How to begin building a graphic design portfolio

26 May

So you want to become a graphic designer. Maybe you’re just graduating and looking for a career, or maybe you’ve already got a job somewhere and are thinking about a change to graphic design. You love trying new fonts, you’re pretty good with Photoshop, and you’re always taking photos. But what next? How do you synthesize that into a graphic design career?

Growing up in a supportive but decidedly not-art-informed background, this was pretty much my situation coming out of high school. And the first obstacle I needed to tackle was…

The Almighty Portfolio

My physical portfolio was adapted from a photo album and has a few pieces from the same client on each page.

My physical portfolio was adapted from a photo album and has a few pieces from the same client on each page.

The thing you’re going to be focused on is building a strong portfolio, which is a website you can link to and physical book you can take with you. Your portfolio is a collection showcase of two things: what you can do and what you want to do.

  1. You should revise and update it frequently with sample photos of projects you finish
  2. You should only keep stuff in there if you’re proud of it and reflects what you want to do in the future for others. This might change over time as you get different or more exciting jobs, so see point #1 up there.
  3. You should separate it by sections to avoid overwhelming people. Generally, clients already have a certain type of project in mind when they go looking for designers, like logos or websites or business cards, so having at least 4 or 5 samples of a project looks really good.
  4. …but if you don’t have a lot to show yet, keep it to one page. A portfolio subsection with only two things is as compelling as a produce stand with two apples, and it’s not fun to do a whole lot of unnecessary clicking through barren sections. So to start with, you might keep your work together and use sections to feature the work you have a lot to show from.
  5. In your physical book, consider getting a portfolio that has pages you can add or take out. You never want to have blank pages. You can also get more pages than you need and swap them in/reorder them to cater to a particular client who’s going to be seeing it.

Getting projects for your portfolio before you have clients

But where do these projects come from when you’re first starting out? Even if you don’t have clients yet, you can still do a lot:

  • Wallpapers and phone backdropsThis great blog post has a lot of solid advice on this. Be sure to come up with a theme that will allow you to create your own art and design and play to your strengths. (Note: I would avoid using screenshots of celebrities/cartoon characters/models of cars; picking something more general will allow your design skills to not get overshadowed by how the viewer feels about My Little Pony.)
  • Gift items – create a design for each month and use it to make a calendar, or use photos from an event to lay out a cool photobook. Or get some nice cardstock make your own greeting cards or gift card holders when you give gifts. The nice thing about this is that it’s something your friends will keep and share with others, which can lead to more work for you!
  • portfolio_giftcardholder

  • Donate your skills to a nearby non-profit organizationPlaces like animal shelters LOVE professional photographers to get good shots of their adoptable pets, and other organizations always appreciate help with flyers and promotions. It’s not a great idea to commit to working for free indefinitely, but if working on a project is equivalent to the money you’d donate to a cause you believe in, it can work out for both parties.
  • Your own branding materials – Branding is something you’re going to need anyway, so your logo, business cards, and website are all testaments to your skill and should be in your portfolio.

Educate yourself!

If you take graphic design courses at a university (in my area, we have a good selection of community colleges that will offer weekend/night classes if you’re trying to do that in your spare time), your assignments can be great portfolio builders. Again, only include things that reflect what you want to do; if something didn’t turn out strong, or a teacher assigned something and you hated doing it, leave it out.

Graphic design courses will also teach you new things about the programs to use, give you the skills you need to give and get constructive criticism, and provide you with opportunities to meet and network with people. Real life classes are just a good idea all around, in my opinion. Keep in touch with your classmates, too. You never know when they might meet somebody who needs your skills.

If that’s not a good option for you at this point, you can also get a lot of great tutorials online for free or for a small cost. is pretty good for small articles, and classes about the Adobe suite of programs is money well-spent.

Courses for InDesign on will unlock your ability to use more advanced print layout techniques than just Photoshop.

Courses for InDesign on will unlock your ability to use more advanced print layout techniques than just Photoshop.

Feedback, feedback!

When you meet design peers or have instructors, get them to look at your portfolio early and often, and really listen to their feedback. Find your favorite design bloggers who are doing the kind of work you want to do, and ask politely if they have time to look at your portfolio because you really value their advice. (Many will agree, because we all like feeling like experts, but don’t bug the same person every time you make a change – we’re busy people.) The more pieces you have, the better advice they’ll be able to give you. And this is also a form of networking; if your style sticks out in their mind, they can refer new work your way when their plates are full.

When you get commentary, take their advice to heart. If they tell you a piece isn’t strong or doesn’t fit, you may want to remove or revise it. The good thing about such a digital world is that it’s not hard to make revisions. This is also where those skills taking constructive criticism will shine.

Once you have a strong portfolio, you’ll have more luck applying for design jobs or reaching out for your first freelancing clients. Be sure to upload your best pieces to LinkedIn and your social media photo galleries, too, so anyone who searches you up can instantly see what you do and you stay fresh in your friends’/family’s mind as an active graphic designer.

Samples of my portfolio on LinkedIn let prospective clients dive right in.

Samples of my portfolio on LinkedIn let prospective clients dive right in.

There’s always time to refine.

Even the strongest portfolio is always getting more focused as your body of work and interests change, even years and years after you’ve been working as a designer. So don’t worry if it’s not perfect yet! The first step is getting it out there, and keeping yourself busy so that you’re always adding new things. So go forth and build your portfolio, for great justice!

And hey, take a look at my portfolio if you want to see how I did it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: