Portfolio Preparation

By Erin Harris from erinmharris.com

Opening and closing

Start with your strongest piece and end with your second strongest. You want to grab your reviewer’s attention right away, and leave them with an equally strong memory when they’re done. Try to make sure your first piece has a relatively simple explanation to go with it. It’ll make the rest of your presentation go smoother if you can get into it without being tripped up over something complicated right off the bat.


Keep it simple. Don’t get lured into the pretty cases and elaborate set-ups. The important thing is that your work is displayed neatly and cleanly. Keep your work to one piece per spread (facing pages), unless you are showing a magazine spread, or work that goes together. More often than not, if you get caught up in the book itself, it will overshadow the work inside. The work you’re presenting is more important than the box or book you put it in.

Make it manageable

When you go in for an interview, you’re likely talking to someone who has very little desk space to spare. (Think about your desk – it’s not entirely empty, is it?) Don’t use “student” portfolios (those huge black handled monstrosities that art students are known for carrying) – they’re too big to fit easily on someone’s desk. They’re also unwieldy and hard to transport from interview to interview. Keep your book to 11” x 17” or smaller. If you have pieces that are too big for that size restraint, take a photo of it (if it’s 3D) or shrink it down. You can always include a tag with the actual size, or talk about it in your interview.

Protect your work

Books with plastic covers or sleeves are a great way to keep your work safe. Because your book will be handled by a lot of people, work is obviously going to get a little bit battered and pick up fingerprints. Plastic sleeves help avoid that. You can get books that either have plastic sleeves bound together, or ones that have a ring binder setup with removable pages.

Remove awards and your resume

Awards are great, but they belong on your resume, not in your portfolio. Unless you designed the award yourself, you don’t need to indicate pieces that won awards in your portfolio. An interviewer will see awards listed on your resume, and if they want to know what pieces won those awards, they’ll ask you. (So make sure to have them with you, even if they’re not officially in your book!) Your resume is also not a sample of your design work (even though it is expected that your resume has been designed). Hand it to the reviewer separately so they can hold on to it (even if they have a copy) – don’t paste it into your book. Likewise, use your resume to mention your software skills, not your portfolio. Your resume is for facts about you and your experience – your portfolio is a showcase for your work.

Projects, not “assignments”

When you’re a student or recent graduate, employers know that the majority of your work is schoolwork, but you don’t need to remind them. Saying things like “For this assignment, we had to…” makes it appear that you did the work because you were forced to, rather than taking an interest in the project. Don’t play it off as a real world project if it isn’t one, but present the work in a positive light, rather than work that you ‘had’ to do.

Show your best work

Generally speaking, you want to have 8 – 12 pieces in your book, but it’s just a guideline. It’s better to have 6 fantastic pieces than 12 mediocre ones. It also means that if you have an assignment from class that had requirements that don’t show off your idea in the best light possible, then change them. Those requirements were solely for your class work – there’s no reason you have to keep them once the class is over. If you have a poster that you did at 24” x 36” for class, but the idea would really look better as a 17” x 17” square, then change it. If the idea is good enough to put in your book, then why show it in a less than optimal setup?

Mix it up

Start with your strongest piece and end with your second strongest piece. But don’t forget about the pieces in between. You want to make sure to pace your book, and keep work split up. Don’t put two large ad campaigns in the front of your book, and then put four small brochures at the back – it creates an imbalance, and pieces feel clumped together. Bunches of similar projects can also cause the reviewer to subconsciously compare them to each other, rather than concentrating on your book as a whole.

Practice makes perfect

Nothing can trip you up in an interview more than nerves. The best way to prepare is to get comfortable talking about your work. Get a friend or two to sit down with you and ask you about your work. You’ll get a feel for how much to tell about each piece, and how long it takes you to get through it all. If you can, try presenting to a teacher, or, better yet, schedule an informational interview with a local firm. This will help you get solid feedback on what you need to improve on, both in your book itself, and in how you present it.

Be possessive

Don’t ever leave your interview portfolio with an interviewer. If you do, and you get a call for another interview the next day, you’ll be scrambling trying to get it back, possibly before the original interviewer has had a chance to look it over again. Guard your interview portfolio carefully. Either have multiple copies, or develop a mini-portfolio or leave-behind piece to give out if an interviewer asks for a sample of your work to keep with your resume.

Cover yourself

If you’re including work from a job, make sure to ask for permission from your employer to use the work in your portfolio. If you’re working as their employee, they own the copyright to the work, so you want to get it in writing that it’s okay to use it. If you have work from a freelance job, check your contract and make sure you’ve retained the right to use the work for self-promotion before putting it in your portfolio.

Take your time

Be prepared to spend time (and money) putting your book and mini-portfolio together. You want to display your work to your best ability, so don’t rush it. A sloppy book will reflect badly on you, no matter how good your work is, so take your time and do it right.

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