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How do you decide what to put in your graphic design portfolio?

Design portfolio

It’s that time of year again where you are assessing your bulging business plan, deciding what new piece of marketing material you are going to use to wow potential clients with in 2010 and, for us, it’s time to freshen up our website and reflect on what work we include in our portfolio. The problem is that we are a particularly fussy lot here at Eightyone Design and not every piece of work we complete makes the grade. In fact, only a mere fraction of our work makes it in to our design portfolio.

This can leave our portfolio looking a little stale at times against others which seem to be regularly changing. It also means that whilst we are always working with new clients, other potential clients are not aware of this due to the work not being included in our graphic design portfolio. This got us thinking ‘what is the best way to build your graphic design portfolio?’ As we see it there are the following options available to any graphic designer:

Option 1 – Include all the design work you have ever completed

With a loose quality control belt you can update your portfolio more regularly. This means a large design portfolio can be quickly achieved. However, this could mean it is made up of work you don’t believe is 100% perfect. Instead of showing off your design skills, you would be showing just how many jobs you have completed and how many clients you have. But is this a bad thing?

We always try to keep track on what our local competitors are doing, what work they are producing and which clients they are completing work for. I was recently looking at a local website design companies portfolio and was shocked to see that a website they had developed for a ‘mature women’ who models in short skirts and stockings had been included in their website design portfolio. Now, I am no prude and I have certainly seen all manor of strange things on the internet and I have to say the content was pretty tame. However, if we had completed some work for a similar style of website, I certainly would not include it on my portfolio.

The company in question has always produced good quality websites and has worked for a wide range of clients. However, I personally feel that their policy of including every single piece of design work they had completed in their portfolio (including the site in question) was to the detriment of my perception of them. And if I thought this, I can guarantee that some of their clients and potential clients had similar thoughts.

I note that in the last few months, the company has redesigned their website and not only has the site in question been removed, but so have a lot of the other websites they were listed on their portfolio. I feel that this now portrays the work completed by the company in a much more concise way showing off their best work to potential clients.

Option 2 – Include only the work you feel best represents your design skills and services

This is currently the option we are using for our online graphic design portfolio. For each piece of design work ‘auditioning’ for it’s place in our graphic design portfolio, we pitch it against others currently residing in our portfolio. Whether the design makes the grade depends on how good that design looks, it’s usability, it’s style and does it add a different element to the portfolio? If we feel the work better portrays our graphic design skills, the new project gets added, if it doesn’t then we leave things as they are.

There are obviously good and bad points to this approach. Having a set of strict quality control checks before adding any project to your graphic design portfolio means only the best work is displayed to potential clients. However, it does mean that the portfolio is not updated regularly which could convey a lack of ongoing design projects.

Some of our clients come to us with large design briefs in which the concept has already been devised by the client themselves. Whilst this does not always mean it is a bad concept, we sometimes feel that a different concept would better solve the clients brief and despite us offering what we feel to be a better solution, the client still wants to use their idea. On several occasions this has meant that we are unwilling to include the final piece in our portfolio.

We chose this approach because although our portfolio would not be updated regularly, at least we would be happy with the examples of work that were portraying our company and the design services we offer. The down side to this being that even though Eightyone Design has been trading for three years, our design portfolio is rather small and certainly does not show the amount of clients we have completed projects for.

Option 3 – Include personal projects and unused design concepts in your design portfolio

This is an often debated issue within the design community. I will start with the former…

In my opinion there is no issue with including personal design pieces in a graphic designers portfolio as long as potential clients are aware which work has been created off the designers own back and which pieces have been commissioned work. I do feel the client has the right to know which pieces of work are ‘genuine’ design projects in which the designer has liaised with a client and produced work in order to fulfill a brief written by the client. That way they can make an informed decision as to whether the design skills shown, whether for a personal or paid project, would fulfill their requirements. Including your personal pieces will also emphasise your passion for design showing that even when not working on paid projects, you are still designing. And you never know, you may even gain commissions based on the style of your personal design work.

I do, however, have an issue with design portfolios being made up of ‘fake’ design projects. We have all seen some of the great logo designs shown on Logopond and other logo design galleries and I would say that a good proportion of these are developed for genuine companies, but I would dispute that all of the logo designs shown have been created for genuine commissioned projects. It is much easier to think of a fake company name and then create the perfect logotype to represent it than it is to work on a real life project. For example, this great logo design created for a fictional brand called Vacuum Viper clearly shows how a string logo design concept can be easily developed around a great name. However, in this instance the designer clearly states that the brand is fictional (and the logo is up for sale on Brand Stack if anyone is interested) and so does not mislead anyone in to thinking that the logo was created in response to a clients brief. That is not to say it does not show off the designers illustration skills and brand development experience to great affect and as such it can be included in a designers portfolio. That being said, I feel that ‘padding out’ a portfolio with fake projects without being honest about the origins of the piece is not good practice.

Similarly, I have no objection to including unused or unedited design concepts in a design portfolio. A designers job is to take a problem and produce a visual solution to that problem. However, the designers view on what best fulfills a design brief can sometimes differ to the clients. In these instances we try to give clear and concise reasoning as to why we feel our solution better fulfills the brief but this can often fall on deaf ears. This often results in endless rounds of amendments to the design until the client is happy. But should this mean that all the great work you did at the start of the project should go to waste? In my opinion, no. If the original concept really shows off your design skills and you are particularly pleased with the piece then why shouldn’t it be included in your portfolio? After all, it is work that you have created and it does fulfill the clients design brief.

So what is the best way to build your graphic design portfolio?

The answer should really be what feels right for you? Which solution best portrays your company and the design services you offer?

For us, in addition to having a strict quality control check before adding anything to our portfolio, we have recently begun to collate personal design projects which we feel show of our skills. These will hopefully be included in our portfolio shortly. Similarly, we have taken the view that if a previous design concept that had been rejected / amended by the client better fulfills the design brief, then this should be the concept included in our graphic design portfolio.

Over to you…

So which do you feel is the best way to build your graphic design (or any other type of) portfolio? Should you include all the design work you have completed or should it be a ‘best of’? Do you include personal design pieces in your portfolio? And have you ever padded out your portfolio with ‘fake’ design projects?

Posted by Steve

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Posted on Sunday, January 31st, 2010 at 2:41 pm
Posted In Freelancing, Portfolio | Tags: ,

4 Responses to “How do you decide what to put in your graphic design portfolio?”

  • I do the same as yourself – option 2; this pretty much describes how I look at what to place in my portfolio.

    I do think though that it’s fine and actually perhaps even desirable to put in personal projects. In fact I think it’s definitely desirable.

    I feel by putting in any extra personal works you may create there’s a good chance that this will make your portfolio more diverse, more interesting, and more creative.

    That’s because we tend to have an urge to create things we haven’t ‘tried yet’ on client projects.

    I don’t actually bother with personal projects though! I think I’ve created one thing off my own back that wasn’t for a client in a total of about 7yrs….I know, what a philistine.

    Ha ha

  • Hi Eightyone,

    I’m always checking your website, and other local design firms, to see what’s new in their portfolio and how current their websites are.

    Part of my main plan when I built my new website was to ensure I kept it up-to-date as much as possible with new work or information. As I’m sure you know, making the time for this is difficult but I think it is important to show potential customers that you’re still here, still producing work, and still available for new projects.

    I agree, there are limits to what work I would show and if I really wasn’t happy with a piece of work then I believe it can do more damage than good showing it off to the public. I’ve certainly produced a few pieces of work which I really weren’t happy with, usually because I was forced to use a hideous existing logo that I didn’t want to be associated with, and chose not to show it off as something I did!

    Having said that, there might be a piece of work I’m not totally fond of, but believe I’ve done my best to still produce it in a professional way and made it look like a suitable design project that the client is happy with. It may have required some clever sales techniques or genuine guidance for the client by pointing out why their ‘bad’ suggestions won’t work or will make to design look awful, but in the end, still managed to produce a final piece of work that’s more than suitable for display.

    Sure enough, once you add it to your portfolio, guaranteed a potential new client looking round your site, will see that piece of work and contact you because ‘they’ liked it alot and want something similar for their new business.

    When I update my website I wait until the project is pretty much finished, with logo design, stationery, website, etc to show the complete project from start to end. Then I can add to it at a later date if required. If it’s a single design piece, like a one off logo, then if it’s good enough to warrant it’s own section, then I’ll add that too.

    Everyone, and every client is different and they all have different tastes and preferences, so because of this I believe showing a ‘varied portfolio’ is extremely important. I totally understand the concern of showing some of the work you may not be happy with, but when you look at some of the other ‘bish bash bosh’ design and web companies out there that churn out shockingly BAD design work, then I’m sure even your least favourite piece of work is far far better than anything they could manage!

    Be proud of what you’ve done!!

    Mark – Frankman Design

  • Jonathan Piper says:

    Hi there, interesting article but I think you miss some key points here – i.e. what the person looking at your portfolio will want to see! I’m a retired graphic designer/art director (now retired) who was Assistant Head of Design at a top ten advertising agency. I’m used to looking at lots of portfolios, whether they’re photographers, illustrators, designers – you name it. If I’m looking at a book then I will be looking at it in terms of the particular project that I have in mind, i.e. the visual style that I’m looking for. BUT, that’s not to say that another project in your book might catch my eye and lead me into thinking that I could possibly could use you for something else…

    So what I’m saying is VARIETY – I don’t want to see just one style, I want to see variation (as in the types of work that you do, i.e. concept/development/execution etc) – if I was using you freelance, could you adapt as my client would change the concept? Show me photographic led executions, show me typographic. Show me that you’re not just a one trick pony. Better to be thought of as someone that could undertake a variety of project instead of possessing just one style.

    But even more importantly, no-one has mentioned this…what’s the idea? So many designers have no part of the creative process present in their book – I want to see scamps, I want to see the development of a project (i.e. how a illustration developed). I want to see your thought process – not just a finished web page or logotype. I would rather see a bunch of scamps and a finished ad’ then ten make believe pieces, that you and I, know never ran. Clients are paying you for your creative thinking, not to be a Mac monkey…

    As to presenting your book, make sure that you clearly state whether a piece was a development stage, whether it ran, whether you were co-designer on it, what your part within the project was – the person looking at your book will either second guess, or maybe know the client -the design world is a very small place. I would much rather have someone be honest and say I didn’t come up with the concept, but I took the development through and art-directed the BTL development. I know that person could be good for a certain project so in fact they’ve earnt work by their honesty…clients are always looking for adaptable people/companies. Get your foot in the door, show how good you are – opportunities will come as a result of that.

    Also, another vital thing I learnt through the years is to be completely honest about what it is that you do, and what it is that you don’t. If a client wants a logotype but they can only afford £X, if you cant’ do it in the time then state that. I’ve used freelancers where they’ve struggled with finishing a project in a certain time because they don’t work that way. Better for them, and you, if you’re honest and state at the outset – we’d love the project but we can’t do a satisfactory piece of work in X hours, which is what you’d get on your budget.

    Anyway, enough rambling from me. Interesting blog, keep them coming.

    Best wishes, Jonathan

  • Steve says:

    Hi all and thanks for your comments.


    Definitely agree that personal projects will make your graphic design portfolio more diverse. Although it is hard finding the time for them as you say!


    We too keep an eye on your site – nice redesign by the way!

    You are right, it is hard finding time to update your design portfolio, but I also find it hard choosing what to put on the design portfolio. You are right that it is good for clients and potential clients to see that you are still living and breathing and raring to go on new projects. However, we try and use our news / blog article to show this meaning we can be a bit ‘fussier’ over what to add to the actual portfolio.

    I agree that the decision on whether a piece of work makes it in to your design portfolio should be based on what skills it displays rather than just showing everything that is to your own taste. We are working on a web design project at the moment which, although not to my personal taste, I would like to show on our portfolio as not only is it a different type of website that the others on the portfolio, is also took a lot of work to take the stimulus given to us by the client and turn it in to a workable format whilst retaining all the clients end goals.

    We are proud of the work we produce and thanks for saying that even our worst work would be better than some other companies out there. I think we will always be fussy about what gets shown in our design portfolio and I personally think this is a good thing.

    Keep up the good work!


    I think variety is the key to a good graphic design portfolio. A range of styles and skill sets will help you gain more clients in the future.

    That being said, I would say there are a lot of ‘one trick ponies’ out there who possess a unique style who have gone on to be very successful. It depends which route you are looking to take in the graphic design world. If, like us, you are looking at growing a business based on a good and varied range of skills (web design, logo design, print design etc) then variety is important. However, if you are looking to progress as a digital artist who has a unique style and is hoping to gain commissions based on this style, then perhaps your design portfolio needs to be a little more personal.

    As Mark said above, Everyone and every client is different, so we will all tackle the questions raised in this article differently. But it is great to have people like yourself to bounce ideas off.

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment and get involved with the discussion.


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