Page 1

PORTFOLIO HANDBOOK A guide to creating your design portfolio Prepared for IDM404 Portfolio Students Prepared by Kyle Greenwood RGD :: Instructor, Graphic Design and Interactive Media Created June 2018


Creating a portfolio can be an immense undertaking. It requires a deep understanding of yourself and reflection upon who you want to be. It not only documents part of your past, but it’s built to forge a particular future. As you sort through past projects, it’s a time of self-reflection. Strengths as well as weaknesses become apparent. All the while, it makes your eyes widen as you notice how much self-growth can happen from one project to the next. This handbook was custom-made for the purpose of facilitating higherquality portfolios. It will not cover project processes, but will act as a guide to documenting a project well for your portfolio. I hope the book will ease some of the anxiety around creating your first portfolio and then later exist as a helpful reference to check a newer portfolio concept against. It’s too subjective to say that there is any one-right way to create a portfolio, just like there isn’t any one-right-process to design. Being fresh, surprising, and creative is part of our job. Following the advice presented herein may not lead you to the most super-awesome portfolio of all time, but it will provide a solid foundation on which to showcase your super-awesome designs.





Where to Start 10 Tips for Building Your Portfolio Print Portfolios Online Portfolios PDF Portfolios

Knowing which kinds of projects and which components to include in those projects can be a huge advantage when it comes time to show a potential employer your designs.

Creating the Document Use a Grid Typography Placing Content Exporting and Printing



Okay, so we have covered putting your portfolio together, but you also need to learn how to talk about it and present it.

Networking Finding a mentor Internships, Pro Bono Work Contests

pages 4 to 19

pages 20 to 31

pages 42 to 47

pages 50 to 59


pages 32 to 41


BEFORE YOU GET STARTED Knowing who you are is knowing who you are not

Your portfolio is not about you; it’s about what you can do for an employer. As you’re creating your portfolio, ask yourself, “who is my audience?” Are you applying to a corporation? A consultancy? A toy company? Your portfolio should align to your employment goals.

gets you a job, and that job gets you experience, and that experience will make your portfolio better and better. It’s a cycle that all starts right now, with your first portfolio. Portfolios are never good on the first go-round. Whether you’re a sophomore or a professional with 25 years of experience, it’s going to suck the first time you sit down and start hashing out your next draft. That’s OK. Talk to everyone you can about your portfolio, and actually listen to their advice. You’re going to get quite a bit of conflicting input but eventually you’ll be able to condense the critiques into actionable items to change. Look at and critique other people’s portfolios, too. Find out what you really love in someone else’s portfolio and do it in your own.

Prospective employers will not spend much time looking through your portfolio. You’ll get just a few seconds of their time (seriously). Organize your work so that your best project is the first project they see. You should also end your portfolio on a high note. It’s important to learn to self-edit; don’t include work that you aren’t confident in and aren’t comfortable talking about. At it’s basest level, a portfolio is a collection of work you’ve completed. At it’s loftiest, a portfolio is a visual representation of your thought processes. A portfolio


WHERE TO START As a graphic designer a portfolio is essential. While it’s great to have an online one, it’s also a good idea to have a physical one too to take along to meetings and interviews. If you are looking for a job in the design industry remember potential employers will most likely be designers themselves. This means they will have a keen eye for the look of your work and will want to understand your contribution to each project. If you are looking for work from potential clients they, on the other hand, will be more focussed on whether you have experience in the type of work they need to produce, and whether your design style is to their taste. “When I’m looking at a portfolio, I want to see different types of work, different styles and different stories. A great portfolio will have the ‘I wish I did that’ factor.” -- Alison Garnett, SapientNitro

So, to get started it’s worth mentioning that your portfolio, and the way you talk about it, is an opportunity for you to shine and to demonstrate that: • you are creative • you can apply good thought processes • you have a range of skills • you are ambitious and enthusiastic





Pull together the projects you’ve worked on during your design education and look at everything together. Are there any major themes or similarities between your favorite projects or the projects you think show your strongest work? You won’t be including everything you’ve ever worked on in your portfolio, so this is the perfect time to figure out what your strengths are and what types of design work you’re most interested in pursuing in the future.

Try to select 6-10 projects for your print portfolio (you may have more for online). People don’t want to go through everything you have done and will probably make up their minds about you during the first 3 you show. Obviously if you don’t have much to show for any of them (e.g an individual logo) you could consider showing more projects.

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.

One important thing to remember is that you should only put types of work in your portfolio that you want to get more of. If you’ve done a lot of one type of work but you’re now really tired of it, don’t put it in your portfolio even if you think it’s good work. Chances are, you will only get more of it.

Another 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.

To figure out what pieces you should put front and center in your portfolio, think about what aspects of design are most interesting to you and the types of projects where you generally seem to produce the highest quality work. Hopefully, a theme emerges when you consider your existing works in this context. Based on this exercise, choose several of the best pieces of work to include in your portfolio. After all, the work you showcase on your portfolio is likely the work you’ll have the easiest time selling to new clients. If a client is going to hire you, they want to know you have experience working on similar projects before.

Don’t have enough projects? Create more! If you need to pad out your portfolio with some more projects, then go for it! A great way to find inspiration for new projects is to think about some problems that bother you and design solutions for those problems. Think about these problems in the context of your skillset. Another great way to expand your portfolio is to ask family and friends if they have any simple design projects they need help with. 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.


You may choose to group projects by the type of skills required such as placing all fourcolour work in one area. Grouping by style is another possibility—grouping conservative pieces and technical examples in their own sections of the portfolio. For online: organize your work appropriately. If you have different types of work (i.e. UX Design, Branding and Identity, etc.), group it together on separate pages of your portfolio site. Make everything easily searchable from a navigation bar and dropdowns.




Once you have the final pieces selected, decide if mock-ups or original photographs will best showcase your work. Make sure your mock-ups or photographs share a cohesive look, that they form your “brand.” You don’t want your portfolio to look like it’s a group of many peoples’ work. This doesn’t mean that you need to use the same mock-ups throughout your whole portfolio but keep them consistent to each project.

Your online portfolio will likely serve as your primary portfolio (and will need the most maintenance). Choose your platform and consider buying a custom URL (particularly if your name is difficult to spell). If you choose not to use your name for your URL please think professionally and opt for an alias that is appropriate.

Create a personal logo. If you feel inspired to do a bit of personal branding, a personal logo can be a great way to stand out. Having a consistent look and feel across your personal brand is a great way to seem more professional. Also, if you are interested in logo design/branding work having created your own branding supports your efforts.

Viewing a piece in person is different than seeing them online or in print. You can touch them to see what kind of paper they were printed on and you can see little details of colour. Include an overall image (sometimes referred to as the “hero” image) of the project then zoom in to some of the most interesting areas of each piece and showcase those too.

CREATIVITY One of the things potential employers will often look for is how you got to the finished design. They may be interested in sketch books, loosely bound sheets of ideas, mood boards or unused concepts. Put a few of them in your portfolio but not for every project. They are there to demonstrate your ability to think and and sketch before you jumped on a computer to create the work.

I suggest Adobe Portfolio as it comes with your Creative Cloud subscription and pairs with Behance (a social networking and portfolio site for designers). Squarespace also offers a good platform for new creatives. You’ll be able to get a gorgeous portfolio site up in a couple of hours and can even include a blog, cover page, and contact pages on your site so people can easily read about you and then reach out if they want to work together. Regardless of which platform you choose I strongly encourage you to also create a profile on Behance. This site provides access to active communities of designers who like to give feedback on others’ work, but there’s also Jobs sections on these sites that make it very easy to apply for gigs and be found by people looking for freelance talent. If cost is an issue and you choose only to have a Behance page, that is perfectly fine, just make sure you are active and engaged on the site and try to customize your pages so that they serve your design aesthetic.


SOCIALIZE If you are interested in getting your name out there, it can be a great idea to be active on 1 or 2 social channels. But choose your channels carefully. Don’t just create and maintain accounts for the sake of it. For example, use Instagram if your work has an illustrative or unique visual style. Be sure to link to your portfolio site on your social accounts. Whenever you have new work to show, post it on your social accounts using relevant hashtags and a link back to your site.

“A portfolio is the backbone of a creative as it shows what you’re capable of. It’s a showcase of your blood, sweat, talents and triumphs. Now go show it off!” -- Jacob Cass, Just Creative



Results (optional) :: If this project met the target your client was seeking to hit, then state that. Add a time frame in which you delivered your objectives, and if the project succeeded beyond expectations, share as much about those results as possible.


Credit :: If you worked with other people on the project you’re featuring, certainly give credit and attribution to others on your project team.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a picture coupled with some words is worth even more. Strategically putting your work into context for prospective clients on your creative portfolio, is essential to framing your value propositions in a way that others will be able to immediately see how your services (and strengths) can help them. Consider including the following captions for all of your creative work included in your portfolio: 1.

Client Name :: List your client’s name, even when the featured sample is work done for a friend, or even when it’s a personal project.


Objective :: What challenge did you face with this project? What was the task? Were you heightening brand awareness with a specific demographic? Use 2-3 descriptive sentences to capture the essence of what this project was tackling for your client.


Skills and/or Your Role :: Identify the skills demonstrated on each project. Be transparent about your role in each project. Were you managing a team of designers? Were you doing the actual design work yourself? If you took a project from concept to finished work, totally on your own, that’s something you need to highlight.


“We want to be surprised and engaged by the work you’re showing us. The work you choose to include should illustrate a different way of thinking.” -- Karen Satok, Sputnik Design Partners

10 TIPS FOR BUILDING YOUR PORTFOLIO 1 :: Be Honest and Selective

2 :: Review and Feedback is Vital No-one can be objective when deciding what to include and what not to include in their own portfolio.

Know what you’re good at; filter out the junk. You have to love each project in your book. If you don’t feel comfortable with a project, or you wouldn’t want someone to remember you by a project, then don’t include it.

Look for designers that you like and take inspiration from their portfolios. Important that you have outsiders go through and assist you in editing and tweaking your book

Find companies that you think you have an honest shot at getting a job. Align your work (or the presentation of your work) to the company you want to work with.


4 :: Call to Action

3 :: Case Studies

Your contact info, your website - saying you are available and waiting by the phone right now for their call.

Most employers hire based on personality or “fit”, not necessarily on skill. How adaptive you are, how you work with others is important and can be conveyed in a case study featured in your portfolio.

There always needed to be a reason and a way to get in touch with you easily. Consider creating a custom URL for your website so that it is easy to find you online.

A case study is a chance to explain your process and showcase your qualities. (see page 30 for considerations on writing engaging case studies for your portfolio)

6 :: Photography / Mock-ups

5 :: Purpose Every piece you include in your portfolio has to serve a purpose: what does it show off about you? how does it sell you?

Photos of actual items makes them feel more real and legitimate; reinforces the look and feel of your brand/personality.

Only select your best work and work you want to talk about. If you don’t love it or can’t talk about it endlessly, over and over, it will show and they won’t be interested.

Mock-ups are great but if everyone’s downloading from the same sites either pay for premium ones or customize your mock-ups in Photoshop.

You may love a piece from your first year in school, but if you want to present it, make sure it reflects your current level of ability. 11

8 :: Give Your Work Context

7 :: Show variety There are good and bad reasons as to why you might want to display a variety of skills BUT ALSO there are certain times where it might benefit you to specialize in a particular design field.

It is hard to imagine looking at something what the whole story is.

You are not a one-trick pony so don’t sell yourself as one. Even if you are 100% certain you are totally focused in one industry or one career or speciality, you still need to demonstrate skills.

Describe how awesome you are and showing how you work and what challenges were faced on a particular project.

Articulating your design process helps to convey your skill as a designer (understanding of design concepts).

10 :: Your book is never done

9 :: Keep it simple, focused Purpose of a portfolio is to showcase your work, so don’t hide behind ornate flourishes and excessive distraction. Your work is a reflection on you as a commodity/brand - do you want to be seen as modern, alternative, corporate? Whatever your professional goals are make sure you art direct and design for that in mind.


Try to adapt your portfolio and presentation style to fit each audience. This means a bit more work each time but will make it more engaging for them. It will also lead to more success for you by demonstrating you understand their business. Your portfolio should evolve and grow and changes as you do update it regularly to accurately portray your design brand.

RECOMMENDATIONS Generate interest and excitement with the first piece in your submission Leave a lasting impression with your final piece in your submission Know that your most recent work, completed within the past two years, best demonstrates your current skill level Include work that directly relates to the job that you are applying to or specific to the career you are pursuing Demonstrate a variety of your skills and approaches to art, design and media Include examples of drawing from direct observation, such as figure drawing, still life, interiors and landscapes Include work in 2D, 3D, digital or traditional media; all forms of work are acceptable Demonstrate your ability to work with a wide range of techniques, materials and subject matter Ensure that photographs of your work are well-lit and/or mockups feature plain/neutral backgrounds Consider including your process work/sketchbook(s)


PRINT PORTFOLIOS Most designers are using online portfolios these days but you should create a physical one for in-person interviews, especially if you’re a print designer.

Many beginner designers find presentation folders with plastic sleeves the most budget-friendly option. This is perfectly acceptable although I would recommend avoiding cheap plastic binders and try to use quality sheet protectors as some of the cheap ones show scratches or tear easily. If possible, spend your money and making sure your pages are professionally printed.

Your printed portfolio must be printed, but other than that you have a lot of choice. You can buy books and cases, create your own or do something completely out of the book so to speak.

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.

The style and size of your print 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 you want to include samples (actual printed versions of your projects that you can circulate during an interview), choose a portfolio case that lets you present the full sample without folding, if feasible.

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.

Ensure your portfolio is done in a size that is easy to present and carry from review to review. It should not exceed 26” x 36”. Ensure your pieces are easy to view – all facing the same way and easy to remove.


SAMPLES Use actual samples. 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.

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.

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.


ONLINE PORTFOLI More and more designers are bringing digital portfolios to interviews which is encouraged if most of your work is web, motion and/or other digital formats. Online portfolios offer further flexibility by making it much easier to present your work 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 online portfolio images is normally GIF or JPG or PDF. You are responsible for bringing a laptop or tablet (tablet is preferable, no mobile phones). Make sure you don’t need to be able to get online to show your work. There is no guarantee that the venue for the reviews has wireless. A digital portfolio works great for digital work but if you are showing posters and editorial layouts (or other designs made for print), it’s important to bring physical samples to show. You may even want to bring a physical back-up of the print portfolio, just in case the digital version doesn’t work.




Curate carefully: select a cohesive visual style, a harmonious colour scheme, or another unifying factor that brings your work together. This enables your work to build upon itself and establish your unique graphic style for potential clients and employers so that they know what to expect when they’re working with you.

Behance has developed a mobile app that will let you present your Behance portfolio to clients in a clutter-free way. Using a tablet (preferred) or phone you can use the app to showcase your work during client presentations. The Creative Portfolio app will display all the work in your Behance portfolio (so, this is is a time-saver too if you keep your Behance profile/projects up-to-date). Install this app and you’ve got excellent electronic portfolio that you can take anywhere.

HUMANIZE Photos or videos of you working on your design projects bring your creative process to clients and showcase the fact that you are bringing active talent and energy to the table. Including case studies can also help you turn your process into a compelling story. That’s not to say you should include stories of your deepest struggles; instead, focus on the positives.

UNIQUE ELEMENTS When clients are scoping out graphic design portfolio sites in search of a creative professional, they’ll choose the one that stands out. A unique visual element can help yours do just that. For example: include an animated logo design that catches visitors’ eyes and invites them to explore more of your work or add a short motion reel (video) to your landing page.


PDF PORTFOLIOS With a PDF portfolio, you have a portfolio that can be customized to showcase your best work and focus on the needs of the client you are mailing it to. And because it is a stand alone document, you can simply email the portfolio to your prospects.

Your PDF portfolio should include details about yourself:

Remember that the PDF portfolio is an example of your work too, so don’t skimp on the design. Also, choose your best work to include in the portfolio. Don’t include everything. Leaving in an example of less than stellar work just because it’s the only example you have of that skill will have a larger negative effect than leaving it out and just including those skills in your resume instead.

Client name and date it was created

Project description and URL of live site (if it’s still live)

Your role on the project

Any awards or industry recognition the project received

Your name, contact information, and a short biography

Your website URL

A list of your previous and current clients

Services you offer or an extended list of skills that might not be showcased in the portfolio

A cover letter including your goal or mission statement

If you including nothing else, you must include your name and contact information in the PDF. The goal of a portfolio is to help you get a job or more clients, and it can’t do that if the prospective employer or client can’t contact you.

Include informative details about the pieces you do choose, including: •

Make sure you save your PDF so that it’s got a small file size, but not so small that the quality of your designs is affected. If you are planning to email your PDF you should limit the size to less than 25 MB. Some email clients (like Gmail and Hotmail) have attachment size limits. And even if you’re sending it directly to a business address, remember that no one likes to wait for files to download.


A portfolio is a living document. It should always be evolving and changing with your growth as a designer so let it speak to who you are, but also who you want to be. Creating a portfolio that speaks to those you want to learn from is your foot in the door. You’ll land jobs you’re more passionate about and you’ll get to network with people you actually want to learn from.


If you’re new to creating a portfolio or you’re currently in the middle of the process, considering which kinds of projects and which components to include in those projects can be a huge advantage when it comes time to show a potential employer your designs.




Packaging is great in any portfolio, as it showcases your fundamental design skills in many ways. Even if you don’t want to be a package designer, it’s important to know what is involved in designing one. The same techniques you use here can be applied to other projects, taking them further by adding packaging aspects to them and strengthening your entire portfolio overall. Your final project should showcase your design across at least 3 different products using a system of elements created for the brand. For example: If you are redesigning wine bottles/wine labels, all three bottles should look like their own flavor, but all of them should still look like a family and that they all fall under the same parent brand. Things like colour, typography, texture, and design elements will all need to be utilized in order to achieve this cohesive look. Finally, you need to be telling a story within your brand. If your brand is all about hand-crafted wine products, it will be important to research and communicate visually how the artisan wine crafter creates his/her wines. What textures, colours, and tools do they use that you can pull from to communicate the idea of hand-crafted wines? Thoroughly explore those possibilities to create a brand that instantly communicates the proper and desired message to consumers.


Emma Steele Toronto Film School Graduate (2017) Website:

BRANDING Branding is another project that will cover a lot of different disciplines as a designer. Your cover, logo design, business cards, letterhead, ticket design, menu layouts, uniforms, bus wraps...the list can go on and on. This project would take up several pages in a portfolio and look very comprehensive, so even though this is technically a single project, it will cover many areas of design within it. This is something many recruiters and design shops look for in a portfolio.

Nikita Pigalov Toronto Film School Graduate (2017) Website:


Intisar Rabbani Toronto Film School Graduate (2018) Website:

The digital landscape is easily the fastest way to get a job, but it’s also one of the most competitive fields to work in, due to its popularity. Of course, it’s not for everyone and thats ok, but as a designer, you need to know how to think digitally. Keep in mind, no interviewer would expect you have your site coded, so static layouts done in Photoshop or sketch will be just fine. For your online portfolio you may want to create a GIF that shows the site navigation to engage your viewer. Even if your main goal is not to be a web designer, so much of our world of design operates on the web, so it is extremely important you know whatever it is you are creating, will translate well into the digital landscape.



Now, while you may be thinking that print is dead, all these magazines have digital versions of their publication online, as well as ipad apps. So being able to take the idea of print and translate it onto the screen is a big skill to have and demonstrate well. The whole idea of this project is to concept an article, or publication for a topic that you are passionate about. Use a feature spread with a cover page. This feature spread is made up of a few pages, 3-5 depending on the amount of visuals you use to accompany the article. Zoom in on the Typography, the photos, the illustrations, the layout, the icons, everything - and show off how you were able to work with all these and created something visually appealing - and legible! - using different components in a particular amount of space.

Derek Freijomel Toronto Film School Graduate (2017) Website:



INFORMATION DESIGN At its core, information design is taking complicated information and visually displaying it in an easily understood manner. This is area is also more popularly known as infographics. It is the the intersection of data and understanding. You take information and create a visual graphic so readers can understand what that data actually means. Being able to explain things to people in a simple way is a very effective use of design. This is one area that businesses have really started to see the value of design because it can impact sales directly when people understand. For this reason, information design is a really popular area for designers to receive consistent work.


I think the easiest way to tell what’s environmental design, is when information and understanding is happening through the use of images and typography. Examples of this could be a waypoint system that helps you figure out where to find the bathrooms in an airport, trade show booths that are set up to help clients understand the products on display, or how museums that have large


Environmental design really requires a lot of partnerships with other disciplines. Because of this, when looking at work, its can be hard to tell what is environmental design vs. industrial design vs. archeticure.

rooms set up to teach you about how the dinorsaurs lived millions of years ago.

You don‘t get that kind of information and understanding from architecture, and not from industrial design either, but you problably will work with both types as an environmental designer. These types of projects can be redesigning gas stations for the future, or rethinking how waypoint signage or how interiors work to help people navigate large environments. These conceptual projects focus on your ability to think and create visual solutions.

Amit Kalisher Toronto Film School Graduate (2017) Website:




& PHOTOGRA Being an artist or a photographer is very different than being a graphic designer. Artists create artwork that will be used in graphic projects such as advertisements or book jacket covers. The artist may be an illustrator or an animator, and may even create artwork on the computer. Most graphic artists have a certain style, and are hired when someone wants a piece of art in that style. Photographers are often commissioned for a specific project as they too have their own aesthetic. Graphic Designers solve visual communication problems. They have had specific training in design, colour, typography, information management, concept development and more, and are trained to filter information through a process to design. If you have skills in both illustration and photography, great, consider including these to diversify your portfolio. But not every graphic designer is an artist or a photographer and that’s okay!


CASE STUDIES Project case studies are one of the most important yet overlooked parts of building a design portfolio. In our efforts to design the perfect portfolio and showcase our visual work, we often rush the copy or omit it entirely, leaving only a shallow overview of who we are and what we can do. But dumping a bunch of photos on your project pages without any context sells your work short.

the client and task at hand, then share each project element in bite-sized pieces. Most importantly, explains your visuals instead of just dumping them on the page. Show and tell :: Just as with a newspaper or magazine article, it’s important to remember people are scanning your case studies. They may decide to read deeper if something catches their interest, or they may just skim and move on to the next project. Use your layout to guide them through the content and draw them deeper. Make your captions meaningful for reviewers, and write easy-to read paragraphs for the ones who stay.

Including 1 to 2 case studies in your portfolio is an opportunity to show prospective clients and employers how you think, how you work and what you can contribute to the world. Share the project story from challenge to solution :: explain your process, use photos, videos – even early sketches torn from notebooks – which should thoughtfully photographed (or, mocked-up) and laid out. All of it works together to not only showcase your work, but also your design approach, personality and how you think. Think about your project in phases and share your work – even the less glamorous notes and sketches, if they’re important to the story – from beginning to end, and you’ll find you have plenty to say.

Don’t be afraid to share your opinion and perspective in your case study. While you should avoid sharing opinions like, ‘I really hated working with this client’, you should, where relevant, express your beliefs about design and how you applied them to your work. Tell people what inspires you, what principles guide you, share your feelings about the final result. This adds personality and helps visitors understand who you are as a designer. Point, proof, discussion :: Start with a strong introduction, including the project challenge, the project brief (in one sentence), as well as identifying the partnering agency/ client and your role.Conclude with your approach and the outcome. One of the most common portfolio mistakes is forgetting to mention your role and give credit to your team. Giving credit doesn’t make your work on the project any less impressive. In fact, it shows you can work well and collaborate with a team. It also helps a potential employer or client understand where your main skills lie and how you’ll fit into their team or project.

Case studies may be minimal but they should pack a punch :: while it’s good to share your process, it also helps to remember the one person who is reading/reviewing your portfolio. They’re tired, they’re busy and they’ve probably reviewed dozens of portfolios today already. If your case study surprises them and brightens their day, it will be remembered. Break case studies into sections, making the page easy to read and digest. Lead with a brief paragraph introducing


FAMOUS LAST WORDS 1 :: Find inspiration for your portfolio. Keep a binder with really interesting magazine layouts, photography, colour usage and typography. It helps to see how they created 1-2-3 hierarchy and font size. Your inspiration can be digital, too. 2 :: Ask someone better than you. I guarantee they will be flattered to show you some new tricks. Ask them where they learned from. Don’t be afraid to ask someone else for help. 3 :: Don’t avoid redoing things. If you are not 10000000% proud of your project/sketch/mock-up/ whatever.....redo it. No excuses. 4 :: Don’t clutter. I’m serious. Don’t do it. It takes more control and understanding of relationships to create a page using just one or two images rather than haphazardly throwing on stuff. 5 :: Back it up. Back it up again. Now, back it up again, save it to a Cloud service - I don’t recommend USB keys as their convenience also spells potential disaster. Nothing could be more tragic than a hard drive drop or a crumb jammed in the gears to to erase years of work. 6 :: Most portfolios suffer from some combination of poor planning and use of an inconsistent grid that result in ambiguous storytelling, a frustrated viewer, and no job. When developing your portfolio, planning the story of each project first, along with a consistent use of a grid, is a fool-proof method.


CREATING THE DOCUMENT Treat the design of your portfolio like you would any project for a client. Create a consistent layout and style throughout. Using the grid system may be helpful here. Remember that the design of the PDF itself is just as much a showcase of your talent as the work within it. Adobe InDesign is your best option for creating a multi-page layout and for graphic and text-heavy freeform layouts.




Master pages are used to automatically insert layout elements on various pages. All elements of the master page are placed onto any page you choose, and these are by default not selectable when you are working on individual pages. This allows you to further develop the page without worrying about accidentally modifying the pre-defined elements (such as page numbers and graphic elements).

Let’s say all of your titles need to be a certain font, size and colour. You can set all of this information in a Character Style Sheet and then apply it to each title with a click. Now, let’s say that you decide that the titles are too small and they all have to be made 4 points bigger. Just go to your Character Sheet, modify the size and everything associated with that character style will update.



InDesign allows you to have control over your export settings, from a high-quality print to a lo-fi web version. You can also establish bleeds, gutter and slug dimensions. These are key if you are printing a portfolio.

After you’re done, you can package your PDF and create a single folder that contains all your fonts, images, and linked files. This makes backing up your work super simple. Prefl ight also ensures that there are no RGB colourspace pics in a CMYK doc (key for printing).

AUTO UPDATE PAGES If you have an image that has been modified in another program such as Illustrator or Photoshop after it was placed in InDesign, a small yellow triangle warning sign will display in the Links panel. Just click on the yellow warning sign and the link will update immediately. There is no need to manually replace images after you update them.


USE A GRID Grids are a great way to lay out your content. A grid is not an arbitrary smattering of guidelines across the page. It’s a legitimate structural guide. Use your grid to line up your graphics exactly and to inform yourself as to where things look evenly placed. Use a copy and paste workflow to keep titles, subheadings and different blocks information all in the exact same place. Having consistent and logical alignments throughout your portfolio is essential. It’s important to stick to your grid. Arbitrary combinations of columns, lines, and rows do not project a logical sequence of information. A 3 x 3 grid is the easiest, but feel free to experiment with 11 x 4, or 7 x 7. Look at magazines or brochures and copy their grids. Their grid systems are complex but consistent throughout and make sense for the content displayed on the page.


STEP 1 Click onto your master pages. Go to Layout > Create Guides.

STEP 2 Choose the number of rows and columns to create your grid. The guides feature also lets you control your gutter (the space in between grid sections) and whether your margin is or isn’t included in the grid.


TYOGRAPHY Fonts are not a good way to differentiate yourself. Your work is. It may be tempting to make a splashy page with crazy fonts, but unless you’ve thought it over (and it still seems like a good idea when you’ve finally gotten some sleep), then step back from the computer and settle down with your wild ideas. The fonts you choose to use will dramatically affect your portfolio. One big mistake that many portfolio newbies make is allowing your text to take away from your work. Your type should be readable when important and nearly fade into the background when it’s not essential. Typography is more than just choosing a font; it is about making your information legible and readable while still keeping an aesthetic layout. The following is a quick rundown of the basics so you can avoid common mistakes.



of white space; you must let the type breathe. Leading is the vertical spacing between lines of text. Proper leading keeps the reader’s eye from losing its place between lines. It also affects the overall aesthetic style of a page. Kerning is the spacing between individual characters and tracking is the spacing between groups of characters—both affect the flow of text. A readable page requires adequate contrast between the text and background. For example, white text on a 30% gray background is not very legible, but white text on 70% gray is clear.

There are two families of typefaces: Serif and Sans-Serif. Serif type has a short line or finishing stroke on the end of each character. Serif typefaces are more traditional and formal and are easier to read in a large block of text. Serifs help guide the reader’s eye along the page. Sans-serif typefaces do not have finishing strokes. They are modern, less formal and easier to read in titles and small amounts of text.



Alignment :: Generally it is best to align text to the left because this is the way we are used to reading (centered and right-aligned text can be used in moderation). Justified text (when text is aligned to create straight edges on both sides) can be used in moderation as well, but it can create a rigid and unnatural feel with awkward spacing).

Too many typefaces can confuse the reader and become distracting. Keep the number of typefaces to three or less to better create a hierarchy on the page. Choose typefaces that compliment each other in mood and energy. Then create a hierarchy of text by giving each typeface a set purpose in the portfolio (ex. A bold sans-serif for titles and a light weight serif for body text). With this organization, the reader will know what information is being delivered and where to look for specific information.

Measure :: The length of a line of text (aka column width). The length of the text affects the movement of the reader’s eye. If the length is too long, the eye may be lost in the transition from line to line. If it is too short, the reader’s eye may tire. A line of text is usually about 50 characters across and no more than 65 characters across.


Rag :: The uneven vertical edge of a block of type. The rag affects the flow of the reader’s eye, so try to avoid a shaggy rag.

The most important part of text is that it is readable. The typeface can be perfect but if you can’t read it, perfection doesn’t matter. There are many aspects to typography that affect the legibility of your text. First there is the size: make sure the body text is not below 10pt. Next there is the use





InDesign is set up as a content organizer, not a content creator. As such you will be placing precreated content into the program. All of your sketches, drawings, mock-ups and photos will be “placed” into the document. To make this process easy, organize all of your images ahead of time into folders you will remember.

Navigate to your images, select one or multiple and hit “Open.” Left clicking will now place each piece of content into your portfolio sequentially. Or, create a shape with the pen, shape or frame tools and, with the shape selected, place an image into it.


STEP THREE Repeat these steps to insert all of your content into your portfolio. Be careful though: clicking on a currently placed image while placing new ones will replace it with the new image.


EXPORTING PDF FOR WEB USE STEP 1 Choose File > Export For Save As Type (Windows) or Format (Mac OS), choose Adobe PDF (Print), and then click Save. Choose [Smallest File Size] from the Adobe PDF Preset menu.

STEP 2 In the Compression area, downsample images to 96 pixels per inch, select automatic compression, and select High image quality for colour and grayscale images. Click Export




Read through your portfolio yourself, and then give it to a couple of your peers to proofread. Printing without revision can lead to errors in spelling, alignment, and continuity.

Make sure your margins are big enough for binding! The last thing you want is cheap plastic coil binding running through your text and images.



If you’re printing your portfolio, make sure your image resolution is at least 150 DPI.

Printing establishments will offer three options of paper finishes: Glossy, Satin, and Matte. Glossy paper will give you richer colours, but is often too reflective. Matte is great for printing text, but can make your images appear flat and dull. Satin falls between glossy and matte and is a safe bet for portfolios. Satin is gonna make you look good.

TEST PRINT Your colours, gradients, and transparencies may not always print as expected. Print quality is determined by a huge number of factors. Test prints allow you to make sure you’re getting a quality print before shelling out a lot of cash.


PORTFOLIO INTERVIEWS The art of talking about your work is not something that comes naturally to designers. But it’s a good skill to learn, and learn as early as you can. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes and look upon each meeting as an opportunity to develop this skill. Not only will this make it easier to talk about your portfolio, it will also make you better at presenting concepts and design work, both to your colleagues and to clients. The simple rule here is engagement. Your aim should be to arouse interest in your work, not give a speech or lecture. Remember, showing your portfolio to people is also about them, not just you. When you come to each project, talk about it briefly to introduce it but don’t talk at length. See how they react, let them ask questions or let them simply look. If they are looking at you rather than the work, talk some more about the project—tell them what interested you about it. Look for signs that it’s time to move on to the next project.



“When someone is looking at your work, think about it as a review rather than a critique. This isn’t something negative, it is a positive opportunity to receive constructive feedback, a chance to get better.” -- Eleni Alpous, Cossette

In your presentation you should be able to confidently articulate and demonstrate sufficient competence in your portfolio, showing: •

your contribution in each project

project brief

approach to design process

design solution and deliverables

handling of special/unique challenges (opportunities!)

Your work should demonstrate a good command of basic design principles •

Composition :: placement or arrangement of visual elements

Typography :: arrangement of type to ensure legibility and appeal when displayed

Imagery :: use of visual representations of ideas and messages.

Colour :: understanding of colour theory



Not only is a review an opportunity to get feedback, it is also an important networking opportunity. You never know which one of your reviewers may actually be looking to hire someone! So, as you would do for an interview for an actual job, consider doing the following: •

Dress as you would for an interview (business casual).

Arrive on time.

Present yourself with professionalism but also try to relax.

Remember, a good reviewer is going to have some negative things to say about your work. Be prepared and open to constructive criticism.

Maintain a positive attitude throughout the review, even if you don’t like what your reviewer is saying. Try to avoid seeming like you “know it all.”

Listening is one of the most valued skills of any designer. Make it clear you are listening to your reviewers. Consider bringing paper and pen to take notes while your reviewers talk. It’s a great way to ensure you don’t forget any of their feedback.


The review is not just about the portfolio and what is in it, how you present and talk about your work can be just as valuable. •

Reviewers pay attention to whether your portfolio demonstrates your knowledge of design and the design process.

If you re-designed something as an assignment, you may want to include a copy of the original with the redesign so that you can explain why the redesign is better than the original.

You may be asked what typefaces you used (and about other choices you made). Be ready to explain why you made these choices and how your selections make your work more effective.

DO :: •

Focus on how your design solves a problem or fills a specific need rather than any detailed technical explanations about how you did something unless they ask specifically.

Explain what you learned during the process.

Keep an eye on how your reviewer is responding to what you say. Give your reviewer a chance to ask questions.

DO NOT :: •

Focus on the negative—have only positive comments regarding your work. If you are not happy with a piece, you should fix it or remove it.

Do not focus on personal information.


ANSWER QUESTION In a portfolio review or during an interview there are going to be questions—and lots of them! To start out they will ask you a variety of questions that will inch them closer to getting to know you and how you work. Here are a few examples of what you might expect from a graphic design interview: Have you been involved in business or product launch? What aspects did you contribute and how did you measure results? Describe a challenging team project and how did you overcome the obstacles? Describe a situation when you personally got involved in addressing those issues and what actions did you take? Describe a time when you received resistance to an idea or project you were responsible for implementing. How did you handle the resistance and still get results?


Bonus: Who is your favorite designer and why?

When answering questions try to keep your response in the form of the STAR method. Talk about the SITUATION, your TASK at hand, the ACTION you took, and the RESULTS you got.


Having a positive attitude and authenticity is key. You are more likely to be hired based on your personality (most recruiters are looking for a “fit” for a team) so don’t let your confidence (or lack thereof) get in the way: it’s not about being a master of Photoshop, being someone who is willing to grow and learn is a valuable employee!


It is always good to have 3 to 5 questions prepared for an interview when the potential employer asks, “Do you have any questions?” It shows that you are curious and proactive. Here are some sample questions that would be a fresh breath of air to any interviewer: What is an example of a client challenge you have recently faced? (Then, in your “Thank You” letter/email, address that challenge and how you would tackle it.) I was looking at your social media presence and see that your brand has been more active over the past few months. Has your strategy changed? (Clearly you have done your research and are already thinking about marketing and branding.) What would make someone really successful in this role? (This makes them think that you are an A-player and that you want to blow everyone out of the water.)







TUNITIES Carving out a career as a successful creative isn’t just about doing great work and building up an impressive design portfolio, you also have to make sure the right people see it. Getting your name and face known is central to building your career. Create your own business cards showcasing your graphic design abilities and hand them out to as many people as possible. It can he helpful to ask that person for his or her business card first—then you’ll have an opportunity to give your card out. Attend local professional groups and get to know other entrepreneurs or job-seekers. Even if the group isn’t related to graphic design, you may meet other professionals in need of quality graphic design. Create an address book of professional contacts and send them an occasional email or a postcard. Social networking sites, Twitter, Behance, Dribble, are useful marketing tools. Use them to your benefit. Create a profile that is personal yet professional and keep it up to date. Post samples of your design work, contact information for your business, and list any accomplishments. Be sure to follow other designers and appreciate their work!


FINDING A MENTOR Having a mentor is a great way to learn the ropes. You will learn things such as how much to charge for design, the pros and cons of freelancing, how to improve your creative process, recommended tools, how to present your work, and much more. But you can’t just go up to any one and ask “Would you be my mentor?” It has to be an organic journey. Do some research on local design studios. If you like the work they produce it’s a good idea to email one of the senior designers and ask if they wouldn’t mind going through your portfolio. Be flexible with them, as it’s them doing you a favor, but a lot of jobs are often found out of personal relationships. If you’re breaking the ice online, take extra care in crafting your approach, as it can be very difficult to convey personality through written communication. Always let them know you appreciate their time. If the person doesn’t have the time available, then it wouldn’t hurt to ask a few questions. At the very least, seldom communication may lead to a slowly growing relationship. Get them on your radar, and keep them there without being a pest.




Everyone has needed or wanted something from someone else in the past. People really do like to “pay it forward.” It’s just that they only have so many hours in a day. Therefore, there’s no shame in just blatantly asking for something but do so acknowledgingexactly what you’re doing.

Have you ever sent an email like this before?

Even something as simple as, “I would love to buy you a cup of coffee, but completely acknowledge the fact that you can afford you own cappuccinos and have way more important things to do with your time, so even five minutes over the phone to answer a few simple questions would be huge! Of course, on the off chance that you do have a craving for free caffeine, please say the date and the time, and I’m there.” There’s something admirable about someone who is unapologetically to the point. If I’m an executive who gets coffee and “informational interview” requests on a daily basis, I am WAY more likely to actually want to get coffee with this person in particular. It proves that you are empathetic, which is a huge asset to have in any business setting. It also proves that you’re not a time waster, and hey–you’re funny, and a little gutsy too. Not to mention, you’re making yourself available whenever they are.

“Hi X, My friend X went to college with your roommate, X, and recommended I get in touch with you, as I’m trying to get into marketing and I know you love your job in the marketing department at X company! If you’re up for it, I’d love to meet and pick your brain over coffee! I’m available on this Tuesday at 8am, Friday at 6pm, or Sunday at Noon.” Have you tried X coffee shop? I’d love to meet you there, it’s adorable and right by my house! My treat, of course. Hope to hear from you soon!” Notice how many times “I” was used in that tiny paragraph. What does that say when you give availability in your outreach email? It says your schedule is more important than theirs. You’re essentially saying, “here are the times I (the more important one) can fit you (the less important one, clearly with a less busy schedule) into my life.” The key to approaching networking or a mentor is understanding the other person’s time constraints, schedule, work-life balance, and using that to guide your approach in reaching out to them. Remember to say “Thank you!”. This will go far in establishing your credibility, and make you a better professional, and person, because of it!



Primary purpose of an internship is the education and training of the intern. Internships provide professional work experience to someone who is either in school, recently graduated or in some way lacking and in need of professional work experience in a specific field or environment, for example someone working in a new city for the first time. Internships help emerging designers develop confidence and judgment as they gain practical experience. KEY COMPONENTS :: •

Internship experience benefits the intern

Employer provides training and exposure to the complexities of real projects

Internship enhances the intern’s portfolio

Internship enhances the resume and is an opportunity to gain a reference



Defined responsibilities for the intern

Defined hours for the intern and defined duration of internship

Assigned supervisor who will provide constructive feedback to the intern

Assigned workspace with adequate software and equipment



Complete assigned tasks in a thorough and professional manner

Conform to professional office behaviour (ie. punctuality, notification of absences)

Give notice if unable to complete the internship duration, as was agreed upon

Understand and respect principles of confidentiality


Defined by the Association of Registered Graphic Designers (RGD) as “The donation of a person’s time or expertise at no charge generally conducted for charitable, religious, civic, community, governmental, educational and other non-profit organizations.”

BENEFITS :: CREATIVITY It is refreshing and inspiring to work with dedicated staff who believe in what they do. NETWORKING Non-profit or charitable organizations’ Board of Directors and other volunteers are great people to network with since some of them are business owners and prospective clients. PHILANTHROPY What is better than using your talent and knowledge to help effect change and support something that you believe in? PORTFOLIO It is a way to explore areas of design that are not yet prominent in your portfolio and develop creative and innovative new work.


PRO BONO CHALLENGES :: LEARNING Clients in the non-profit sector often have not worked with designers before. As such, a designer’s time may not be appreciated or understood and the clients may need to be educated about design and its value and the design process. VOLUNTEERS Working with any sort of committee on the design process, particularly one made up of volunteers, can be extremely challenging. DECISION-MAKING Lengthy decision-making processes are common due to the number of stakeholders and considerations that need to be addressed. BUDGETS On pro bono projects, there may not be much money for printing, paper and other suppliers. Designers may even be called upon to identify and ask suppliers to donate their services.


CONTESTS VS. SPEC WORK Whether you’re an established designer keen to break into the international design scene or a graduate who wants to show the world what you’ve got, winning a recognised competition could give you the exposure you crave. Design competitions are controversial in the industry for many reasons. Contests that award a final design without considering process represent a lack of appreciation for the problem-solving leading up to the end product, that undervalues the elements of design thinking and strategy that are integral to producing a successful result. Also, many design contests represent a pat-on-the-back for pretty designs rather than an appreciation for the process. The issue of “spec work” also surfaces when contests request the submission of original designs completed without any guarantee of compensation. RGD defines spec (speculative) work can be as “Providing design services to develop creative concept work for free (or for a nominal fee) as part of a new business pitch.” Spec work and crowdsourcing are universally condemned by responsible design organizations around the world, including RGD, Icograda, Graphic Artists Guild and AIGA, as being an unethical business practice that is harmful to designers and clients alike.


Design is a process involving research, creativity, strategy and client participation. Just as you wouldn’t have a lawyer represent you without them first understanding the fundamentals of your case, designers are the ones with the training, the ones with the marketing experience. They should be able to know all there is about clients’ needs, to be able to guide clients and produce the most appropriate work. That’s what designers’ portfolios are for giving clients the best opportunity to hire the right person. For more information visit ETHICAL CONTESTS :: •

Social Good Design Awards, Association of Registered Graphic Designers

Canadian Regional Design Awards (Redgees)

DesignEdge Packaging Awards

Adobe Design Achievement Awards

The Advertising & Design Club of Canada’s Directions Award

Elevators Awards (Saskatchewan)

Lotus Awards (British Columbia)

National Magazine Awards

Clio Awards

Young Guns (International): recognizes the vanguard of creative professionals 30 years of age and under

Check out Azure Magazine online for up-to-date competitions:


All photos taken from

TFS IDM 404 Portfolio Handbook  

This handbook was custom-made for the purpose of facilitating higherquality portfolios. It will not cover project processes, but will act as...

TFS IDM 404 Portfolio Handbook  

This handbook was custom-made for the purpose of facilitating higherquality portfolios. It will not cover project processes, but will act as...