What should go in your design portfolio

What should go in your design portfolio

Chris Wolfgang's Layout avatar

Whether you’re in college, a few years removed from it, or revamping your online presence after decades of work, you know you don’t put everything you’ve ever done into your design portfolio.

Your online portfolio is your highlight reel. “So I only want the best of the best in there, right?”

Whoa. Not only. You want your portfolio to generate conversation about your work, your process, your philosophy. You need to display a variety of work to make that conversation deep and meaningful. Also, what defines “the best?” Let’s think about these things.

The best

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Photo courtesy of NASA

For the purposes of your portfolio, “the best” is the design work you’re personally most proud of. It’s the one that encompasses just about everything you want in a project. You hit the goal, you nailed the message, the composition, the layout, the ingenuity… it’s all there, and it’s you, and it shines.

I’m not talking about perfection here — you know no project is perfect. Your best design work is the one you look at with a slow, smiling nod. You may only have one of these. But it needs to be in your portfolio because you’re excited when you talk about this thing.

The client loved it

You’re a professional. And a successful pro can deliver a finished project that the client is over the moon about. Maybe it’s the project you were able to evolve for your client, taking them from an okay concept to something expressive and unique.

Or maybe it’s the one where you delivered exactly what the client wanted, but it’s not your favorite thing ever. Did this lead to more work for you? Does it represent a moment where you truly got inside the mind of a client? Those projects are valuable conversation starters to have in your portfolio.

The award winner

Ever won a design award? Cool. You should definitely include that project in your portfolio. Awards demonstrate that you’re confident enough in your work to subject it to serious critique. And you came out on top. Booyah.

Won several awards? Don’t include all of them. Your portfolio should be a reflection of work that you are proud of, that you have commentary on, that you have opinions about. Awards represent someone else’s opinion about your work. Select one or two awarded projects that you’re particularly proud of or were particularly prestigious.

The famous one

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Photo courtesy of Eric May

Did you produce work for a high-profile client? Were you part of a large, super visible campaign? Get that project in your portfolio, even if your contribution was small. Sure, be transparent about what you actually contributed to the project, but name recognition goes a long way in enhancing professional credibility.

Associating yourself with a well-known project demonstrates your ability to work with demanding clients and collaborate with cream-of-the-crop professionals. Even if this isn’t the type of work you normally target, it’s only to your advantage to show you’re comfortable at the very top.

The pro bono

One of the fastest ways to fail in the design industry is to work for free, BUT. Design is a passionate field. Have you designed something for no other return than your sheer love of a cause? A movie poster for a friend’s bootstrapped documentary? A logo for a local animal shelter? Including pro bono projects in your portfolio demonstrates that design is more than work to you. It’s a way of expressing passion about concepts that are important to you.

The activism

Wait, isn’t this like pro bono? There’s a lot of overlap potential, I grant you. However, here I’m talking specifically about your design work for the betterment of humanity. Brand an awareness rally? Redesign a voter registration form? Create a PSA campaign?

Projects that illustrate activism send a powerful message as part of your portfolio. You see design as a way to effect change, and you’re taking your skills by the horns and making shit happen.

The risk

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Photo courtesy of Todd Shaffer

If you’re not trying new things with your design, you’re not going to grow as a professional. So you’ve probably got one or two projects that went out on a limb in some way or other. You may not even be entirely sure how you feel about the result, but whatever, you tried something.

Consider including at least one of your… less obviously failed risks in your online portfolio, one that you can back up with an intelligent explanation of process. Let it be known you’re unafraid to think outside the box. If a client needs you to be truly innovative, well, clearly you’re up for the challenge.

If you’re able to flesh out your online portfolio with a representation of each of these projects, congrats! You’re on your way to a well-rounded portfolio that demonstrates how well-rounded you are as a professional designer.

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