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What Makes a Great Portfolio

Alongside our Talent Fest 2020: Portfolio Clinic where designers can get 1-2-1 portfolio feedback and tips from top agencies, we asked a panel of design experts what they look for when viewing a portfolio. Warning: this blog post is jam-packed with great advice!

A huge thank you to Charlotte Young, Ric Gray, Sara Brunettini, Drew Hughes, Buff Motion, MAG Interactive, Studio Evoke and Wolfcub Digital for taking the time to share their expertise.
 

What are the key things that employers are looking for when viewing a portfolio?

Employers are looking for a breadth of skills and people that are adaptable. Below are the common themes that were repeated by almost all the experts we asked:

- Great visuals beautifully executed 
- Imagination and great ideas
- A clear vision and thoughtful layout
- The ability to tell a story and take the viewer on a journey
- Intelligence and evidence of problem-solving
- Consistency and attention to detail
 

I'm looking for the ability to describe projects efficiently and effectively, with impactful imagery and a well balanced and thoughtful visual layout.
- Charlotte Young


Depending on the requirements of the role, an employer will be looking for a demonstration of different critical skills in the work presented. For example, a web design company will want to see evidence of user experience thinking and consideration of accessibility. Animation studios will be looking for appreciation of timing, editing skills and audio choice, while games studios might be looking for character illustrations, 3D work or examples of user interface work.
 

I'm looking for a breadth of skills. I'm looking for people that are adaptable.
- David Amor, MAG Interactive


A potential employer wants to be satisfied that you can do the work on offer, which your portfolio should be able to confirm quickly, and more importantly they want to feel confident that you will be a great person to work alongside.
 

What's the best format for a portfolio?

Most of our experts advised keeping the form of your portfolio as simple as possible. Having your portfolio on a website means that it is searchable, accessible by anyone and easy to maintain. If you don't have coding experience, you can use a platform that requires no coding such as WordPress, Webflow or Adobe Portfolio.

It is also a good idea to produce a simple PDF with a selection of work examples too. The PDF format also works well as a way of creating tailored versions of your portfolio to send to individual companies. It's quicker and easier than editing your website and shows companies how thoughtful you have been to your application.

For animators, a showreel is the best format as it's the most concise way to communicate your skills. Alongside a showreel, provide links to a handful of quality projects that can be watched in full.

If you are a game designer, you might need to provide graphic files directly. Some employers will need to know which tools you've used, whether that's Photoshop, Illustrator, 3ds Max, Maya, Blender or a game building tool like Unity.
 

How should you present and order your work?

Present your work in a clear and well-sequenced order. Keep your layout simple and be selective with colours and fonts to make it easy to read. Try and avoid clutter or using too many graphic elements or gimmicks that drag the attention away from your actual work.

All our experts agreed that you should lead with your best work that you are most proud of, before rolling out other examples that show your breadth and flexibility.

Dedicate a few pages to each project, showing ideas, development and finals. There are lots of candidates who can technically achieve polished work, but the one thing that still separates the real talent from the rest is thinking.

Feel free to show what you felt was the best version of a design, even if it wasn't the one that was chosen by the client.
 

Don't try to copy anyone else or imitate someone you're not. There's so much value in being yourself and that's what people want to see – they're shopping for the next (trusted) member of their team – and that's how you want to be seen.
- Tom Leach, Studio Evoke


It's a good idea to end your portfolio on a final piece of work that you love and that you want to leave imprinted on the viewer's minds, as often this page or screen is left open as the interview progresses.

Many of our experts advised that context can really help when displaying your work. Where possible, it's an excellent idea to show images of a design in its intended environment (a piece of packaging design sitting on a table, a logo on a business card or an app running on a phone) as this gives viewers a better idea of the end product. If you're designing for the web, presenting your design in a browser window might help frame it as such.
 

If you've created a logo, mock it onto a business card or a tote bag. It's useful for the viewer to see how you intend that design to be used, even if it isn't real.
- Charlotte Young


If you have a printed product that you can bring along to an interview, it makes sense to show it, but if something belongs on screen, it's best to show it on screen.

Think about each job role you are applying for and match your portfolio based on the skills they are looking for - do your research into a company and ensure the first thing they see will be relevant because, if not, they could lose interest quickly.

Be clear about what you want people to be hiring you for: it's okay to have more than one skill, but the more niche you can be, the easier it is for people to see what you're good at and book you for it.

If you don't have much industry experience, try to work on a personal side project or freelancing on the side so that you can include this work in your portfolio.

When trying to demonstrate a software skill, try and avoid putting tutorial exercises in your portfolio as these will stand out like a sore thumb. It's okay to use non-client work in your selection but don't just do a tutorial without making it your own - use the skills you've learned in a tutorial to feed into a personal project.
 

How many examples of work should you show?

Most of our experts agreed that less is more and that you need to be selective! On a website, you can put as many work examples as you think necessary but the consensus, when work presented in a portfolio, was that somewhere between 3 to 8 projects were enough.
 

3 to 5 good quality examples are better than ten mediocre ones.
- John Griffin, Wolfcub Digital


Don't feel the need to shove absolutely everything you've worked on into your portfolio. Show only the work you're incredibly proud of, and that best describes who you are.

The quantity of work that employers expect to see also depends on the experience level of the role they are hiring. Junior to Mid-level designers might have 4-8 shorter projects to share. A Senior or Director level designer might show fewer projects but with more depth and scale to each one. But, at all stages of your career, you should take time to curate a portfolio and be brutal with what to include; think to yourself - will this work impress, and is it relevant?

Remember, hiring managers look through A LOT of portfolios and may dismiss them if they don't quickly make an impression.
 

We'd rather see a shorter reel of fewer projects that are all high quality, than one padded out with work that undersells someone's capabilities.
- Chloe Flexman, Buff Motion

 

What’s the right balance between visual content and written explanation?

When an employer might have hundreds of applicants to look through, you need to visually grab whoever is flicking through the portfolios and not rely on words, so lead with visual content and keep words and text to a minimum.

Where you do include a written explanation, be succinct. A description could consist of a title and a brief outline of the goals of the project. If it's useful, you could add an explanation of how the project was received and what impact it had in terms of benefiting the client.

When presenting a portfolio in an interview, there is even less need for text. If someone is interested in hiring you and has more questions, you can offer more explanation in person prompted by the visuals.
 

What's the right balance of finished visuals versus snapshots of the design process?

Lots of companies we spoke to said they like to see the design process and thinking behind your work. The "behind the scenes" story on really complex projects can be even more impressive than the finished piece.

Prioritise the finished visuals but include some development showing how your idea progressed. You can use early sketches, snapshots, notes or any other material that will help tell the design journey of how you got from start to finish. It all comes down to what adds value to your project. Any snapshots/processes need to contribute some kind of useful insight.
 

Work-in-progress is useful in displaying your creative development, though be mindful not to overwhelm the reader with information.
- Ric Gray

 

What should you consider when presenting your portfolio at an interview?

When heading to an interview in person, take your work to present directly, even if you have sent the same content in advance. Take your iPad or laptop to show your work on and where appropriate, take some final print examples.

Before presenting your work, run through it a couple of times to familiarise yourself with what's coming and remember the key points you want to cover. It's easy to get bored with your own work by talking about it so much, so mix it up a little and try to tailor the examples you are showing for the role you are discussing.

Consider how long you might have to chat through your portfolio in an interview. Interviews are mostly scheduled to be an hour but allow time for discussion before and after the presentation of your work.

Finally, relax, enjoy it and remember that the interviewer wants you to do well.
 

It's not Dragon's Den, and it's not The Apprentice. No-one is out to catch you out, we're all looking to collaborate and to be collaborative. This will help us create the very best work and working environment that we can.
- Drew Hughes


We hope you found that round-up useful. If you're looking for a job, whether in design, games, animation or development, check out all the great roles currently on our Jobs site.

Thanks again to all our design experts - Charlotte YoungRic GraySara BrunettiniDrew HughesBuff MotionMAG InteractiveStudio Evoke and Wolfcub Digital - that gave us their wisdom and years of experience to create this post.

Final portfolio tip: Remember to include your contact details!
 

Too often I see portfolios that don't have an email address or phone number so I can't get in touch with them. Please leave at least an email address that’s easy to see.
- Sara Brunettini


P.S. Sara Brunettini also recently shared a video answering some of the most common questions around preparing a creative portfolio for an interview. Check it out...

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