The Facts about Graphic Design School Portfolios

September 15th, 2011 by rebeccac

graphic-design-portfolio-TS_83286948If you’ve started thinking about going to graphic design school, odds are that you have several college possibilities and a lot of pros and cons to weigh. How do you choose which school and which program are going to be right for you?

Here’s one must-have element to move up the priority list: portfolios.

A good graphic design program is going to guide you in the construction of a final portfolio project that you can take out into the world to help you in your job search after graduation, so if you’re looking at a college that doesn’t include portfolio development in some capacity, you might want to look a little deeper before you sign any enrollment papers.

Okay – so what’s the big deal with portfolios?

One word: experience.

Maybe it’s not the same as having real-world, on-the-job experience, but since you’ll be fresh out of graphic design school, you’re just trying to get your foot in the door. A portfolio is a great, visual way to show potential employers what you’ve got to offer – your skills and creativity, what programs and techniques you learned during the course of your education, and how it all can benefit them. It shows you know your way around graphics and you can produce what they need.

It’s not a replacement for a resume.

Write that down, underline it, circle it with little stars because it’s really, really not. You still need to build one of those, too, and don’t short-change it or it won’t matter if your portfolio is a multimedia experience in 3-D. They’ll just toss it. The long and short of it is – when it comes to graphic design careers, it’s not enough to have JUST a list of education and skills or JUST a photo book of your creations. The best way to sell yourself is to present a clean, professional resume and then show them evidence of everything you can do.

The next question then becomes: what’s the best way of putting your portfolio pieces together? There are a few different options:

  • Print book: Something professional-looking and neatly bound, with a nice cover and easy-to-turn pages. Nothing too gaudy, and black background pages are usually your best option to set off the gorgeous visuals you’ve created.
  • Website: Probably best to get a professional domain (your first and last name, if you can swing it) rather than using a free site like Yahoo or Geocities. It’s a small investment for your professional future and lets you keep things ad-free. Display your portfolio pieces as a page of thumbnails so that a potential employer can dictate which images he or she wants to see and what order to see them.
  • DVD: Provides the tangibility of a print book with the digital formatting of a website. Especially handy for potential employers who want to see it digitally but might have a slower Internet connection or older browsers.

If at all possible, put your portfolio in all three of these formats to give yourself flexibility. More traditional print-based companies are going to want to see the book, but interactive and multimedia companies will likely be more dazzled by a DVD or website presentation.

7 important tips for your graphic design portfolio

Almost as soon as you enroll in graphic design school, you’ll probably want to start thinking about the future of your portfolio. It’s not a stagnant project – it’s something that develops and changes over time, so here are a few tips to keep in mind when trying to put one together.

  1. Edit. Just because you worked hard on every piece doesn’t mean that every piece deserves top billing. If something really isn’t the best show of your skills, then chuck it – you should really only have about 10-12 pieces total. Throw a bunch of mediocre stuff in the mix, and odds are a potential employer is more likely to remember the not-so-good fluff than your stand-out creations.
  2. Don’t go overboard. It’s great to have a big, vibrant personality, but when you’re presenting your portfolio, it’s important to keep it professional. Resist the urge to over-embellish it or to buy that fantastic multi-colored presentation book. Black may be boring, but it’s a great background for design. Keep it simple and sleek.
  3. Embrace variety. You may love working with typography best, but odds are that the jobs you will be applying for will require much more than that. Make sure your portfolio shows not only your best, but also your most diverse selection of work.
  4. Label. Probably the simplest part of the portfolio process – label your works. Nothing too big or distracting, just something noting the client or project name, your role in it, what software you used, and a very brief explanation of why this piece is important in your body of work.
  5. Get another opinion. Almost no one is able to look at their own work absolutely objectively, and that makes editing very difficult. A second (and third and fourth) opinion can give you a fresh perspective on your portfolio and help nail down what works and what doesn’t. Find people, like your instructors, who will be honest – not friends and loved ones who already love everything you do.
  6. Keep it current. Design evolves like everything else, and oftentimes, much faster. Make sure your pieces reflect your developing skills and experience. Most likely that piece from one of your first classes two or three years ago isn’t going to age well, so adjust your portfolio to keep things up-to-date.
  7. Stay flexible. Every potential employer is going to be looking for graphic designers who meet their unique needs for the position, so allow yourself the chance to adjust your portfolio accordingly. Do some digging on the company, find out everything you can, and then present the pieces that best match their aesthetic and where they’re headed.

If you’re looking into a future in graphic design, a portfolio is going to be absolutely essential, so make sure in your college search that you’re looking at schools that make it a priority. A great portfolio will not only give you a leg up in the job search, it will also be a visual testament to everything you’ve accomplished and how far you’ve come.

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