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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!

Travels and journeys

27 Jan


If you don’t travel a lot, there are things you just won’t think to pack, or you’ll try to cram your bags full of lots of things you don’t need. But while you can make some educated guesses (an umbrella is a good thing to pack for Seattle and it’s much easier to get to Hawaii by air than it is by train) there’s no conclusively right way to do it, because every trip is different from place to place and person to person.

Finding your style as a storyteller or artist/designer is exactly the same. Among the things that affect your trip:

  • Where and when you’re staying: You can go to the exact same place twice and have two very different experiences from the weather, whether it’s night or day, if other events are happening at the same time. While you can guess that Florida might be warm and sunny, hurricane season can change all that. Do your research about what’s going on NOW and you’ll run into fewer surprises at your destination.
  • Your method of travel: Maybe because of the medium you’re using to travel, you have limitations. You can’t bring animation to a book just like you can’t bring a jug of Kool-Aid through the TSA checkpoints. Instead of cramming what you want to do into a bag that won’t fit it, choose the medium that best fits your content. If you find yourself writing very wordy comic pages, you might want to make a novel instead. If you design better freehand, find a tablet setup that compliments what you do.
  • What you can carry: Some of us have amazing muscles and carry very heavy loads all the time. Most of us need those little luggage wheelies. But lifting heavy loads on a regular basis increases your strength. Do lots of projects, even if they’re small, on a regular basis. It’ll increase your capacity for projects in the future and give you an idea of how to estimate your workload for other people.
  • How much you’ve traveled in the past: It’s the act of packing over and over again and seeing what happens on the trip that makes you remember the things that came in handy, and weed out the things that are just a waste of space. Experience will not only help you do more, but become more efficient at knowing what tools and techniques fit where.

Tell me about your journey!

What have you learned on your travels as an artist/writer/designer? Where do you go, and what do you pack?

4 Awesome Budgeting and Invoicing Tools for Freelancers

13 Jan

Money is one of the scariest things about being a full-time freelancer. Your workflow is unsteady, occasionally you will have to fight/diligently remind your clients to get them to pay you, and the U.S. government will take 30% of your earnings in self-employment taxes. And if you have a background like mine, Excel and Quicken give you the heebie-jeebies and were definitely not covered in art or design classes.

But if you’ve just made the move from a steady paycheck to a life of freelancing, your monthly income and spending are crucial to keep tabs on. Here are the tools I’ve used to keep track of everything.

Invoice Machine


Invoice Machine was my invoicing system when I freelanced alongside my full-time work. The free Small Account version lets you send up to 3 invoices and 3 estimates a month, with options to upgrade if you choose. It’s very lightweight and simple, and being able to have a handy address book of clients (including more than one contact per client, if you need to let multiple people know) automatically who’s paid you and remind people who haven’t beat my old system of “Make an invoice in Word and completely forget about it a month later” by a good margin.

They’ve also got some other cool features like an integrated timer you can start when you begin a project and stop when you finish, and other country codes for international clients. I don’t see a lot of resources being put into improving its features since two years ago, but if you’re just starting out with a few clients and you want something easy, I do recommend it.
Video tour of Invoice Machine


Curdbee became my new invoicing system when I outgrew Invoice Machine and needed to bill more than 3 people a month. They also give you some nice at-a-glance dashboard stats about how much you’ve invoiced and how much you’ve received each month.

It starts pretty barebones for the free version, and the features are handled with add-ons. If all the bells and whistles are important to you, you might find a better deal with Invoice Machine, but if not, you can pick and choose the ones you need as you need them and pay a small annual fee.
Interactive demo of Curdbee


blog_moneytools_mint is a free web service that helps keep track of your money and set financial goals. It can automatically sort most of your purchases into categories without you touching a thing, which is huge for me. It has given me so much visibility into where my money goes each month, and lets me really hone in on where I’m spending the most. There’s budgeting trackers as well, but as a freelancer with wildly fluctuating month-to-month income and things like quarterly taxes to worry about, it doesn’t give you a lot of tools to deal with that.
Overview of

YNAB (You Need a Budget)

So that’s where YNAB (You Need a Budget) comes in. If Mint’s strength is telling me what I’ve done in the past, YNAB’s strength is telling me what I need to do in the future. YNAB is not free and does not auto-track things like Mint, but the clarity it has given me and the phenomenal amount of learning resources they give (not only about using their software, but learning to relax about money) was definitely worth what I paid, and you can occasionally snag deals on Steam for it.

It has strong tools for breaking up things like quarterly taxes so you can save up for them, and just generally some great, approachable advice for getting off of a month-to-month mentality, which is something I’ve definitely struggled with since becoming a freelancer. They do offer a trial period, as well as free live classes if you’re curious about how it works (they give away a copy of the software after every class, so that’s pretty awesome).
Video tour of YNAB

What financial tools do you use that’s made your life easier?  Let me know in the comments!

Quantity leads to quality

16 Dec

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

The internet shoves a lot of junk in front of us, and those of us who were on it before Google had a heck of a time trying to find art and stories of quality. We developed search systems, review systems, traffic statistic analysis, to really hone in on finding good stuff and make the useless stuff invisible. But ignoring the invisible role of quantity can make the thought of creating great art seem more complicated than it really is.

There was a recent discussion on the Spider Forest forums about first chapters of webcomics, which unlike other kinds of stories, tend to be written in the order they’re read. So no matter what you do, that first chapter’s probably going to be the worst until you revise it later.


Seven years of making comics later, Chu, the creator of Slightly Damned comes back to an older page at a fan’s request. Read her comic at!

The true value of quantity

This is why a lot of artists seem hard on themselves and say their art is junk. We all make junk. The trick is to understand the very important things that junk is doing for us.

  • It’s getting our work out of theory and into practice. Seeing your ideas outside your head will give them a whole new aspect that you cannot predict.
  • It’s making us accountable for goals and intentions and setting the tone for work to come.
  • It’s giving us the practice we need to see which tools work for us and which do not. And sometimes, these tools come in the form of classes and other side projects to teach us what we need to know.
  • It’s teaching us what we really love doing and what we just THOUGHT sounded fun. This one’s huge for me, because when you start a new project, EVERYTHING sounds exciting and fun. But when you do enough stuff, you start to learn what you really have the follow-through to do something great with.
  • It’s giving us the opportunity to iterate. Even if you don’t pick up the same exact project and make edits to it, we tend to work with the same concepts again and again in our crafts. Practicing with those will let you build a little more onto each concept or work a little more into our art to give it the tone/message we want.

So if you do a lot of work and look back on it and don’t like it, be proud, not ashamed. Quantity is doing its job.

(cover photo by Nagy Zoltán Csongor. Check out his photography here!)

The dual myths of free rein and strict direction.

4 Nov

Occasionally, I’ll get a project lead where the client says I can do whatever I want: they have no direction in mind, and they’re giving my creativity free rein. Other times, I’ll get projects that are touted as easy because “the client knows exactly what they want”, and just need my technical expertise to make it happen.

Both can be the start of unbalanced and unhealthy relationships. I believe both the client and designer are essential to analyze whether we’re going the right direction at all: the client, because they know their business inside and out, and the designer, because once they know the audience, they’ll be able to craft the right message into the design to reach the intended audience.

It is only when they work together in the right balance that great design happens.

How does a healthy relationship start?

Here’s a path a potential client might take with me:


When the balance is too client-focused

Now, if my client’s already at point C but can’t explain to me how and why they got there, it can be frustrating for both of us. The client is standing around waiting for me to catch up to their thought process, and I either have to waste their time figuring out point A and B, or trust that they’ve researched it well enough.

But sometimes, the client has NOT had the guidance they need to give the right message to the right audience. They are making poor choices (and in a few cases I’ve seen, illegal choices) that will not have the results they want. They think they’re at point C, but they’re really on a completely different road altogether.


There’s a great post at Apex Creative about red flags she sees as a graphic designer and what prompts her to walk away from problematic projects, a lot of which I also believe. The core of it is that nobody likes being told they need to turn around, and I hate being put in that position as a designer:

  • Psychologically, I would be debasing my client’s positive feelings that they’ve found the solution into a negative feeling of being ignorant, perhaps (to a more cynical client) for my own profit.
  • If they feel resentful, defensive, or angry towards me, they definitely won’t be hiring me for future projects, which isn’t good business for me.
  • People in other fields might not have practice with integrating critique into their ideas, which might make them take my critiques personally.

In the end, it’s a tug of war, with both sides pulling in opposite directions until one gives up.

When the balance is too designer-focused

Isn’t the idea that a designer can single-handedly solve all your problems flattering? Many graphic designers start out loving the projects where they get “free rein”… only to find they’re not being given enough direction to make it relevant.

While there’s absolutely a place for open, out-of-the-box thinking, some clients withhold crucial information from designers that will make their designs more effective, and the designers will waste a lot of time trying to bring the design where it needs to be.


Why does this happen? There’s a few reasons:

  • They might not have the mental bandwidth to give a designer direction, or the designer might not understand them properly.
  • Sometimes a client is so unfamiliar with the creative process that they put the designer on a pedestal, believing they know things intuitively.
  • Other times, there are huge politics behind the scenes in a company, and (to a more cynical designer) your client might want you to fail to prove a point.

These kind of relationships also end in frustration. The client might never see the solution they need, the designer spins her wheels trying to guess, and the billable hours skyrocket.

But it’s also damaging to the way they view design. When your only experience with the design process is that it’s long and complicated, it becomes a luxury that you only utilize for the most important things, not a need for your everyday communication with your customers.

Keep your design relationships mutually healthy.

The healthiest client/designer relationship is one where a client can trust the designer to know not only their art tools, but the philosophy behind why certain techniques work (again, I’ll link to Chris Oatley’s discussion of technique from the art side).

But also, the designer has to trust that the client is putting the right kind of research and analysis into their business and has a rough idea of the right direction to go. This partnership is the best way to ensure effective, informed design that both parties can be proud of.

Making your dream job a reality, pragmatically

3 Sep

I worked as an in-house graphic designer at various places from September 2004 until March 2012, when I quit my job and went entirely full-time freelance. It’s been a great opportunity to work on my dream jobs: making my comic Sombulus and making board games with my husband Mark. But I’ve come to realize a few things about making your dream jobs your full-time jobs, and how to go about it in a (relatively) stress-free way.

The Day Job is not evil.

Making money off your dream project is not going to happen overnight, and that doesn’t mean you’re a failure or you should stop trying. What it means is you absolutely need some other way of supporting yourself while you improve your craft and grow your audience to that point, or you will be so worried about being able to pay the rent that your creativity will suffer (been there, not fun).

Plumber at work, by Yves B.

Plumber at work, by Yves B.

The good thing is that jobs and fun stuff are not a binary choice: you don’t have to give up on making money on what you love if you get a job doing something completely different. There’s always a way to make it work.

Stability makes growth possible

Once you’re supporting yourself, you have the mental room you need to experiment. Let’s take the example of comics. Try to figure out how to make a quality comic book that you can crowdfund and/or sell at local conventions. If this is your first time making a comic, practice with small stories and other pieces, put them out for people to read, and get good feedback on what your strengths and weaknesses are as a storyteller and an artist. Use that feedback to find education and new tools to improve your work.

Having a day job allowed my artistic skills to grow into something more marketable

Having a day job allowed my artistic skills to grow into something more marketable

The more freedom you have to afford the tools and take the time to improve your craft, two things will happen: the more your audience will grow, and the more your skills will grow.

Bringing money into the equation

Once you have something that people are consistently responding positively to, make your way to a convention or start a Indiegogo/Kickstarter for it. Start your goals small: if you're at a convention, try to make enough money to break even with the cost of the table first. If you're a musician, try to score a regular gig somewhere. Set one small goal at a time, and you'll find yourself moving forward.

Kris Sheppard: graphic designer by day, tableside magician by night!

Kris Sheppard: graphic designer by day, tableside magician by night! Check him out at

Many paths to financial stability

Sombulus has been online since 2010 and Whirling Derby launched a year ago. Both Sombulus volume 1 and our first published game should be coming out next spring, which is exciting and will finally start the ball rolling on those streams of income. But am I ever going to live off of any one of those? Probably not.

And that’s okay! Many of us have been raised to believe that we’ll grow up to only have one occupation, and performing that one task will solve all our financial problems. But in a lot of situations, it's a combination and rotation of many completely different things that pays the bills. Keep making and trying new things to bring in money and see what works for your audience!

Have you been pursuing your goal? What are you working toward, and how is it going? Let me know in the comments!

Read my webcomic:

Why I Became a Graphic Designer

15 Mar

In the fifth grade, I was a slightly pudgy 11 year old living in California. My little-kid suite of skills was not particularly unique or specialized, but I frequently draw on the typing paper my mom brought home from the office.  One day, we went on a field trip to the Sebastian International shampoo facility. They had set up an educational campaign around the country about the environment (Ferngully and Captain Planet were in their prime, so I’m pretty sure they were trying to capitalize on how cool it was to care about the rainforest in the early ’90s).

Sebastian's Little Green Ad

Sebastian’s Little Green Campaign, which inadvertently started my life as a designer

After going through a mock rainforest, my class got plopped down at tables and told to draw our feelings about the environment, and the best one would win a backpack. While I was not able to take the drawing home or get a copy of it (it was the 90’s, we didn’t carry around cameras or anything), I can still remember my concept:

I might be better at drawing now, guys.

Environmental Ad by Christina, 5th grade (recreated 20 years later for posterity)

Being a competitive little girl, I also looked around at everyone else’s drawings.  I got very discouraged.  Everyone was so much better than me!  It wasn’t pretty like my friends’ waterfalls and horses, which were pretty much the Thomas Kinkaides of the class. But they were just pictures, no messages. And at the end of the day, my picture won the backpack, stick figures and all.

It wouldn’t hit me until later, but that was always what I wanted to do with my art. Tell an impactful story and drive home a concept. And what I learned that day is that while beautiful art can get you more attention, the story in the end is what sticks with people.  Make your stories strong.  Let your art be the conduit for your concepts.  And if it’s not the best art in the world?  Don’t worry.  Make sure it tells the strongest story you have in you.  And sooner or later, you will win the backpack.

Need a designer? Check out my portfolio and ping me through @designninjitsu on Twitter or my LinkedIn profile.