Graphic Design Portfolios for Desktop Publishing

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Desktop publishing or graphic design portfolios should be more than just a few samples thrown into a folder. Potential employers or clients use examples of your work to help determine whether they want to hire you. The samples you choose to display and how you present them can affect whether or not you get the job.

Use Graphic Design Portfolios to Strut Your Stuff

If you aren't taking on new clients or if you're so well-known that your name alone can land an assignment, then maybe you can forget about formal graphic design portfolios. However, few of us fall into those categories.

Most graphic designers and others doing some type of freelance desktop publishing need graphic design portfolios of some kind — a way to show potential employers or clients the quality of our work, our level of expertise, and to establish credibility.

Job seekers will probably need both résumés and portfolios. Skills in specific software programs and experience in print design and digital file production go into the résumé. Clients of freelancers are generally less concerned about the specific software you use but they are interested in the final product that you can produce.

Graphic design portfolios are graphical résumés. They show real examples of the type of work you have done in the past. It is an indication of the type of work you can do in the future.

The first step in building a portfolio is deciding what will go in it.

What Types of Samples to Include

In general, you want to show that work which best shows off your skills and expertise. If you aren't comfortable with a piece (even if the client loved it) you're probably better off leaving it out of your graphic design portfolio.

  1. Actual Samples: Whenever possible, use actual samples. That is, if you did a four-color brochure for a client, put one of the original brochures in your graphic design portfolio rather than an inkjet copy. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Copies: If you can't get originals then use proofs printed from your digital files to your desktop printer. Or, make the best photocopies you can of the original printed pieces.
  4. 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.
  5. Screenshots: If your work involves web design or other non-print designs you can still put together printed portfolios. Make screenshots 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. Even if the logo or graphics you design are for web display, start out with a high-resolution version and save it at various stages. You never know when a client will decide they want to use the design in print. And of course, that high-resolution version will look nicer in your printed graphic design portfolio.

If you have a large body of work to choose from, your toughest decision is deciding which pieces to include and which to omit. However, when just starting out you may have little — or nothing — to put in your portfolio. Beginner's design portfolios may require a bit more creativity but it can be done. Designers who want to change their focus or who want to fill in gaps in their portfolios can also use the beginner's portfolio tips.

What Goes in Beginner's Graphic Design Portfolios

You need samples to get a job but you need a job in order to have samples. That old catch-22 doesn't have to stop you from putting together a good graphic design portfolio. It just requires a bit more creativity.

These tips aren't only for those just starting out. For example, if you've done mostly business cards and letterhead but want to let clients know that you can do more, use these ideas to show off your skill in designing other types of publications.

Use Made-Up Samples in Graphic Design Portfolios

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.

  1. Use Freebies for Friends and Family: Show off work you did for others, even if they didn't hire you. Do you design the newsletter for your school or print fliers for your garden club? Use the best of those pieces. Design business cards for family and friends. I've done business cards (laser printed) for my dad's hobby, another relative's office job (they didn't supply any), and others who probably wouldn't have bothered to get cards if I hadn't offered to do a few for free. At one point my graphic design portfolio contained samples I created for my father's business. He gets his clients by word-of-mouth entirely and doesn't use business cards, letterhead, ads, etc. However, I still sat down and went through the process of coming up with some logo ideas. He was willing to look at the designs and pick out a few that he might consider if he were going to use a logo. Those samples went into my portfolio.
  2. Put in Your Own Identity Pieces: The identity pieces you create for your own business can be a part of your graphic design portfolio. You can even include items that a client might not normally see such as your own custom quote forms (for printers) or job tracking forms.
  3. Put in Personal Design Projects: Do you make your own holiday or birthday cards? Include the best of them in your portfolio. Do you have a personal web page? Include screenshots or high-resolution printouts of any custom graphics you created for your website.
  4. Use Tutorial Pieces: You should know how to use your software before you start hiring out your services. One way to learn the software is to use it to create the same types of items you'll be doing for clients — brochures, newsletters, ads, etc. Use the finished pieces from your own tutorials for your graphic design portfolio.
  5. Use Rejects (Carefully): Normally you'd use only the finished designs you created for a client. However, if you have only a few clients you might consider including the best of the preliminary designs you created in order to better show your range. As you produce new pieces for clients (paying or not) replace the less impressive items in your portfolio with the new samples. Graphic design portfolios aren't static creations. They should grow and change as your expertise grows.

After you've decided what will go in your graphic design portfolio (and created those pieces if you're just starting out) you'll need to decide how best to present those samples.

Let Your Samples Dictate Your Graphic Design Portfolio Case Size

The style and size of your graphic design 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 letter size 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 your design samples are large, choose a graphic design portfolio case that lets you present the full sample without folding, if feasible.

Also, keep in mind the type of clients you seek as well as where and how you'll present your graphic design portfolio. Too-large portfolio cases can overwhelm some smaller clients and can also be awkward to carry or present when you meet clients at a coffee shop or in a small, cramped office.

Many of those new to desktop publishing start with nothing more than a three-ring notebook and sheet protectors to hold their samples. This is perfectly acceptable although I would recommend avoiding cheap plastic binders. Also, use quality sheet protectors. Some of the cheap ones show scratches or tear easily.

You may not need a physical graphic design portfolio case at all. Web designers or those who cater primarily to long-distance clients can present their graphic design portfolios electronically. The PDF format or online portfolios are options on their own or in combination with traditional print graphic design portfolios.

Browse these online stores to see some of the many styles of portfolio cases available: Dick Blick Art Materials or Portfolios and Art Cases. Artist's supply and office supply stores often have a range of portfolio cases from which to choose.

The way in which you place samples in your graphic design portfolio is just as important as the case and its contents.

Arranging the Order of Graphic Design Portfolio Pages

Deciding what order to present items in your graphic design portfolio can be a challenge.

  1. Best First, Last: One rule of thumb suggests placing your very best items first and last. Unless you are walking them through pages one at a 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.
  2. Group by Type of Publication: One 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.
  3. Group by Skill/Technique: You may choose to group samples by the type of skills required such as placing all four-color work in one area. Grouping by style is another possibility — grouping "conservative" pieces and "technical" examples in their own sections of the portfolio.

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 while one is flipping through your graphic design portfolio.

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.

If your graphic design portfolio has a large number of pages or sections, using tabbed dividers is one way to help you or the client quickly locate the specific samples that interest them most.

Arranging Online Portfolios

Some of these same guidelines would also apply to web portfolios. The web offers further flexibility by making it much easier to present your portfolio 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 Web portfolio images is normally GIF or JPG or PDF.