Creating a Digital or Physical Portfolio
One of the worst pieces of advice that I ever got when beginning my job search out of University was:
“Don’t bring all of your work with you to an interview, only bring what is relevant to the position.”
Why do I think this was bad advice?
It can make it seem like you have less experience.
You are limiting the ways in which you are marketing yourself. Meaning, the interviewers have less opportunity to see your other skills which could translate to another position at the company.
You aren’t readily prepared to answer questions with hard evidence.
I swear this little misconception cost me more jobs than I’d care to admit. So, how do you create an amazing, inclusive portfolio that doesn’t overwhelm your interviewer?
Let’s talk about the basics first, then get into how to create your own.
Your portfolio is a great place to show off your organization and creativity. Don’t be shy about adding some of your personality in to it. Your unique point of view is your biggest selling point!
What is a design portfolio?
Your portfolio showcases your creative work, but don’t be afraid to throw in some non-creative things too. For example, in my portfolio, I have metrics from my freelance platform, analytics worksheets, financial spreadsheets, and technical packages.
What should you include in your portfolio?
You should include anything that shows your strengths as a creative professional. You can even include personal projects! Look at your resume, what could you add to your portfolio to support the claims you make on your resume?
What is the difference between a digital and physical portfolio?
A digital portfolio houses your creative work on a website, in a digital document, or even on a platform. A physical portfolio is a binder of all of your creative work usually including printed photos and examples.
So how do I pick between a digital and physical portfolio?
Each of them have their own strengths and weaknesses. At the end of the day, it comes out to whatever works best for you and your specific needs. In this post I’ll talk through the pros and cons of both, and even tell you exactly how I’m going to be re-formatting mine into my ideal portfolio.
As a Designer, Illustrator, or Artist you probably have about a million different projects you’ve been a part of. This is where some creative organization is key.
Start by organizing your projects by category. For example:
Illustrations -> Technical Sketches -> Outerwear -> Mens -> Specific Style Document
Start with the broadest category, “Illustrations,” then break it down by type of illustration, “Technical Sketches,” then product category, “Outerwear,” then gender, “Mens,” then the specific style.
These aren’t hard and fast rules. Find an organization style that works for you and makes sense to you. The ultimate goal is to make this as user friendly as possible, so go with your gut.
The first time I created a portfolio with this method, I literally just took out a sheet of paper, wrote out all of my projects, and then began organizing them using different colored highlighters for each category. You could even organize them directly on your computer with folders (for digital items), or go crazy and start making piles (for physical items).
Ok, so now you’ve got a method for organizing. Next? How are you going to convey that organization to your interviewer?
Table of Contents
You and your interviewer need to be able to easily navigate your portfolio. Trust me, there is nothing more awkward and stressful than fiddling with a stack of your work while an interviewer is grilling you with important questions.
In order to help you avoid that pain (I wouldn’t even wish it on my worst enemy), you must have some form of table of contents. Think of your portfolio as a textbook. It’s full of all sorts of great information, but you would be totally lost if it didn’t have a table of contents or index.
Now, the form of your table of contents will greatly depend on whether you have a physical or digital portfolio, but the same overarching rules apply. For my physical portfolio I bought binder tabs and organized my table of contents by section, instead of by page numbers. That way I could easily add new projects. If you have a portfolio housed on a website you can create a landing page with buttons or links to each section of your portfolio. You could even create a clickable PDF!
Quick Tip: Always order your projects from most impressive to least impressive (in each section). If there’s anything you are not proud to show, LEAVE IT OUT! Unless you’ve been specifically asked to show your growth, there is no reason to flaunt your less impressive work.
Building Your Portfolio
By far, a digital portfolio offers the most customization, accessibility, and options.
Digital illustrations and photos will look much better on screen than printed.
Save $$$ on printing.
You can send it.
You may need to purchase a website, which costs $$$.
Tech failure - your website is down, your laptop/tablet dies or freezes in your interview.
When you send your portfolio you don’t control what the interviewer sees and in what order they see it.
If you create your portfolio as a single PDF, the file size can get very large, making it much harder to share.
If you don’t have wifi access during your interview and your portfolio is online, you’re out of luck!
Privacy - Unless you password protect your portfolio on your website or watermark your projects, other people can steal your work.
You can house your portfolio on your own website. This may cost money, but there are also some free options: Wordpress, WIX, Adobe Spark, Behance. With some of these options you could think of your portfolio as more of a blog.
Got an iPad or tablet? Organize your portfolio using photo albums.
Use InDesign to create an interactive, clickable PDF. Bonus! This also shows that you rock at InDesign, big selling point.
Merge all of your documents into a single PDF. This won’t work if you have a ton of projects. Like I said before, the file size gets too large and makes it hard to share.
Use your social media (Instagram) or phone camera roll in a pinch!
Don’t be opening documents while in an interview. Have everything open and ready to go in a single document (or web page). Be sure to view it as a PDF or image. Opening an AI document while in an interview is awkward, slow, and looks really unprofessional.
Always come with a way to access your portfolio and show it in your interview, even if you’ve already sent a copy of it.
I personally don’t recommend presenting your portfolio on a laptop if you can avoid it, it’s awkward to pass around and can come off unprofessional. Using a tablet or iPad works much better.
As an Artist, Illustrator, or Designer you may have some pieces that just can’t be put into a digital portfolio. That being said, sometimes a photo, or several photos on a website is bettering than dragging around a huge portfolio to an interview. Make sure that whatever you bring can be held with one hand (like a briefcase) and easily set up.
You are able to lead the interviewer on a journey all about you (you control what they see and when they see it).
You don’t have to rely on technology which can sometimes fail.
It can be more affordable than a website if you already have the supplies.
More protection and privacy for your work.
Can be cumbersome and awkward.
If you lose it, that’s it. You have no way to access it digitally like with a website.
Can be expensive - binder, briefcase, sheet protectors, labels, and printing.
Printing a lot of documents takes a ton of time and money.
There’s really only one method that I recommend. Get a briefcase with a binder attached inside. It’s easily transportable, easy to navigate, and easy to share. Any photos that I didn’t have printed, I just showed on my phone camera roll.
If you are presenting artwork, there are a lot of different art portfolios available on the market. Pretty much any size you could need!
I really liked having a physical portfolio for all the reasons I mentioned above. Out of all the methods I tried, it was by far my favorite. However, now that I have so many projects I know that I need to change my method. I work mainly remotely and it’s impossible to share my portfolio, as it is now, with prospective clients.
If I could do it all over again, and I will be soon, I would create a digital portfolio on my website (or create a website if I didn’t already have one).
Unlike a physical portfolio, it lives on the internet and is accessible virtually anywhere. Unlike a PDF or other type of document, you don’t have to worry about file size when sending it. Just pop the link in your resume header and you’re done! Finally, once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty easy to add to and update.
You can add descriptions to each image and play with the layout to really show off your design expertise and creativity. Plus, in a digital age it can’t hurt to show you know your way around basic website building. It’s really not as hard as you think, especially with platforms like Squarespace (which is what I use).
For a simple portfolio website you can pay the lowest amount, they even have student discounts if you’re in school. Quite honestly, investing a little bit into something that is going to land you your dream job is definitely worth it. Even if you are freelancing or working independently, you need a place to send your prospective clients to show off your work and land jobs.
While there’s nothing wrong with showing your new portfolio website on your laptop, if you can, I would recommend using a tablet. It’s just so much easier to transport, share, and pass around during your interview. I recently purchased the iPad Pro (and I am IN LOVE), but they have other, more affordable, options such as other model iPads, Microsoft Surface, Yoga, etc.
The benefit to showing it on your laptop is that if they don’t have a guest wifi available at your interview, at least you have access to your files. In the event that you don’t have access to wifi, you can still bring a small physical version of your best work.
I am going to be doing a complete overhaul of my portfolio and moving it from physical to digital. Here’s how I’m planning to set it up.
In the top navigation of my website I will have a page called “Portfolio,” clicking it will lead to a page with a few images of my work and a button labeled “View Full Portfolio.” Selecting this will prompt the viewer to enter a password (yes, you can have password protected pages on Squarespace). This does require giving your interviewer your password, so be sure to either send it to them or include it on your resume.
Below the button on that main page will be a contact form for requesting to view my portfolio. This is great for me, because it allows me to have contact with potential clients who might be interested in working with me.
This password step can definitely be skipped! It is really not necessary unless you are concerned about the security of your documents. For me, I have limitations which prohibit me from posting some of my projects publicly. This method allows me to share them privately and securely.
See below a graphic representation of how I would set it up:
In this example I’m showing what the most complicated section would look like. For other sections, I wouldn’t need so many steps between pages.
Main Portfolio page - a button to view my portfolio, some images of my work, and a contact form (to request my portfolio password).
Main categories page - the overarching categories of my portfolio, click the button to view. Tip: Ask yourself - what are they interested in seeing?
Subcategories page - Images with buttons to view
Second subcategories page - Scrolling gallery images with click-to-view links for each category
Third subcategories page - Banner image with button on top to view each section
Details page - Large image of my work with a title and description. Below is a scrolling gallery to view other examples within the category. Tip: Link to any notable brands you’ve worked with in this section.
I hope that this has been a helpful guide to get you started on creating your own design portfolio! Let me know in the comments below how you organize your portfolio. I would love to see how you’ve created a portfolio unique to you!