is in the pudding. For designers, this translates to the proof is in the portfolio. Getting a gig in any technical field requires proving that you have what it takes to actually produce. Theory can only get you so far, the rest of the distance is covered by creating digital assets that showcase your style, capabilities, and work history. Thus, the digital portfolio is used to entice prospective clients through proving your abilities!
Traditionally, a portfolio would have been a collection of your printed works collected into a book or folder. Of course, as Bob Dylan reminds us, the times they are a’changin. Nowadays, a portfolio is more of a digital experience than a printed collection or booklet. As the designer will build websites and/or graphics for their clients, the key starting point is going to be building your own simple website.
Demonstrating at least a basic competency in web design will underline your technical capabilities, regardless of whether your goal is graphic design, UX/UI, animation, or game design. This allows you to send prospective education programs, clients, or employers a simple web address with your application, which is also highly convenient. This website will include a tour of who you are and what kind of work you’re capable of, highlighting your best pieces alongside your style and values. Start here if you’re wondering how this whole website building business works.
If you’re still new to design and haven’t yet produced anything, don’t despair! The purpose of this guide is to lay out common practices in building a portfolio, which will be relevant both for aspiring students and established industry professionals. Let’s start with the students. What should a design student prepare in terms of portfolios for their application?
Design Portfolios for Students
While not every higher education institution will demand a portfolio when applying for design-related programs, the top-tier institutions most certainly will. Top programs are highly competitive, both due to the quality of the programs and the breadth of the professional network. This latter point is particularly critical, as the objective for any pragmatic design student will be establishing a career.
For the aspiring student, the first consideration is what exactly to include in a portfolio geared towards a university admissions team. Let’s zoom out for a moment, and consider what an admissions team is looking for. Remember that they aren’t looking to hire you, but looking to invest in training you. This distinction is key, as it means they will be assessing your portfolio for signs of potential rather than professional polish. Let’s list out a few key attributes that will significantly boost your portfolio:
- Clear and organized: The easiest way to alienate the admissions team is to make your work unreachable. You don’t want clutter, working on one project here and another project there without a clear relationship between the two pieces. The easiest trick for this segment is to tell a story. Every piece you are developing should demonstrate a linear evolution, beginning with sketches and ending with your final piece.
- Technically sound: As an admissions team wants to know how effectively you learn, demonstrate an ability to follow established graphic design principles. For example, digital graphic design software like GIMP and Photoshop allow for very precise color selections and gradients. Take advantage of that! Pay attention to the organization and hierarchy of each piece, ensuring the right things are properly spaced and positioned. Don’t necessarily swing for the fences with creative genius, but instead nail down the basics with perfection.
- Variety: An admissions team will want to see you approach a variety of styles and project types. After all, working in a field is not creative freedom per se. Instead, it’s directing your creativity towards the vision and objectives of your client and/or employer. This means being able to broaden your style. Try making an animated 2D gaming character with pixel art, then try building a clear and attractive web page design. Craft up a few logos, just for fun. Variety does not mean including every project you’ve ever worked on. See yourself as a curator, skimming the top off of each category.
- Evolution: Last but not least, each of these various portfolio items should demonstrate a natural flow towards completion. Start with a page describing your vision. Why are you making this piece? Who would benefit from using it? What influences help you envision it? Next, sketch a few starting points and eventually commit to developing the best one. Demonstrate each stage as you finalize the piece for final submission. This demonstrates mindfulness and discipline in how you approach your work, while allowing the admissions team to ‘peek behind the curtain’ and see your process.
Now each university will have slightly different requirements when it comes to your portfolio, so do make sure to check the admissions segment of their websites. Here are a few examples to get you started:
- California Institute of the Arts
- University of Southern California (USC)
- Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT)
- Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)
Now, many of you may be wondering if it’s possible to skip the higher education step and dive headfirst into getting gigs or even full-time time jobs as a graphic designer. This would not have been very plausible even a decade ago, but in 2022 this is a real possibility. Here’s how.
Design Portfolios for Early Career Professionals
Classic stories about tech entrepreneurs dropping out of college and starting world-changing businesses have become almost commonplace. There is a feeling in the air that not all highly-specialized functions in the workplace require anything more than dedication to the work itself. Training is helpful, will boost your resume and improve employer callback rates, but it’s not necessarily a make or break kind of consideration.
Graphic design, and broader fields of web design, UX/UI, animation, and game design, fall pretty cleanly into this category. If you have an entrepreneurial mindset and a disciplined dedication to improving your design work, it’s possible to put together a compelling portfolio and land a gig without the degree. Of course, this means learning everything on your own. It’s not for the faint of heart, so consider this path carefully!
If you’re still here and reading, the next step for you is designing a professional portfolio for employment and/or gig work. You’ll want to take into account all of the points previously discussed in the student section, as well as a few more. Let’s outline exactly how a professional will engage their prospective clients via the all-important portfolio page:
- Consider your clients: First and foremost, you are not showing off your work so much as illustrating (pun intended) precisely how what you do aligns with what they need. This isn’t about proving artistic genius so much as demonstrating the discipline, knowledge, and dedication to provide precisely what the client needs right when they need it. Here’s a simple suggestion to succeed here. Create a few different portfolio pages, curating each one specifically for an industry, type of job, and/or art style.
- Do the first gig free: You may have cringed at reading that, but it’s a great way to kick down the (design industry) door if you don’t have any professional samples yet. To put it more simply – prioritize experience over a paycheck. Let prospective clients know that you’ll produce the first final product simply to gain the necessary experience and professional references to kickstart your business. You’d be surprised at how appreciated and understanding these folks may be, and furthermore you may be surprised that (if you succeed) they pay you a fair wage for work done.
- Study the competition: Last but not least, consider yourself an independent competitor within the broader design industry (because that’s exactly what you are). Study the very best portfolios out there, and curate your style and structure to align with it (where applicable). If you’re particularly driven, you may even pay these professionals for advice and mentorship.
To reiterate something incredibly important for the digital artist, do make sure to present your work via a website you’ve built up and designed yourself. This demonstrates both an ability to integrate with the tech-side of the job, as well as a ‘show, don’t tell’ proof point that you can indeed design a pleasant visual experience in a digital format. This may take some serious time and effort on your part, but it’s well worth the investment. Sending a link to a domain you own and design is the modern-day business card.
Whether you’re gunning for a top-tier design school or that very first professional gig, the starting point is the same. Go ahead and peruse your own work, this time with a professional and critical eye. Which piece stands out in terms of technical skill and professionalism? Which piece shows a clean and clear evolution from ideation to final product? What piece could you create right now to perfectly encapsulate what type of work you’d ideally like to be doing?
Now go ahead and string those pieces together, both in an offline and online (website) format. Check that the narrative and vision is clear and organized in each one, and that prospective admission teams and/or clients can clearly see your ability to realize a design vision. Send it to friends, family, and other artists to get feedback (and remember to leave your ego at the door). If you commit to doing each of these steps well, you’ll find clients and university design programs are willing to commit to you too.