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Top 10 Portfolio Tips for Freelance Designers

Source: _StaR_DusT_

What’s in YOUR portfolio?

Remember when designers carried large-format portfolios into interview rooms (or left them with the agency’s receptionist), and rarely, if ever, saw another designer’s portfolio?

Then came the Interwebs. And with it, Behance, Coroflot, Carbonmade, and Dribbble....

And the world of portfolios was forever changed.

Or was it?

Even in this brave new world of online and shared portfolios, there are so many questions that remain the same:

  • What do hiring managers REALLY want to see in a freelancer’s portfolio?
  • Should I include everything (just in case) or just my best work?
  • How much time do I have to catch a hiring manager’s attention?


To answer these (and other) burning questions, we got some spectacular advice from two of our Doyens of the Portfolio: agent Monica Bloom and recruiter Christie Barkan.

A veteran creative agent, Monica was graphic designer and art director for 10 years before joining Vitamin T, working as both staff and freelancer for the likes of Franklin Templeton, Red Envelope, Torn Ranch, and Williams-Sonoma and its brands, Pottery Barn and West Elm.

Christie has been both a creative recruiter and agent for over 5 years. She regularly gives advice on both portfolios and résumés at Virginia Marti College of Art and Design and will be teaching a course in portfolios on campus this fall.

Here they are, in all their glory, their top 10 portfolio tips for freelancers!

1. Make Your First Pieces Count

Like most of the Vitamin T folks, Monica and Christie can see over 100 portfolios in a week. Do the math: if an agent or creative hiring manager has a 50- or 60-hour workweek, plus jobs to fill, press checks to run (essentially a lot of other stuff to do), they don’t have a lot of quality time to spend with every portfolio that comes their way.

Both agreed that a mere 5 to 10 seconds per portfolio is all you’ll get during that first look by an agent or hiring manager. Those first few precious seconds will determine whether anyone will spend another 30 seconds on it. Only then will they decide whether or not to contact a designer about a freelance gig.

Monica said, “When your work is in front of a hiring manager for the first time, you want to show your most relevant and best pieces first. But not everything.” She suggests showing 4 or 5 great pieces that match the role you are applying for so the client will say, “I want to see more.”

2. Customize Your Portfolio for the Position You Want

Due to the limited time your portfolio has to capture interest, you need to show a hiring manager or agent exactly what they’re looking for, fast. So if you’re applying for a freelance role that produces web banners for online gaming, and you’ve got work like that in your book, there’s a strong chance you’re going to look perfect for the job. However, if you share a portfolio that only has collateral for the energy industry, they’re unlikely to believe you can do their job.

Christie advises that designers to remember that it’s not what you want to show in a portfolio, it’s what the client wants to see. And in those first moments, they want to see something perfect for their specific freelance position.

3. Make Sure Your Portfolio Stands Out

Monica said, “High-profile projects with big-name clients still get everyone’s attention. But really, a portfolio that shows your work laid out nicely and allows the viewer to see it up close and personal, is always going to make a splash.”

Clients want to see typography, colors, and the details of the work. “Treat your portfolio as part of your design. It’s your job as a designer to take all your disparate client work and try to tie it together thematically, without letting your ‘self’ overshadow your work.”

4. Create an Online Portfolio

Whether you’re a print or web designer, you need to have something online. Our agent experts point to Coroflot and Behance as the best websites for building your design portfolio. (Our full review on free, online portfolio sites are covered in this previous post.)

Christie added although these sites are great, what really stands out for her are designers who create their own portfolio site–especially for interactive designers. Even better, if you pick up a little front-end experience while building your portfolio site, so much the better!

Remember, the layout and functionality of your online site is often just as important as your samples. A great user experience on your site shows a hiring manager that you can provide the same great experience for their customers. And if you use a free portfolio site, make sure your work is in order from best (and most relevant) to, well, less than best in descending order.

5. Make the Most of PDFs

PDFs are great because they’re easy to customize to each specific job for which you apply, but you need to make sure they show off your skills. Monica remembered, “I once got a PDF from an Art Director that was, no kidding, 96 MB.” Rule of thumb: if it can’t easily be emailed, resize it.

Design portfolio PDFs should be one multipage document under 5 MB. Oh, and make sure the samples you include are relevant to the job (are we hitting this one home yet?)

Think about it: sending a client a bunch of individual, large PDFs gives them the message that you don’t know how to present design work to a client in a clear, concise manner. Which is, of course, not the message you want to send as a freelance designer.

6. Prepare Your Portfolio for In-Person Interviews

For in-person interviews, you can bring printed pieces, if you have them, and a backup of your interactive samples as actual images. You should not count on having an Internet or mobile connection when you go into an interview.

Monica advised, “For online samples, you should have images on an iPad or laid out in a PDF to show the client. There’s nothing worse than counting on that connection and having it fail when you’re in the middle of an important interview.”

Pieces to include in your face-to-face should be the relevant ones you’ve already shown, plus any projects you think demonstrate your ability to stretch your design muscles to varied styles and deliverables.

Christie said, “Your portfolio is your résumé. You’re essentially selling your design skills and ability to achieve business goals. If your portfolio doesn’t look fantastic and you can’t explain your value, then the hiring manager might wonder how you’re going to treat the work you’re given. By showing a well-organized thought process and your knowledge of the customers you targeted, you show how you’ll handle your design work as part of their team.”

7. Leave Your Large-Format Portfolio At Home

If you work in print, you can still have both a web and print portfolio, but the large-format heyday may indeed be  over.

Monica cautioned, “The days of the large-format portfolios are gone. Beautifully laid out 8 ½ by 11 sized portfolios are in. Even if you’re a packaging designer, you don’t have to bring in all your samples. You can do a photoshoot with them and bring them in neatly compiled into a book, then bring a few of the very best ones if they fit the job.”

8. Keep Your Portfolio Honest

Obviously, you should never put a design sample in your book that’s not yours. And never show proprietary samples that you’ve been asked not to share. No brainers, right?

Monica shared a story of a designer who was showing his portfolio to a prospective employer. When the creative director looked in the book, he recognized a few pieces that his agency had done. Not only had the designer not worked on them, yet presented them as his own, they were proprietary. Obviously, the only thing that designer got out of that interview was a bad reputation.

Labeling is also important. Christie said, “If you’ve worked on a piece, absolutely put it in there, and include your role. Then, when you’re in the interview, you can explain exactly what you did. Design? Hands-on production? Client pitch? Tell them. Since many people touch web projects, talk about all the teams you worked with to produce the piece.”

9. Get a Second (or Third or Fourth) Opinion

Just like your resume, your design portfolio should have as many eyes as possible on it before you send it “out into wild.”

Make it fun! Even though role plays can be stressful, they’re less stressful than a live interview for the job of your dreams. Sit down with a friend (or 10) and walk them through your work, asking for candid feedback. Meet with a creative agent at Vitamin T who has seen 1000s of portfolios to get perspective on how yours stacks up.

Interactive work can be tricky to share given the ever-changing nature of the web. Be sure to have your friends and peers really go in and QA your web projects–especially your own site. Check for dead links, typos, widows, orphans, anything that could look like you lack attention to detail when viewed by a potential employer.

10. Check Out the Competition

Both Christie and Monica are huge advocates for looking at other designers’ portfolios.

Monica said, “In the past, a lot of designers never knew what other people’s portfolios looked like. You need to be aware of what designers are doing out there. Go online and look at the portfolios of people who have the position that you want, take a gander at the quality of their work and see where you are relative to them.”

For freelance work, the competition is stronger than ever, as previously “permanent-job-only” candidates explore the fabulous world of freelance to build their portfolios and be part of engaging, fun team environments. So remember to keep the client’s needs in mind as you prepare your portfolio for freelance gigs.

Ready to rebuild your portfolio? Great!

When you’re done, we’d love to see it. Just find your local Vitamin T agent and let them know.

If you have anything to add, let us know.

And of course, if you have questions, post them here as well. We’ll have both Monica and Christie answer your queries!

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