Keys to building a better portfolio by Alvalyn Lundgren

Keys to Building a Better Portfolio

Art and design students focus on developing their portfolios during the final terms of their education. The portfolio is the most important tool when entering the professional world, and will do more than a resume in determining if the creative is the right fit for a particular design position or contracted project. Since competition is fierce, building a better portfolio can make a difference in acquiring good clients. Even if you’re self-taught, attention to your portfolio is crucial. You cannot compete as a creative professional without one.

I’ve been managing my own portfolio and advising students and designers on developing theirs for awhile. Having experienced countless reviews of my own portfolio and reviewing countless others, I wanted to share some insights into how you can make your portfolio better.

Early in my career, I took my portfolio book around to advertising agencies and design firms. I remember one time in particular when a friend had gotten me a portfolio interview with a prestigious design firm. It was as I drove into the the parking lot that I realized I had left my portfolio sitting on my garage floor. You know that feeling when your heart “sinks” and your stomach turning over? Yeah, I had that.

Portfolios are visual evidence of what you can do.

There was no time to go back for my book, so I kept the appointment and explained my situation. The creative director kindly rescheduled the meeting. I showed up to the next appointment with my book and had a good review, but I didn’t get the job. Why? Because I didn’t have the book in hand the first time. You can’t just talk about your work and your approach, you need to show it. And you can’t easily make up for a bad presentation.

Visual design is just that — visual. Portfolios are visual evidence of what you can do.


Version Your Portfolio

Have several versions of your portfolio ready to go. This means you should have a physical book, a digital PDF, a dedicated website and several portfolio showcase sites (Behance, The Workbook, Creative Hotlist, for example). Each of these platforms can be easily targeted to a specific prospective client base.

The same rules apply for a website, social platforms, and PDFs as for a physical book: present the work you want to get, keep serial positioning in mind, and be ruthless in editing your work.

Post-bind portfolio of Sarah Tirzah Photography & Design.

The physical properties of portfolio books have changed over the years. It used to be that creatives spent a lot of time and money on 4×5 transparencies and C-prints. Today, we make digital prints and put them in post binders — the more customized the better.

The same rules apply for a website, social platforms, and PDFs as for a physical book: present the work you want to get, keep serial positioning in mind, and be ruthless in editing your work.

You will need both physical and digital versions of your book. In most cases, especially if you’re starting out or participate in drop-off portfolio reviews, you will need a physical portfolio.  Make high-quality prints of your work. If you have published work, include samples as printed pieces.

Digital work — web sites, apps, social media graphics, brochures, epubs — require tablet-based presentations. You can also make high-quality prints of wireframes and screenshots to include in your book.


Have a Portfolio Strategy

First of all your portfolio is never a finished work. You will always be updating with new work.

Second, the purpose of your portfolio is to present the type of work you want to get. It is not a showcase of past work. It is not a portable art exhibit of your work. It’s all about the kind of work you want to get.

This means that you need to be strategic and ruthless and what you include and why. a piece that is your favorite work, may not be suitable for your portfolio, because it does not address the needs of your prospective clients or employers. So when you are deciding what to include in your portfolio, you need to ask the question “why in my including this?” If it’s simply because you like it, then it doesn’t fit. If it’s because you like it and it solves a problem, then you can include it.

Your portfolio should be editable. Whether you are meeting with a prospective client in person or you are dropping off your portfolio for review (a common practice with ad agencies and publishers), you need to target that portfolio towards the particular prospect. For example as an illustrator wanting to work with children’s book publishers and trade magazines, you would essentially have 2 portfolios. Because children’s books and trade publications are very different markets and what is suitable for a children’s books is not appropriate for magazines and periodicals.

Editing your portfolio to fit a specific prospective client means that you need to research your prospective client. You need to know what their business sector is, and also if they use what you create. If they use it how do they use it?

To be editable, you should not present a traditional book. Some creatives use online services such as to create hardbound books. Strategically, this is expensive and impractical. A worthy alternative is to use a post-binder system with clear sleeves, allowing you to change out work with ease.

Third, the order of images in your portfolio is important. You want to tell a story about what you do, who you do it for, and why you do it. Ideally your portfolio should contain your best work your strongest and most effective work. You should open with a strong piece, have a strong peak in the middle, and close with a strong piece. So your best work is at the beginning, the middle and the end. Position your weaker work between these peaks.

Why should you employ this strategy? Because when we are presented with a series or sequence of things, we most remember the first thing we see and the last thing we see. This is the principle of serial position, which is an attribute of memory in which things shown at the beginning and end of a list or series are more likely to be remembered than items presented in the middle of a series.

The opening images in a portfolio create the expectation of how the rest of the portfolio will flow. When I’m reviewing a portfolio, the first two or three images presented tell me what to expect of and how to interpret the rest of the images in the book.

So when laying out your portfolio, position the work that you want the reviewer to remember best at the front of the portfolio, in order to maximize their recall.

Show your process. For specific assignments, you may want to include some of your preliminary work to communicate how you arrived at those solutions. Illustrators may want to show some preliminary compositional and character sketches, research and color explorations. Designers may want to include a few concept sketches. Photographers may want to include screen captures of their imaging process or the original photos used in a composited image.

Showing your process adds authority — you are the creator of the work and this is how you solved the given problem. Showing your process reveals how you think.

But don’t show your process on everything in your portfolio. Select 1 or 2 works. Ultimately, the final design or image is the thing.


Tell Stories

It’s important that your portfolio communicates your unique approach to creative problem-solving. You should have a point of view. That means that your book should be cohesive. You want it to narrate how you developed an assignment from beginning to end, and how a solution addressed a specific need, purpose or problem.

This does not mean that all the work needs to be the same. It’s more about all the work fitting together to convey your point of view. When your book is consistent in approach, prospective clients will have the confidence that you are able to apply that consistency to their projects. Art directors will know what they can expect from you.


Critique Your Portfolio

This is something you can do immediately to improve your book. Go through your book and review the work objectively. Put yourself in the position of an art buyer, art director or prospective client. Avoid relying on personal preferences. You can use the following criteria:

  • If you have more than 15 pieces, remove the weakest and any you’re not sure about.
  • Is a project included because it’s your personal favorite? Remove it, because the portfolio is not about you. It’s about how you solve problems for clients. When you may have a strong emotional connection to a piece you may not be seeing it the way an art director would.
  • Does the work all look like it’s your creation? Is it consistent in style and/or approach? Will the body of work as a whole confuse an art buyer? Remove any inconsistent pieces.
  • Does the body of work as a whole look consistent in style and approach? This does not mean that all your work needs to be done in one medium. Variety is a good thing, but you need to edit. If your book appears to include the work of several different illustrators, it will not be effective for you.

Divide and conquer. If you work in several styles or genres, split your portfolio into 2 or 3 smaller books. You can show all 3, or just one, depending upon what you’re prospective client is looking for. So if you do hand-lettering and calligraphy, illustration and photography, you’ll need 3 distinct volumes. If you do both children’s book illustration and book design, separate the work into 2 different books. You can show one or the other, or both together, and will not confuse your prospects with a “junk drawer” approach.

I have this problem as an illustrator and visual designer. I do both, and more. I have one website but split my work into different categories.

I also split social media platforms. I use Instagram and Behance to promote illustration, Twitter to promote my design practice and Freelance Road Trip. I use LinkedIn for thought leadership and showcasing projects. On each platform I’m focusing on a different segment of my market.


Develop Your Portfolio

Your portfolio is never a finished work. It should be in constant development. Older work should be replaced by recent and stronger work.

If you are not working on client work, or if you’re just starting out and you don’t have client work, create work that will attract clients. As a freelancer you should have a marketing plan, and the hero of that plan is your portfolio. So when you have downtime, create work that will get you work.

I advise that you always be working on something, and that you work on things that appear to solve specific visual communications problems. Think up a fictitious business or organization and design a logo for it. Then design a standards manual, a communications system, a website wireframe, and a collateral brochure. If you are an illustrator and want to create children’s books, develop a series of 5 to 7 images that tell a story. If you’re a photographer and you want to focus on architecture, go out and shoot images specifically for your portfolio, and be sure to edit them well.

When you have client work, be strategic about what you include in your portfolio. Don’t showcase everything created for clients. Show only your most effective work.

Dedicate regular times for portfolio development. You can use a variety of marketing channels, but if your portfolio is not consistently strong or is confusing, your marketing efforts will count for nothing.

Your portfolio is your primary means of attracting clients

Update your portfolios regularly. I recommend a minimum of four times a year. Schedule time in your calendar for portfolio development, and keep those appointments with yourself.

Your portfolio is the primary means of attracting clients. To make it most effective it should showcase only your highest quality work, include work that is distinctive in style, demonstrate your ability to solve creative problems and show your approach and creative vision.