If you want a job, you need a portfolio.  Sure a good-looking résumé with excellent credentials and references will seal the deal, but employers and clients want proof.  How do I know?  Well, I’ve been on both sides of the table.  I have interviewed for plenty of jobs over the years (some staff others freelance).  I’ve also been in charge of hiring for an agency and now my own company.

No one is going to hire a creative professional solely on word of mouth or good grades in school (but both of those things help).  If you are applying for job in the creative industry, you’re going to need a portfolio.

The Essential Portfolio

A good portfolio is a personal statement about a designer, photographer or artist.  As such, there are no one-size fits all approach that will work for each individual.  The best advice is to look at sample of other people’s portfolios.  Many schools (especially art schools) will have student shows where graduating students show off their work.  Other colleges may have a job fair.  If you are in school, then starting attending these events as soon as possible.  For those who’ve already graduated, there is a wealth of online portfolios you can find on the Internet.  The key step here is to start looking well before you need a portfolio so you can create one you like.

© AS Photo Project

What is a Portfolio?

A portfolio is a collection of your work samples that can be shown to prospective employers or clients.  It should represent the diversity of the person behind it, but not try to show everything.  Most folks need their portfolio in at least two mediums.  For example a photographer might have a traditional flat book with glossy prints, but they may also want a website for an online presence.  Be sure to consider all the scenarios in which you’ll need to present your work to those who want to hire you.

  • A good portfolio is a personal statement about a photographer or artist.
  • There are no one-size fits all approach that will work for each individual.
  • The best advice is to look at other people’s portfolios.
  • There is a wealth of online portfolios you can find on the Internet.
  • The key is to start looking well before you need a portfolio so you can create one you like.


© Ihar Ulashchyk

What Goes in a Portfolio?

You want to show your diversity with your portfolio.  Even if you only work on certain types of projects at your current job, be sure you have variety.  For example, you might work for a manufacturing company, but don’t only fill it with work samples from your current job.  Students in particular are guilty of putting too much of their personal interests into a portfolio (most employers do not care about super heroes, street racing, or animé… sorry to disappoint).

What you want are several samples of work, ideally done for real-world clients.  You may think that’s impossible for a student to land ‘real’ clients, but it is not.  Often charities, religious groups, or local nonprofit organizations could use materials designed for them.  You could offer to do the design work for free, in exchange for 25 copies of the completed piece (always get extra) and a letter of recommendation for your portfolio.  The other place to turn is internships (or even externships).  Be willing to work for little (or no money) to get some real-world experience.  This will significantly increase the perceived value of your portfolio.

What Stays Out of a Portfolio?

There is such a thing as “too much.”  While you want diversity, you don’t want your portfolio to be thicker than the latest phone book.  It is important to screen out the less then stellar examples from your portfolio.  This can be accomplished through peer review or professional insight.  Ask a friend or colleague to look at your work samples.  Ask them to pick their favorites and least favorites.  Repeat this with a few people and the poor sample is quickly identified.

It’s also a bad idea to fill a portfolio with spec projects.  Unless you happen to work for a particular agency, no one wants to see your ‘spec’ Apple ad.  Fake projects scream a lack of experience.  It is far better to have projects where you played a significant role in the execution (including idea, writing, photography, layout, etc.)  Simply imitating others will not get you a job.

How Do I Present My Portfolio?

This is mostly up to you, but certain job markets or industries may have traditions that you should respect.  There are several ways to present a portfolio including:

  • Traditional Flat Book with work samples mounted on pages
  • Website with work samples and contact information.  This method is ideal for those who create in multiple mediums.  Be sure to check out Adobe Portfolio which is included for free with your Creative Cloud plan.
  • Coffee Table Books which can be created and printed using many online sites.
  • Speaker Presentations using tools like PowerPoint or Keynote.  A slide show is a very valid way to personally present your work.
  • E-book or electronic book, which allows you to create a flat book, but save it as a PDF, which is great for email delivery.

You may choose to create several of these, and we’ll explore helpful Photoshop techniques for getting the job done.

How Often Should I Update My Portfolio?

Unfortunately, you’re never done.  No job is 100% secure.  You always need to be ready for that next interview.  With that said, its not a good idea to work on your portfolio at work.  Be sure to update your portfolio a minimum of every 6 months.  Certain mediums (like a slideshow) are even easier to update and you should be ready.

Always save copies of your latest work and try to get printed or manufactured copies as well.  Professionals need to actively collect work samples as well. If you are working on a job, be sure to look at your employee handbook about work samples.  Some jobs require you to get permission before keeping work samples.  Additionally, be sure to credit the company that you did the work for when building a portfolio.

Remember, if you want to be gainfully employed… you have to be ready to do the work.