What Makes a Good Portfolio? The 2012 Guide to the Portfolio.

This is a special edition for all you soon to be graduates. But, most of what is here applies to anyone with or without a portfolio. And while these are rules, remember, rules can be broken. This is more of a guide and really, you can overthink this stuff too. Comforting I know.

Some of these rules apply to physical books and others specifically to on-line. You can figure out which is which.

Make it about the work. The idea here is to not make it about the case or box your work is in. Give the case the attention it deserves, make it nice, but don’t go overboard. A vintage suitcase filled with a poor portfolio? Only the suitcase is remembered.

Only show work you like. Hopefully, this is also your best work. Don’t show work you don’t like unless it tells a successful story. The project you had to crank on all night because of a late change-order and the client loved it. In general, if you don’t like the work, or it was not successful, why are you showing it?

Show the thought that went into the work. Concepts are good. Sketches are great. People love to see how you think.

Not too much, not too little. The whole presentation should last about 30 minutes. Don’t show too much work and don’t show too little. Multiple pieces in a campaign count as one piece. It’s good to have 12-15 pieces. If you are just graduating and you are worried that you don’t have this much, try to get to 10. Fewer than 10 is too little. One way to increase the number if you are coming out of school….have friends and family “assign” you projects. Don’t do it yourself. You may pick stuff that is too easy. Try to freelance too to get portfolio pieces.

Show variety. Show that your creative mind is nimble. Don’t focus on one industry. Don’t show just one style.

Start with a bang and end with a bang. Put great work first and last. Don’t show work chronologically.

What about my photography of kittens? Hmmm….maybe not. Work that is not relevant to the jobs you are interviewing for can be great if it paints a bigger picture of who you are and the breadth of your creativity. It can also detract and backfire. Think about it. If it’s really a strong part of what makes you, your brand, go for it.

Make it easy. Realize you may not be present to walk someone through your work. Provide descriptors as to the project, the creative brief, and some words around your execution. The viewer needs to understand why you did what you did without you telling them.

Be organized. Don’t end the presentation with 15 pieces spread over a table unless you are just that crazy throwing stuff around.

Make a nice user experience. Don’t make the viewer look too hard to find the work on your site. It should be easy to access, easy to view.

Never make the viewer work too hard. They just may not do it.

If you have a freelance business, but are also looking for a job, you need to make it clear which is which. Don’t point someone to a website that comes across like an agency site if it’s just you. You may need to change things a bit. I’m Bob who runs Bob Design; I’m not Bob Design per se right now, because Bob wants a job. Get it?

Make your portfolio part of a presentation. How you show the work can be as important as the work. If you can’t speak to why you did what you did, or what problem it solved, why did you do it? Practice your presentation. You are also viewed on how you present as you may be presenting your employer’s work some day to a potential client.

Breathe. Do your best. Try to leave every meeting comfortable that you did the best you could.

…thanks for Jeremy Pair, two more points…

Give credit. Make sure you indicate your role in the project, and give credit to others when due. Believe it or not, I have seen the same piece in multiple portfolios with each person taking credit. Someone is not telling the truth!

And, indicate what is a student piece and what is not where applicable.


3 responses to “What Makes a Good Portfolio? The 2012 Guide to the Portfolio.”

  1. Jeremy Pair says:


    Well said. This is spot on. I say portfolios should be like math tests–show your work. As math students, we’re asked to show our work to demonstrate we understand how to solve the problem. The same is true for design portfolios.

    I would add that, especially students, need to clarify what is student work and what is real-world problem-solving. Additionally, designers should clarify their role if they were on a team. If you just did production, say it. It’s ok. It shows you’ve been a part of a successful team.

    Thanks for sharing your insight with the community.

  2. potestio says:

    Ah yes, good calls. Yes, student vs. real world, and folks please specify your role on the project. Either through the descriptor or in person. Thanks Jeremy.

  3. M!ke Russell says:

    What about a copywriter’s portfolio?

    How much text should accompany the thumbnail image of the finished piece? (Better to share ‘highlights’ with that thumnail, or provide a link/download for the complete piece and let the reader pursue?)

    What if my process is essentially the same for every project: discover, draft, define, deliver?

    “Start with a bang and end with a bang. Put great work first and last.” is a great point, but wouldn’t ‘organize by industry/project-type’ be more appropriate for writing?

    Steve, this is a great discussion. I wish more of your talent pool would weigh in; I’d LOVE to know how others do it.


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