Building a portfolio as a student or young designer is a catch-22: A portfolio is all about showing your design experience, but to have experience you first need a job.
Most design students take a class focused on building their portfolio before they graduate, but often this is more of an exercise you're just racing through to get credit. Then before you know it, you're out there in the "real world" and quickly realizing how crucial a strong portfolio is for getting hired.
Here’s how to build a design portfolio that gets you the job you want, whether you're a student or young designer just getting started in your career.
1. Share only your best class projects
It may be tempting to put every class assignment you've ever done in your portfolio just to fill it, but that will only make you seem green. It's better to share only one or two of your favorite class pieces, even if that makes your portfolio feel a little empty. And instead of saying “this was a class project” in your case study, treat it like a side project. Say what inspired you, share what the goal was or tell us what approach you took. If your work is good enough, it can stand on its own beyond the context of your class.
An awesome class project featured in Lucas Berghoef's portfolio.
2. State what you want to do
Early on in your design career, your portfolio might be scattered as you gain experience, meaning it’s more difficult for your reader to understand your skills and interests. In the meantime, state your interests clearly in your introduction and About page. Your portfolio should of course be curated as much as possible around the work you want to do, but it can only help to say it too.
As a student, you're naturally a jack of all trades because your studies taught you a little bit of everything. There's of course nothing wrong with this, but a wide skillset might benefit you more later on in your career. In the meantime, recruiters are looking to fill specific roles that require specific skills. Even if you enjoy working in many different fields, try to focus on one or two in your portfolio so you're not confusing anybody. Then, as you grow as a designer, you'll either zero in on your core skills or enjoy the freedom of keeping it broad.
3. Take on as many side projects as you can afford
When I was first starting out in design, I accepted pretty much any job that came my way. I also worked a lot on the side, doing little projects for myself or small paid gigs for someone else. Again, what sucks as a young designer (or anyone early in their career) is that it’s hard to get work without showing experience, but you can’t get experience until someone gives you work. Until they do, take matters into your own hands. One side project can change your life, so do your best even with the small things. That’s what brings the big stuff your way.
Graphic design student Jason Yuan features several personal projects in his portfolio, like this custom-designed book.
4. Be strategic with your layout
If you don’t have a lot of experience yet, you need to be even more thoughtful about how you guide your visitors through your work. Don’t use some template meant to showcase a huge grid of projects or you’ll only call attention to what’s missing. Customize your portfolio with immersive case studies that help us dive into the work you do have. Don’t fluff anything up, just think about the work you have to share and decide what layout would showcase it best.
This is literally one of the reasons I created Semplice, my WordPress-based portfolio system for designers. Every designer is different and you should be able to build a portfolio with 30 projects, or with just three. A good designer can create a compelling portfolio with just a few projects, so long as they're intentional with their design.
5. Show who you are and how you think
Before you have the experience and seasoned skills to show, companies are taking a risk hiring you. They hire you based on your potential and hope it pays off as they help you grow. So help them understand your potential and envision you on their team; show them who you are and how your brain works. You can do this with your case studies and your About page.
Write case studies for your projects that explain why you approached the work you did, what your process was and how it all turned out. Don't be afraid to share your personality here and on your About page as well — being a nice person who people enjoy working with is just as important (if not more important) than your actual skill.
6. Embrace internships
You may feel you left your internship days behind you when you got your degree, but an internship can be the perfect way to get your foot in the door and good names on your resume. It’s also a great way to build your portfolio with work you might not otherwise get to do as an entry-level employee.
As an intern, it’s your company’s job to teach you. They might bring you into a project or meeting way above your experience level, just for the sake of exposure — and you get to put that in portfolio as a team project later. Read more about the right way to do a design internship here.
Follow these tips and you'll soon have a solid design portfolio that boosts your career. Keep reading for more portfolio tips and career advice, and be sure to tweet me @vanschneider if you have your own tips to share.