Choosing Work For Your Design Portfolio

One of the most difficult things you will ever do as a Graphic Designer in any field, is choose the work that you want to feature in your portfolio. There are many different schools of thought on this subject and how to best approach it, and there is quite a bit do consider. The most common questions among graphic designers when developing their portfolios are:

  • How should I select what work I will feature?
  • How many pieces should I show?
  • What do I do if I don’t have a lot of client work?

How To Select Your Portfolio Work

It goes without saying that you should show your best work, but you also should only showcase the type of work you intend to do or that fits the context of the position you are applying for.

Let’s say for example that you are applying for a position as a Print Production Artist. It doesn’t necessarily make sense for you to include 10 pieces of your photography work in your portfolio.  What would make sense however to showcase this skill if that was your intent would be if you have produced a photo book, where you were responsible for the cover design, typography and layout  and  all of the photos featured are your own original work.

Select the work you think is necessary to get the job and focus on pieces that compliment the appropriate skills and responsibilities of that job position. Also try to avoid putting in work you thin is good, but that you are not necessarily interested in doing in the future. If you cannot foresee wanting to work on this type of project once a week, don’t include it.

How Many Pieces Should I Show In My Portfolio?

The typical answer to this is to show 10-12 pieces. This advice is given by Professors and Art Directors based on the fact that they themselves don’t want to spend a lot of time looking at portfolios and would rather be doing something else, or believe they don’t need to see more than that to take someone’s measure etc.

I’m going to give advices from the position of a salesmen, since you are selling the idea of yourself in this case. If you are selling cars on commission, how many cars do you show someone who walks on the lot? The correct answer is, as many as it takes to close the deal!

Now clearly don’t go overboard with this, but don’t restrict yourself to an arbitrary number for the sake of brevity. I will give you a primary example. If you are a logo designer and brand developer then I would say that you should present 26 pieces. That seems like a bit too much doesn’t it? Here is how you would do it effectively:

26 is not a random number, you will be presenting a logo for each letter of the alphabet. It won’t take the person looking over this long to realize what you are doing, they will likely look at every piece in your portfolio now if for no other reason than curiosity because you have cleverly directed them on a path they are used to completing, A to Z. They also now have a predetermined expectation, tension and anticipation regarding what comes next.

What If I Don’t Have That Much Client Work For My Portfolio?

In the event you don’t have a lot of client work for your portfolio then you can create some self initiated projects to compensate. This is typically a good idea regardless as it shows what you will do under your own Art Direction and left to your own devices and gives an overall impression of your design sense and judgement. These are all very important factors when taking your measure as a designer, and you will be able to talk about these projects more passionately and confidently than work you’ve done for money or a letter grade.

I usually advice people to limit the amount of student work in their portfolio. The reason is that student work is built on completely unrealistic parameters compared to real projects. The amount of time and specific guidance given and the open ended nature of them is not reflective of assignments in the real world, and is one of the things new designers often struggle with on the job. Student work also has the purpose of demonstrating technique and ability rather than communicating a call to action to an audience or delivering a message. Its goal is different than a piece that would be done for a business and this is bound to come across in the design itself. Art Directors can see student work a mile away because it speaks to a professor rather than a buying audience.

More Portfolio Advice

I cover a lot on the subject of Graphic Design on my Youtube Channel and in this video below I specifically talk more about how to decide on what goes in your portfolio!