Creating a Graphic Design PDF Portfolio

The Versatile PDF: Use it Digitally or Print It

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While you can post several separate PDFs on your website or blog as part of a portfolio, creating a single PDF that showcases some of your best work is also an effective marketing strategy if you are a graphic designer. 

Most (if not all) graphic software programs can export a design as a high-quality, high-resolution PDF, allowing you to create a custom brochure-style piece showcasing your best work, which can be emailed to prospective clients or employers.

Selecting Work

As with any portfolio, the most important decision is what to include. Consider these tips:

  • Focus on the types of projects you want to do. If you have a specific focus, such as book design, select your best work in that area. If you are early in your career and don’t have a focus (or don’t want one), choose a wide variety of pieces.
  • Choose your best work. This seems obvious, but remember that the goal here is not to show everything you have ever done. Stick with a “less is more” philosophy, choosing a small selection of your favorite work. Each piece should serve a purpose, showcasing a particular style, technique or industry.
  • Stay up to date. Design trends and technology change quickly, so don't allow your portfolio to look dated. Show that you know the newest techniques.
  • Include personal projects. Personal projects show that you have a passion for design, so don't think you have to include only paid, client projects. Further, if you are just starting out, you may have only design school projects to showcase. The work itself, and not necessarily a client or publication name, can impress just as well.
  • Show the process. Consider showing the creative stages you went through when designing a logo or website, or anything else. This can illustrate your depth of understanding and capabilities of techniques and concepts in the field.
  • Include just the right number of pieces. A good rule of thumb is to include no less than 10 and no more than 20. Ten different pieces are enough to show your abilities, and more than 20 can begin to feel scattered and overwhelming.

    Organizing the Portfolio

    For each piece of work you have chosen, consider adding client name and industry, a project description, your role in the project (such as designer or art director), where the work appeared — and, of course, any awards, publications or recognition related to the project.

    Along with the project details, you could include some background about yourself and your business, such as a cover letter, bio, mission statement or other background information, client or industry list, and the services you offer.  Don't forget contact information!

    Consider hiring or teaming up with a professional writer to help prepare your content, as it will be the voice of your portfolio. If you need your pieces photographed, also consider a professional. Once you have prepared the content, it is time to move on to the design phase.

    The Design

    Treat the design like you would any project for a client. Come up with several designs and tweak them until you are happy with the result. Create a consistent layout and style throughout. Using the grid system may be helpful here. Remember that the design of the PDF itself is just as much a showcase of your talent as the work within it.

    Adobe InDesign and QuarkXPress are great options for creating a multi-page layout, and Illustrator would work well for graphic and text-heavy freeform layouts.

    Think of the flow of content: start with a quick overview, and then go into project examples with all of the content you came up with earlier. 

    Creating the PDF

    Once your design is complete, export it to PDF. Be sure to save the original file so you can add and edit projects later. One thing to think about here is file size, as you will be emailing this often. Play around with the compression options in your software until you reach a happy medium between quality and file size. You can also use Adobe Acrobat Professional to piece together several pages of design and to reduce the size of the final PDF.

    Using the PDF

    You can email the PDF directly to prospective clients, avoiding the need to send them off to a website. You can also print the PDF and bring it to interviews, or display it on a tablet.

    Be sure to update it regularly with your newest, greatest work.