Portfolio Lab: Part 1. Content & Structure

Whether you’re a recent graduate or established design director, creating your portfolio is always going to be a daunting prospect – the tasks of curating your own work, writing about it, and presenting it each come with their own challenges.

As the north of England continues to see a shift towards digital and experiential agencies, we are seeing more varied portfolios than ever before – and creating case studies for your work isn’t easy when the ultimate deliverable is an experience, an impression, or a moment in time.

It’s becoming standard practice to tailor your portfolio to each application you make – in fact, 86% of the portfolios we see are tweaked to suit the agency they’re being sent to. Not only are you competing with lots of other talented individuals, you've also got to lay bare your thought process, skills and unique approach while knocking the socks off the creative directors who see it. No pressure then.

With all of this taken into account, what exactly do creative directors want to see in a portfolio? Five of the best from Leeds and Manchester spill the beans on what they’re looking for…

Putting together and designing your portfolio is a tough gig. So how do you make it amazing? A good starting point is yourself. Simon Forster, Creative Director of Robot Food says, “Your portfolio shows who you are as a designer. So curate it according to your style and where you want your career to go.”

Obviously there's more to it than this. But start by thinking about who you are and where you want to go. Consider the type of agencies you'd like to work for and why. Mulling all this over will give you a sense of how to go about things.

One portfolio or two?

Most of the creative directors we asked preferred to see a 'look at me!' portfolio in the first instance. Then if you're asked in for interview, they want to see a second portfolio that builds on the first, showing more projects and demonstrating your thought process in more detail.

Rory Sutherland (Creative Head at LOVE.) says, “Think teaser trailer and then full movie. Get someone interested without bombarding them with info, then take the time to run through a select few projects when you meet in person. The people meeting you will have seen your introductory work and be expecting to see and hear more.”

Nicky Place, Director of Leeds-based agency, Build has a different view, “The same portfolio for application and interview ­is fine – it helps us remember why we wanted to see you, especially if some time's passed. Then at interview, we can discuss the projects in depth. Of course, if you have any new, relevant projects, add them in." 

PDF or website?

PDFs are generally preferred. Or a Keynote if there’s moving imagery involved. Simon Forster prefers PDFs, “PDFs can be personalised and is less work than following a link and working out how a site works. You can also guide someone through a PDF at the right pace and in the order you choose".

Creative Director of Manchester-based Only, Matthew Tweddle, agrees, “PDFs add another level of curation that you can’t control when someone is clicking around on your website.”

Just make sure your contact details are in there somewhere. PDFs are often stored separately from the email they came with, so if your email gets deleted there'll be no way of contacting you. You should also include a link to your website on your PDF, even if it shows the same projects. This way, if the contact details on the PDF change, people can still get in touch.

Selecting your work

When you're unsure which projects to include, it’s tempting to bung it all in. But don’t. Creative directors are too busy to wade through reams of stuff. Be brutally selective. ‘Murder your darlings’, as the saying goes. Simon Forster's view is that, “A portfolio’s style and curation is often more telling than the work inside. After all, the work will often have been produced by a team of designers.”

So only show your best work that you’re really proud of, that you can talk about with passion and enthusiasm, and that reveals a little of who you are as a designer. Choose projects that are distinct from one another and can stand alone. Don’t put anything in that you don’t love and don't include weak work just because it was for a big brand.

Matthew says, “It only takes one piece of work that isn’t as strong to really undermine the rest of your portfolio.” To this, Rory Sutherland adds, “If a project didn’t pan out the way you wanted due to ‘bad’ client decisions, then simply don’t put it in your portfolio.”

Adam Rix, Creative Director of Manchester-based Music summarises, “your ‘get me in for an interview’ portfolio needs to be concise and let the work do the talking, i.e: not over designed, and shows good typography and layout skills, reveals some of your personality and ultimately makes me want to see more.”

Last not least, don’t take credit for an entire creative project if you only artworked the brochure. Always be honest.

How many projects?

Always choose quality over quantity. For your initial ‘look at me’ portfolio, Rory Sutherland says, “Three to five projects is the sweet spot. Too many projects smacks of indecision and a lack of editorial skill.”

Simon at Robot Food suggests, “Five to six is the maximum number of projects to discuss in depth and 20 pages is the maximum in a PDF. We’ve all been guilty of trying to cover all bases but confidence is key. I would much rather take on a specialist with a distinct style than a jack of all trades.”

“Editing is a skill that comes with confidence," says Adam Rix. "You’ll always question whether that one project you left out may have swung it, and this continues into your career too when, as an agency, you go for new business. Just do what feels right and stick by it. And try not to dwell too much if things don’t go your way."

Show variety

Most creative directors want to see what you can do across a range of projects and channels. So don't repeat yourself and don't be too hung-up on showing only polished, finished work. If you can demonstrate how you've developed your ideas, it helps people understand how you think.

Rory Sutherland says, “Get some variety in there. Does five branding jobs in a row show off your full capabilities? Mix it up.” Matthew at Only suggests showing thoughts and sketches, “It’s interesting to understand how an idea has developed especially with the second portfolio. So expand on what you’ve shown already, with a couple of extra projects and some printed materials where appropriate.”

If you’re a graduate, it will be more about showing your thinking, skills and approach across an eclectic range of work. More experienced designers will have a bigger body of work but it’s always a good idea to show variety. "Don’t be too narrow in case you misjudge the sort of work we want to see,” advises Nicky Place.

What about personal or purely conceptual projects?

Creative directors love personal projects because they show who you are as a designer. Simon Forster is a fan, “Self-generated projects can say far more than agency-generated work and won’t be held back by the objectives of a client brief.” Bear in mind though that if you’ve been working for five years or more, commercial projects should heavily outweigh the personal ones.

“That drive to develop through personal projects and constantly exploring new avenues is often what separates the best designers from good designers," adds Matthew Tweddle of Only.

Personal projects are also ideal if your client work isn't fully expressing your range or your talents. Rory Sutherland says, “If what you’re working on day to day doesn’t truly reflect what you’re capable of, make your own work that does. I would take great, well thought-through self-initiated projects over poor live jobs any day.”

Don’t overdo it though. If your portfolio is too heavy on the experimental stuff, creative directors might struggle to see how you’ll get on in a commercial environment working for diverse audiences.

Tailor it but be true to you

By all means, design a portfolio to fit a particular agency. Synergy and a shared sense of design values is good. But don’t let this inhibit you or paint a picture of yourself that isn’t authentic. The quality of your work and ideas will always transcend stylistic preferences. For example, don’t assume some fantastic work you’ve done for a bank will be of no interest to an agency with only food and drink clients. If the idea and execution are sound, show it off.

However, be sure to balance this out with an awareness of your audience. Rory Sutherland says, “Be conscious of who you're presenting to. Do they have a sense of humour or are they quite straight? Are they more design or advertising focused? More interiors or graphic design? Structure your projects accordingly and include projects that demonstrate your full skill set.”

Get physical

Digital is convenient. But don't overlook the magic of the physical. Adam Rix says, “I can't recommend anything more than sending something physical to go alongside your formal submission. The stuff that really stands out is the simple handwritten letter, or something fun that gets us all talking in the studio. I’ve had everything from a week-long valentine’s campaign of daily deliveries to a knitted poo. One of those people works at Music now.”

Whether you’re working on your PDF-folio now, or are busy knitting some poos – make sure you use your common sense, stand in your recipients’ shoes before you send anything, and the best of luck!

Are you a designer? Fancy some impartial advice on how to give your portfolio some extra pizazz?

Book a slot at our next Portfolio Lab. Aimed at all designers from graduates through to seasoned pros, we give you advice, tips and tricks based on what we know creative directors want.