10 Graphic Design Portfolio Tips for Students

Recently, I had the opportunity to review the student design portfolios for Virginia Tech’s School of Visual Arts (SOVA). While reviewing, I decided that I would take the time later to discuss a few aspects that employers are generally looking for in a student book.

Just remember, you only have one shot to impress your clients and potential employers, so scrutinize the details and make it count. This list is a compilation of a few aspects that I was looking for when reviewing the student portfolios.

1. Typography

Employers will want to know that you can handle working with large amounts of text. Most client projects, from brochures to advertisements, have some amount copy. Show work that exemplifies how you can handle working with several paragraphs of type, and not just the headline. These examples can (and should) apply to both print and web applications. Show a variety of styles and treatments to demonstrate your ability to select type that works for each individual client.

2. Identity and Branding

It is important to show at least one identity mark. If you include examples of how that identity would be applied for brand and marketing purposes, even better! Employers want to know that you can design for many types of clients, so if you show more than one identity, make sure each is distinct.

3. Self-Initiated Projects

Projects initiated outside of class can often be your best work. Whether the work is for a real or hypothetical client, you should constantly be creating — doing this demonstrates your passion for design. Another upside is that you’ll have much more work to choose from when you compose your portfolio.

4. A Campaign

Logos, ads and websites are good for showing off specific design applications. Now take a project one step further, and demonstrate your ability to apply consistent branding across each design in the campaign. To establish a recognizable identity, clients want consistency in their materials, and so you should present examples of how you excel at it.

5. Creative Ingenuity

Original concept and thought goes a long way in your portfolio. Anyone can learn how to use Illustrator and Photoshop, but not everyone possesses the creative ingenuity that is needed in the design field. Execute and show off good ideas to stand out.

6. Client Work

If you have client work that is in use, it is usually a good idea to show it off. Even if the work isn’t your favorite, it lets potential employers know that you have experience working within real constraints for a paying client.

7. Design With Inspiration

Many of the portfolios that I reviewed contained work that paid homage to well-known designers. It was nice to see that students took the time to research the big names in our field, and create work inspired by these masters. A thoughtfully designed project that clearly shows your ability to research a project will say a lot about you as a designer.

8. Keep the Size Manageable

Some books that I reviewed included more than 12 projects, which may not seem like much to you, but when reviewing 18 portfolios, it can be overwhelming. Remember that clients and employers are very busy people. And you can assume that they’re looking at several portfolios for the position that they are looking to fill. Remember, you should only show your best work. Do not include projects for the sake of filling up your book. There is no magic number of projects to include, but aim for 7-10 of your best projects, to keep the size manageable and to keep your portfolio reviewer hooked.

9. Convincing and Well-Written Descriptions

If you include descriptions of each project in your book, be sure that you proof-read them. Infact, it is often helpful to read it aloud to someone else, or have someone else read it aloud to you. Pay special attention to spelling and typos. Even something as simple as a comma can change the entire meaning of a sentence. Often designers are the ones who write the copy for websites or advertisements. Employers are looking for designers who can captivate a reader with their works and proofread their own work.

10. Quality Presentation

This is particularly important for 3D packaging projects. The presentation of your work speaks volumes about your attention to detail and regard for your work. Use large, well-lit images from various perspectives, so that clients and employers can see the details of each project. On a related note, you should always be presenting your best work. If you aren’t happy with where you left off on a project, then take another stab at it until you arrive at a design solution that works.

Final Notes

If you are unsure about how your portfolio stacks up against your peers, get a second (or third or fourth…) opinion! There are many places you can go for portfolio reviews by industry professionals. This can be invaluable when building a job-winning portfolio. Not only is it perfect practice for your future job interviews, you will get one-on-one time with an industry professional that can provide suggestions for improvement.

Just remember that the reviewer is there to help you, so do not look at the review as criticism. In fact, it can be beneficial to get more than one professional portfolio review. Once you have some feedback, go back and actually try implementing the suggestions.

And a last note, as you continue to create new and more relevant work, update your portfolio. It’s important to keep your work fresh — you never know when a new opportunity may knock at your door!