Five helpful tips to make your design portfolio really stand out

Liam McDonnell.
Liam McDonnell.

Originating from Ireland, Liam McDonnell is a technologist and designer living and working in Massachusetts. He’s currently the UX and Creative Manager for Pixartprinting, a Boston-based online printer that caters specifically to creative professionals. McDonnell has over 16 years of industry experience, including work with multi-national organizations and smaller boutique design studios. He has completed brand, communications and digital installation projects that have garnered national and international recognition – most recently as part of team recognized by the International Association of Business Communicators. Here, he gives us the benefit of his experience and reveals how to create a design portfolio that best reflects your creative ‘masterpieces.’

Creating a portfolio is a necessary but daunting task, no matter where you are in your career as a designer. If you’re a student, it could be what lands you your first paying job. If you’re a professional, it’s your body of work that will bring in clients or secure your trajectory upward. No matter what stage you’re in professionally, there are a few tips every designer should keep in mind to make sure his or her portfolio makes an impact.

Showing the breadth and range of your work is important.
Showing the diversity of your work in your portfolio is extremely important.

Show breadth and range of work. It’s important to use your portfolio to flex your design muscle and show your skills. If you’re a student, include speculative work to show what you could do for a brand, given the opportunity. Most students won’t have exposure to big brands before graduating, but you can still have great ideas. Use this as a chance to showcase your unique approach and design aesthetics. Make sure you have a clear point of view in your work. Even if you’re a professional and you plan to stay in a similar field or industry, remember to show different design perspectives in your work. It’s important to have a range of samples available to any interviewer that reveals your abilities as a designer. Can you work across multiple mediums? Can you scale your ideas up or down? Can you express the same concept in different formats? Make sure that’s represented in your portfolio. Employers want to know what you can bring to their design team.

Flex between mediums. It’s impossible to avoid digital at this point, and it’s expected that you will have basic digital competency. You need to understand both the print and digital medium to really make a standout portfolio reflecting both platforms. While your printed portfolio may be buttoned-up, you must also ensure that your online presence is just as impressive. The work you conceptualize on paper could ultimately live its life online. Whether you’re creating a website using tools like Squarespace or WordPress, or tapping into portfolio platforms like Behance, you need to make sure your presence on these sites aligns with your printed work.

Provide a backstory. Now that you have all the work laid out and ready to be assessed, make sure you have a backstory to go with each project. What was your involvement? What role did you play in the creative direction? How did you work with different team members or departments? These are all things that may come up, especially with collaborative projects. On the other side, some employers will want to see your conceptualization and the evolution of your work. Show your ideation and keep a few sketches or WIPs in your portfolio. An eye into your creative process could end up being what lands you the position.

The days of cutting and pasting your portfolio are definitely over. (Photo by Jo Szczepanska on Unsplash).
The days of cutting and pasting your portfolio together are definitely over. (Photo by Jo Szczepanska on Unsplash).

Polish your product. The days of “gluesticking” your portfolio together are long gone. Employers are now looking for a composed piece of content that showcases your work. There should be a slick, professional quality to the final piece – everything from your credentials and contact sheet, to your choice of paper, to your binding method. A strong understanding of print is also needed for a physical portfolio, and it’s important to put the time and thought behind what the final piece will look like. Once you have the final layout, you may find that investing in a professionally printed piece is what fits your needs. When choosing a printing partner, look for companies that offer customizable products and high-quality materials. There are a handful of online – custom printers that cater to creative professionals and their portfolio needs, such as Pixartprinting (Pixartprinting).

Always be true to yourself. While it may be cliché, as a designer it’s important to represent your true self only with your portfolio. Don’t create a high-end luxury portfolio piece if your aesthetic is much more whimsical. Applying for a position is a daunting task and the competition is fierce – but you can only be you. Don’t follow design trends just because it’s what everyone is doing. A portfolio is precious to the person who produces it, so use this as a time to shine and show off your best, unique work.


Tony Curcio is the editor of Graphic Arts Magazine.