Graphic Design Portfolios for Desktop Publishing

Why Use Portfolios and What Goes In Them

Desktop publishing or graphic design portfolios should be more than just a few samples thrown into a folder. Potential employers or clients use examples of your work to help determine whether they want to hire you. The samples you choose to display and how you present them can affect whether or not you get the job.

Use Graphic Design Portfolios to Strut Your Stuff

Who needs graphic design portfolios?

If you aren't taking on new clients or if you're so well-known that your name alone can land an assignment, then maybe you can forget about formal graphic design portfolios. However, few of us fall into those categories.

Most graphic designers and others doing some type of freelance desktop publishing need graphic design portfolios of some kind — a way to show potential employers or clients the quality of our work, our level of expertise, and to establish credibility.

Job seekers will probably need both résumés and portfolios. Skills in specific software programs and experience in print design and digital file production go into the résumé. Clients of freelancers are generally less concerned about the specific software you use but they are interested in the final product that you can produce.

Graphic design portfolios are graphical résumés. They show real examples of the type of work you have done in the past.

It is an indication of the type of work you can do in the future.

The first step in building a portfolio is deciding what will go in it.

Next Page > What goes in graphic design portfolios


Doing Desktop Publishing & Graphic Design
Training, Education, Jobs:Careers in Desktop Publishing
In the Classroom:Back to School With Desktop Publishing
Jobs:How to Find an Entry-Level Design Job or Internship
Business:How to Start a Freelance Desktop Publishing or Graphic Design Business
Pick Your Path to Desktop Publishing
Get Started:Basic Guidelines and Requirements for Desktop Publishing
Choose Software:Desktop Publishing and Design Software
Tips & Tutorials:How to Do Desktop Publishing
Make Something:Things to Make for the Holidays
Use Templates:Templates for Print and Web Publishing

You already know that portfolios should contain examples of your work, but which samples and in what format?

Put Your Best Foot Forward in a Graphic Design Portfolio

In general, you want to show that work which best shows off your skills and expertise. If you aren't comfortable with a piece (even if the client loved it) you're probably better off leaving it out of your graphic design portfolio.
  1. Actual samples
    Whenever possible, use actual samples. That is, if you did a four-color brochure for a client, put one of the original brochures in your graphic design portfolio rather than an inkjet copy. Anytime you do a job for a client, request extra copies in the print run. Some clients might be willing to part with a few gratis but normally you'd pay for extras yourself. It may be wise to stipulate in your contract how many portfolio or sample pieces you'll receive. Use these in your graphic design portfolio and as non-returnable samples sent to potential clients.
    "When I work, I stipulate that I am permitted to use their project for portfolio use, then I ask for a few copies of the finished product to add to my collection." — SueBee


    • Tear sheets
      If your work involves items that appear in some other larger publication (such as ads in newspapers or yellow pages or illustrations used in a magazine) get your hands on multiple copies of the original publication. Tear out the page where your work appears.


    • Copies
      If you can't get originals then use proofs printed from your digital files to your desktop printer. Or, make the best photocopies you can of the original printed pieces.


    • Photographs
      If your work involves designs that are too large or odd-shaped to fit in traditional graphic design portfolios (large boxes, billboards), get the best photographs you can of the finished pieces. You might also want to accompany these photographs with smaller printouts of the digital files you worked from.


    • Screen shots
      If your work involves Web design or other non-print designs you can still put together printed portfolios. Make screen shots of the work or print Web pages from your Web browser. Since screen resolution may not always print crisp and clear you may want to include high-resolution printouts of special logos or other graphics you created for screen display.
      TIP: Even if the logo or graphics you design are for Web display, start out with a high-resolution version and save it at various stages. You never know when a client will decide they want to use the design in print. And of course, that high-resolution version will look nicer in your printed graphic design portfolio.

    If you have a large body of work to choose from, your toughest decision is deciding which pieces to include and which to omit. However, when just starting out you may have little — or nothing — to put in your portfolio. Beginner's design portfolios may require a bit more creativity but it can be done. Designers who want to change their focus or who want to fill in gaps in their portfolos can also use the beginner's portfolio tips.

    Next Page > What goes in beginner's graphic design portfolios

    You need samples to get the job but you need the job in order to have samples. That old Catch-22 doesn't have to stop you from putting together a good graphic design portfolio. It just requires a bit more creativity.

    These tips aren't only for those just starting out. For example, if you've done mostly business cards and letterhead but want to let clients know that you can do more, use these ideas to show off your skill in designing other types of publications.

    Use Made-Up Samples in Graphic Design Portfolios

    Generally potential clients aren't as concerned with who your clients are as they are with what you can do for them. In a pinch, a made-up piece can be just as effective as something you created for a real client.
    "When I first started my portfolio was real wimpy looking but it grew over time." — JDELCOR


    • Use Freebies for Friends and Family
      Show off work you did for others, even if they didn't hire you. Do you design the newsletter for your school or print fliers for your garden club? Use the best of those pieces. Design business cards for family and friends. I've done business cards (laser printed) for my dad's hobby, another relative's office job (they didn't supply any), and others who probably wouldn't have bothered to get cards if I hadn't offered to do a few for free.

      At one point my graphic design portfolio contained samples I created for my father's business. He gets his clients by word-of-mouth entirely and doesn't use business cards, letterhead, ads, etc. However, I still sat down and went through the process of coming up with some logo ideas. He was willing to look at the designs and pick out a few that he might consider if he were going to use a logo. Those samples went into my portfolio.


    • Put in Your Own Identity Pieces
      The identity pieces you create for your own business can be a part of your graphic design portfolio. You can even include items that a client might not normally see such as your own custom quote forms (for printers) or job tracking forms.


    • Put in Personal Design Projects
      Do you make your own holiday or birthday cards? Include the best of them in your portfolio. Do you have a personal Web page? Include screen shots or high-resolution print outs of any custom graphics you created for your Web site.


    • Use Tutorial Pieces
      You should know how to use your software before you start hiring out your services. One way to learn the software is to use it to create the same types of items you'll be doing for clients — brochures, newsletters, ads, etc. Use the finished pieces from your own tutorials for your graphic design portfolio.


    • Use Rejects (Carefully)
      Normally you'd use only the finished designs you created for a client. However, if you have only a few clients you might consider including the best of the preliminary designs you created in order to better show your range.

      As you produce new pieces for clients (paying or not) replace the less impressive items in your portfolio with the new samples. Graphic design portfolios aren't static creations. They should grow and change as your expertise grows.

      "Only put the work that you are the most proud of in. DO NOT put average work in your portfolio simply because it's a printed piece. Many young designers make this mistake. It would also help for you to put together a Xeroxed booklet of your sketches. With a young designer, it's sometimes difficult to tell whether their work is more a reflection of the professor, art director or client. Showing your sketches will give a hint of your thought process." ChrisGee; On the Graphic Design Forum

      After you've decided what will go in your graphic design portfolio (and created those pieces if you're just starting out) you'll need to decide how best to present those samples. As our Graphic Design Portfolios lessons continue we'll explore portfolio cases and how to assemble your samples as well as how to present your work to potential employers and clients.

      Next Page > What kind of graphic design portfolio case you need

      After you've decided what will go in your graphic design portfolio (and created those pieces if you're just starting out) you'll need to decide how best to present those samples. Portfolio cases can be plain or fancy.

      Let Your Samples Dictate Your Graphic Design Portfolio Case Size

      The style and size of your graphic design portfolio case should be dictated by the type of pieces you have to display rather than the other way around. A letter size case is easy to carry and showcases smaller works such as business cards, postcards, greeting cards, and simple lettersize fliers nicely. However, you may find that larger sizes allow more flexibility in presenting even these small items, allowing you to display several matching pieces on one page. And if your design samples are large, choose a graphic design portfolio case that lets you present the full sample without folding, if feasible.

      Also, keep in mind the type of clients you seek as well as where and how you'll present your graphic design portfolio. Too-large portfolio cases can overwhelm some smaller clients and can also be awkward to carry or present when you meet clients at a coffeshop or in a small, cramped office.

      "Spend time on the mounting of your work, the big portfolios are really out. Try something about 11" x 14". No Art Director or Creative Director wants you to take over his or her whole desk, besides, if it's smaller, your viewing is much more intimate and personal." Steve Fleshman, Founder/Creative Partner DR2

      Many of those new to desktop publishing start with nothing more than a three-ring notebook and sheet protectors to hold their samples. This is perfectly acceptable although I would recommend avoiding cheap plastic binders. Also, use quality sheet protectors. Some of the cheap ones show scratches or tear easily.

      You may not need a physical graphic design portfolio case at all. Web designers or those who cater primarily to long-distance clients can present their graphic design portfolios electronically. The PDF format or online Web portfolios are options on their own or in combination with traditional print graphic design portfolios.

      Browse these online stores to see some of the many styles of portfolio cases available: Dick Blick Art Materials | Keysan Art Cases | Animagic Cases. Artist's supply and office supply stores often have a range of portfolio cases from which to choose.

      The way in which you place samples in your graphic design portfolio is just as important as the case and its contents.

      Next Page > How to organize samples in graphic design portfolios

      Once you have your samples and your portfolio case, the next step is deciding how to best present those pieces within your graphic design portfolio.

      Arranging the Order of Graphic Design Portfolio Pages

      Deciding what order to present items in your graphic design portfolio can be a challenge.
      1. Best First, Last
        One rule of thumb suggests placing your very best items first and last. Unless you are walking them through pages one at time, a typical reading pattern is to glance at the first few samples, then thumb through to the back. The best first, last method ensures clients or employers see you in the best possible light.


      1. Group by Type of Publication
        One organizational method is to group like items — all business cards, all brochures, all logo designs. Or, if you do multiple pieces for a client then group everything for each client/project together.


      2. Group by Skill / Technique
        You may choose to group samples by the type of skills required such as placing all four-color work in one area. Grouping by style is another possiblity — grouping conservative pieces and technical examples in their own sections of the portfolio.
        "The format depends on a combination of your personality and that which you want to accomplish. You must organize your portfolio so that it clearly shows your strongest skills as they apply to the new position." Brian Mairs, former Guide to Job Searching - Canada

      If you fasten samples to the graphic design portfolio page — a good idea if the pages tend to slip around or fall out — include a few loose copies of each piece as well.

      Potential clients or employers may wish to handle items, especially folding pieces, items with die cuts, or pieces with unusual papers. If interviewing with two or more people in the same meeting, the extra pieces allow the others in the interview to view your work while one is flipping through your graphic design portfolio.

      If you know in advance what type of work the employer or client is most interested in, tailor your graphic design portfolio to their needs. You can rearrange the groupings or order of items or exchange one type of sample for another. Graphic design portfolios are not stagnant. Change them as the situation warrants.

      "If the client wants you to design a new identity package, don't show them things that don't pertain to identity. If you can do it, find similar 'success' stories about your work that relate to what they're trying to do." Steve Fleshman, Founder/Creative Partner DR2

      "For some clients I think they can relate better looking at materials that represent the same kind of service or product. It shows that I as a designer could make a bunch of similar businesses look different or unique." — JDELCOR

      If your graphic design portfolio has a large number of pages or sections, using tabbed dividers is one way to help you or the client quickly locate the specific samples that interest them most.

      Some of these same guidelines would also apply to Web portfolios. The Web offers further flexibility by making it much easier to present your portfolio in a variety of different methods including animated (good for showing off 3D work too), slide shows, downloadable PDF files, and single pages linked from many different categories.

      The format for your actual Web portfolio images is normally GIF or JPG or PDF.

      "The best thing to do is to scan your finished works to put up on your site. While you can place PDFs online, and that's probably not a bad idea, it' easiest if people can view your work with no barriers. Judy Litt, Guide to Graphic Design

      Your Assignment
      Even if you have very little to use, create the beginnings of a graphic design portfolio. Get a folder and start filling it with samples of any existing work you have done. Make up a few pieces if needed. Take what you have and try grouping it in different ways as previously described. Look at what you have and think about the size of portfolio case you will need (even if you don't plan to purchase one yet).

      Once your graphic design portfolio is ready, you're now ready to put it to good use.

      Next Article > Using graphic design portfolios

      This article is part of our free Start a Desktop Publishing Business Email Course. Learn more about the course and sign up now.