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The Ultimate Guide to Creating the Perfect Design Portfolio

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The Ultimate Guide to Creating the Perfect Design Portfolio

Perfect Design Portfolio Trendeavour

In tumultuous times, the idea of career progression can seem not only daunting, but like an impossible dream (or nightmare). In truth though, this is a time that is ripe for self-improvement, and now is the best time to take a breath and consider where you want to go with your future design career and how you’re going to get there. 

And at the core of this strategising is the need to craft a powerful portfolio that will land you the perfect gig once things settle back to (the new) normal. A cutting-edge portfolio is a designer’s biggest asset, and whether you are a designer looking for new career opportunities, a freelancer, or a creative entrepreneur, the key to a knockout first impression is the ability to showcase your skills, highlight your accomplishments and tell your story in a way that stands out from the crowd.

As a head of creative at various fashion companies, I’ve had the opportunity to review a number of portfolios when hiring for fashion design roles. But to get the whole picture, I spoke to top recruiters in the creative space (from fashion, to graphic and UI/UX design, through to architecture) to get their take on the game, debunk some portfolio myths and help you create the perfect design portfolio that will get your foot in the door – and beyond. 

Let’s start with the basics

Before we get to the nitty-gritty, we need to start with the basics. 

Always start with planning. You know the tired cliché: Those that fail to plan, plan to fail. But cliché or not, it’s a statement that carries weight. Approach your portfolio project as you’d approach a project for a client: do your research, conceptualise, and create an action plan. Start by putting yourself in the shoes of your target audience and define what you need the portfolio for. Think of your portfolio as a pitch: create a compelling way to tell your story and demonstrate your skills and style in a way that is easy for potential employers/recruiters to identify your strength.

Just like your CV and cover letter, you need to tailor your portfolio to the role you’re applying for. Make this clear by highlighting your experience in the area that you want to work in, and display visual evidence of it. 

“Some of the best portfolios I have seen are those where the candidate creates something that demonstrates their skills as if they were already working for the company.” – says Julieta Cangas (G&M Fashion Career).

Make sure that the nature of your portfolio fits the role you’re applying for. “If you’re applying for a denim designer position, I would expect you to speak in the language of denim. Demonstrate different washes, enzymes, and swatches.” Sarah Brennand (Fashion Recruitment Consultant) agrees. 

With that said, you should only be applying for projects where you have relevant and specific experience. Design industries maintain a high degree of specificity and you should keep this in mind to avoid ‘diluting’ your portfolio with irrelevant projects. This might seem like obvious advice, but a surprising number of designers struggle with this. Dominic Barclay (Dobson Welch) explains this from the client’s perspective: 

“The general role of a recruiter is to supply a client with the designer they need. What I find is designers, as much as they are all talented in their own way, do not understand the process of using a recruiter most of the time. We are a paid service. The average fee here is £3,500, so of course if you have the sign off to pay me £3,500 to find a designer, you no doubt want a designer that fits the bill 100%.

The 5 Most Important Tips for Creating an Amazing Design Portfolio

Tip 1: Curate Your Portfolio

As a designer, you already know that less is usually more.

It can be tempting to throw everything you’ve ever done onto the page. But in reality the way that a portfolio is arranged subconsciously communicates as much about your nature and the kind of potential employee you are to recruiters and clients as it does about your technical design abilities. 

Moreover, busy Creative/Design Directors, HR Managers and recruiters have neither the time nor the luxury to go through hundreds of projects – if you don’t get their attention right off the bat, you won’t be given a second chance to win it.

Having selected your best work – considering both its suitability for the job you’re applying for and the way that it spins a narrative about your personality and working style – it’s time to organise it properly; filtering and organising your portfolio in a way that is logical and easy to navigate. 

Creating a Design Portfolio Trendeavour

Here’s what the pros have to say: 

Julieta Cangas: G&M Fashion Career

“Normally the first person seeing the portfolio is someone from the HR/Talent Acquisition team. They only take 20 seconds to see if your designs are in line with what they are looking for, that’s why we believe less is more. You don’t need to have 100 pages in your portfolio, but 20 pages that really are in line with the position/brand and are capable of catching the attention of the person reviewing it.”

Shannon Brennan, Founder and Creative Recruiter at Brennan Recruitment

“From my experience, when presenting portfolios to clients I find the best ones are those that are very clear and easy to navigate. It’s my job to go through people’s books thoroughly. A busy Design Director or ECD might not have that luxury. To help them don’t over complicate or pack too much in. Your site is the first and only insight the potential employer has, so make sure it’s an honest and good representation of what skills and style you have.”

Dominic Barclay, Fashion Recruiter at Dobson Welch

“My advice on the portfolio is always to frontload with work that is relevant to the job you are interviewing for. Nobody wants to sit through your design life story, they want to open the portfolio and see something straight away that’s relevant. Conversation can build from there and maybe other work can be shown, but of course that’s down to the way that conversation/interview goes.”

Sarah Brennand (Fashion Recruitment Consultant):

“Clients are looking for 3-4 really tight, well articulated projects (10 pages each, tops). My advice is not to have anything too old in your portfolio. If you’re a senior designer do not include your university projects. Keep it current and punchy. Put relevant work into your portfolio, the ones that demonstrate your expertise in that field, and add a couple of other projects to show what else you can do.”

Lucy Lawson, Founder and Creative Recruiter at Lucy Lawson:

“Don’t put anything outdated in your portfolio, even if it was a big deal back when you did it. Your portfolio is the representation of your best, most up-to-date skills, so get into the habit of updating your projects regularly. Put your strongest and most relevant work at the front, it doesn’t necessarily have to be in chronological order. The content of your portfolio should change for each interview and submission.

Tip 2:  – Big Names don’t Always Score Big Points  

Whilst the prestige of a project is important and it can look good to include the largest brand you have worked with, if it was a team project and your contribution to the project was relatively minor, you may want to replace it with another project that was truly your baby. Something you could talk hours about. Falling in love with a project shows. Let your passion shine.

Shannon Brennan, Founder and Creative Recruiter at Brennan Recruitment:

“I’d only include projects that I would be happy and proud to talk about. It’s more about substance, than how many you have in there. Enthusiasm and passion around a project really comes across when talking about the work you’ve most enjoyed and learnt from. That passion might just get you the gig! Who wants to discuss something they didn’t enjoy making?“

Tip 3: Consider Your Portfolio Format: Pixels Ain’t Necessarily Better Than Paper

Portfolio format is a real bone of contention, with debate raging as to whether online, printed or PDF formats are most suitable. As the divided viewpoints of our experts below show, the ‘best’ option may be based both on the specific industry and, to an extent, the personal preference of the recruiter or client. For instance, UI/UX design tends to favour the use of an online portfolio, whilst in industry sectors such as fashion, an online portfolio should be supplementary to a physical one.

Shannon Brennan, Founder and Creative Recruiter at Brennan Recruitment:

“I personally prefer online sites. Portfolios that are mobile friendly and can be looked at on the move. Sort your site into categories. This can be by medium, client or brand. Again, clear and simple can be very effective.”

Julieta Cangas, G&M Fashion Career:

“There isn’t necessarily a definite answer as to what format your portfolio should be in. My suggestion is: have a website with a general portfolio that you are able to use to apply to more general positions, but when applying for a specific role, prepare a PDF to send. Avoid sending pictures separately; if you want to send a sample, instead of sending ten pictures, select those specific works and prepare a complete personalised portfolio in a PDF format.”

Sarah Brennand (Fashion Recruitment Consultant):

“Always take your printed portfolio and sketchbooks to an interview. Online presence is good, but you need to be able to show that you can sketch, and to demonstrate your taste level, as it’s the best representation of who you are. An interview flows better with a 3D portfolio, as you can easily go back and forth flipping through pages. It’s also hard to present beautiful fabrics in an online portfolio, as they won’t look the same.”

Kate Parkes, Creative Recruiter at Macildowie Outstanding Recruitment:

“I find PDFs outdated and aren’t as easy to share. There’re so many sites like Behance that make it easy to create a portfolio which is easy for sharing. I feel a selection of work for both print and digital is always advisable. As long as your portfolio shows you in your best light and shows what you’re capable of, then I think this is your judgement call.”

However, Ian Whitear (Co-founder of White Space Recruitment) offers a word of caution about portfolio creation and hosting sites: “Recruiters won’t forward work on portfolio hosting sites if it contains any personal contact information [because then the recruiter might be circumvented with the client approaching you directly].” 

Lucy Lawson, Founder and Creative Recruiter at Lucy Lawson:

“Printed portfolios are old school, they are not relevant anymore. Best to have a website that you work into a PDF format as well. Some Creative Directors particularly like PDFs, as they can download them and go through them while they are on the train or the plane. UI/UX designers mainly need to have an online presence.”

Dominic Barclay, Fashion Recruiter at Dobson Welch:

“Personally I think a website portfolio in fashion design is a waste of time unless you are aiming to have your own brand.”

Creating a Design Portfolio Trendeavour

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Tip 4: Let the Work do the Talking 

Creating a great portfolio takes a lot of time and effort, so make sure that you only emphasise the work you do by presenting it in a simple, clear and easy-to-understand manner. Don’t overcomplicate things – otherwise you risk stealing the focus from your work. Avoid coloured backgrounds; allow a white background to work as a blank canvas and emphasise your design skill. Ideally, use thumbnails and easy-to-navigate buttons rather than long scrolling pages.  

Kate Parkes, Creative Recruiter at Macildowie Outstanding Recruitment:

“Think of the overall look of the portfolio – you should try to get your own personal branding to come through where possible. Consider your layout and the fonts you use– just how you would when you do work for a client. You’re a designer at the end of the day, so you need to consider how it all looks to the end user.

Personally, I feel a clean online portfolio with thumbnails is best – clicking through each project thumbnail allows the reader to see a small blurb outlining the brief, concept, and the approach you took – along with any further relevant images.”

Tip 5: Rely on a Recruiter

Put simply, recruiters have established relationships with the brands you’re interested in and they see portfolios every day. 

Ian Whitear, Co-founder of White Space Recruitment (architecture, interior design, and support roles for these) expands on the value of recruiters:

“Recruiters can get candidates through the door, as they already have established relationship with the decision makers and can recommend candidates to them. They put time and effort into meeting clients personally, and this is more important than sending out hundreds of applications directly to companies, many of which may not even get to the decision makers.

“Recruiters can become your mentor during the interview process; they can help you with what to include in your portfolio, what to wear for the interview, and prepare you for it. A tip here: always come with some questions prepared, even if it’s just asking the interviewer about the company culture or themselves. It shows that you’ve done your research and you’re interested.” – Sarah Brennand (Fashion Recruitment Consultant).

Take time and effort in to getting to know recruiters in your specific area. Meet with them in person, and develop an honest relationship with them. During a personal interview you can show them all your work, they can guide you with a direction and can also give you advice on which of your works to include in the portfolio.

 “To be brutally honest, many HR Managers may not know how to review a creative profile – simply because they may not be industry insiders.’ says Kate Parkes, Creative Recruiter at Macildowie Outstanding Recruitment. Working with industry specific recruiters means that not only can you get all important critical feedback on your portfolio, but that the clients who end up seeing your portfolio are the ones who really matter, and who will truly understand what you can do. 

Conclusion

We’ve covered a lot here, so here’s a quick recap. 

Your portfolio is your opportunity to shine, but it has to be done right – with care, consideration and the right amount of creative flair. The basics of creating a winning portfolio pretty much follow the same principles throughout the majority of creative industries:

  1. Know your audience and keep them in mind when selecting projects to display in your portfolio
  2. Keep your portfolio organised: neat, clear and easy to understand/navigate through
  3. Quality over quantity, put your passion projects in the portfolio
  4. Start with a reverse chronological order, and keep it contemporary
  5. Choose a format that is best suited for your industry needs, but have a PDF of samples that you can quickly send over to recruiters.

And a little added bonus tip: Check your spelling! Devil is in the details.

However, it’s important to remember that these are all general rules for good portfolio development. A key message that emerged from interviewing design professionals across a range of industries is that some sectors have specific conventions or expectations that you need to pay attention to. 

But worry not, we’re taking the knowledge they’ve given us and covering the key considerations for fashion, graphics, UX/UI and interior/architectural professionals you can download our guide: Portfolio Developments: The Next Steps

Special thanks to all the recruiters who took the time to answer my questions:

Julieta Cangas (G&M Fashion Career): G&M Fashion Career is a boutique recruitment agency dedicated to positions in fashion, luxury and retail. We work with fashion companies such as Inditex and LVMH, for all types of positions, from product to retail.

Kate Parkes (Macildowie Outstanding Recruitment): Kate is a tech and creative recruiter; predominantly focused on graphic, video and UXUI professionals. She’s recruited these types of roles agency and client side in the UK, Middle East and US for the last 8 years.

Shannon Brennan (Brennan Recruitment): Brennan Recruitment is a talent sourcing service based in London, working across Europe. Specialising in freelance and permanent positions with a focus on creative and creative services, working across all levels, from graduate to executive roles. Founded by Shannon Brennan who has over 18 years experience in the creative industries, Brennan Recruitment finds the very best talent, raw or experienced and matches them to each businesses’ needs and culture. We work with some of the best businesses in media and marketing at a bespoke and personal level. We pride ourselves on holding a trusted and valued relationship with both clients and candidates.

Lucy Lawson (Lucy Lawson Recruitment): A specialist branding & packaging design recruitment consultant with 20 years’ combined design and recruitment experience, specialising in both freelance and permanent roles.

Ian Whitear (White Space Recruitment): White Space is a connected, results focused and creative recruitment consultancy that cares. With decades of specialist architecture + design recruitment experience between us we are fully plugged-in to our markets. We know who to talk to and how to get there. We recruit for some of the biggest names in architecture and a lot more besides. Whether your dream is to work for a big name practice or a small up and coming outfit (or anything in between), or if you are a client needing to gain access to untapped talent, then we can help you achieve it.

Dominic Barclay (Dobson Welch): We are experts in the Commercial Sector dealing with recruitment for a wide variety of positions from senior executives to admin staff for clients across a range of industries. Dominic is responsible for fashion recruitment.

Sarah Brennand (Fashion Recruitment Consultant): Sarah is a creative recruiter specialising in fashion. She worked for the likes of Calvin Klein, Abercrombie and Levi’s in New York, and after returning to the U.K. she’s been recruiting for graphic, technical and specialised fashion roles across women’s, men’s, childrenswear, and accessories.

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