Student Design Portfolio Cheat Sheet
A master list of tips to make your student graphic design portfolio better
I have seen and reviewed hundreds of student portfolios over the last decade or so and I am always excited when I see student work that is exceptional in both execution and ideas. The percentage of student work that is a cut above does not seem to fluctuate much. Every year there always seems to be a great deal of okay to average work, just a handful of super solid students and the occasional standout. I’ve asked myself why this is and I think a large part of it is that students are students and most are negotiating distractions, other coursework and are not driven from within to see their design education as a roadmap to a professional career. Another contributing factor is that students don’t really know what agencies are looking for when they view the work to hire a potential intern or a junior designer.
In this article I have tried to put together all the major tips and guidance that I have given students in an effort to improve the presentation of their work when looking for their first career experience. A lot of it is common sense but some of it you might not have considered or thought about. Whether you are about to graduate, just out of school or are entering a second career as a designer, I hope that you find these tips helpful.
The number of projects to show
For a student portfolio, I recommend showing about eight projects. Why eight? Someone reviewing your work, be it in person, virtually, or through your site or social channels, will have a limited amount of time. I have found that having only 4–5 projects is too few and may come off as if you don’t have enough work. In contrast, if you have 10–12 projects, it may be too many for a busy art director to review easily. If you show about 8 projects it is enough to show variety and depth without overdoing it. Eight projects also allows for a balanced grid within a site context that will feel clean and substantive. I would consider putting together about 10 projects and then curating what you show based on the studio reviewing your work.
The kinds of projects to share
For any portfolio you have to show a range of work in both subject matter and in presentation. You should also anchor your portfolio with at least 3 projects that are your strongest work. Keeping in mind limited time and attention span, I would start out strong, share something midway through that is a little more offbeat and memorable and then end strong.
With regard to subject matter, there are no wrong answers really, but I would suggest the following list as a starting point:
- Show at least one project that demonstrates that you are strong typographically. The fresher and more current the type selection the better
- Share multiple case studies that demonstrate that you can bring a brand to life across many audience touch points and show how the brand message is adapted for different media. Make sure your use of photography is strong
- Present at least one project that is cultural in nature and has social relevance
- Walk through a project that expresses one of your passions that you are most excited about. Enthusiasm matters!
- Presenting at least one project that is self initiated outside of the classroom is great. It shows that you are into design beyond what teachers make you do
- I would also discourage showing incomplete work or too many one-off experiments as these can be hard to understand and may take too much time to explain
- Showing a little bit of your process on one or two projects is good but don’t overdo it. I love seeing a glimpse into all the work that did not see the light of day
- Try to make student work feel like professional work. Imagine you got paid to do it!
Ideally any student should be able to share their portfolio physically as well as online. Having some kind of web site as well as a presentation in Keynote or Google Slides is a must. It is important to understand that a person’s experience is different if they are viewing a website or PDF on their own than when they are sitting with you in an interview. You must design your portfolio for these different user experiences. In my view having a physical portfolio or book is not required but you should be able to share your work in a presentation format on a laptop or iPad in an office setting. Having examples of anything printed such as books, zines, records and the like is great to bring to an interview as you walk through a project.
Recommended portfolio formats:
- A great presentation in Keynote of Google Slides
- Optimize the above presentation as a PDF that can either be attached to an email or linked to via Dropbox or Google Drive
- A website. Any of the website building platforms are fine as long as you don’t just install a template as-is. You need some level of personalization and customization
- A physical portfolio is not required but you may want to consider collecting your physical samples into a book or folder form you can bring with you to a meeting
For many students building a portfolio website can feel like an arduous task but it is a vital necessity because your site is probably the format most people will see your work in. Before you start building a site you must focus on gathering all of the project assets you will need. You will likely want to jump into building a site in Squarespace, Cargo, Webflow, WordPress, Wix or another site building tool but don’t do this until you have all of your raw material.
Once you have all of your work together I recommend designing the key pages in Figma. Why Figma? In my view Figma is becoming a standard design software tool just like Photoshop and Illustrator and it is ideal for designing websites. Before you jump into Figma you should look at other sites that present case studies and pull together references that resonate with you. An important thing to consider is your grid of thumbnails that show your work. A thumbnail for a project has to be beautiful. You want people to feel compelled to click on it to see the full project. Project thumbnails can be animated but keep in mind that a person viewing your site will have limited time so make your work easy to access and understand. Making sure your site works well on a smartphone is also crucial. You may need to prepare alternate presentations of some of your work that are more vertical in nature so they look great on a mobile device.
At the very least your site will consist of a homepage showing a grid of work, a detail page for each project as well as an about page. Focus on these three site screens and get them resolved on both desktop and mobile before you build. Depending on your work, you may also want to design each of your project pages in Figma so you can figure how you want to present them. It may sound annoying and time consuming to have to design everything in Figma and then rebuild the screens in a site builder but I have found it is much easier to fuss around in Figma than it is to try to design while also building in a site builder.
- Gather all of your raw material first
- Pull together site references you like
- Design key desktop and mobile screens in Figma
- Work on making amazing project thumbnails that show your work in the best light
- Start building the site only when you feel that your site design is resolved
- Any site builder is fine to use as long as you do not just use a default or existing template.
- You must make the site feel like yours and it must feel crafted and look great on a smartphone
Thoughts on Mockups
Using mockups to show how a visual design can take on different applications and form factors is totally acceptable.
There is however a false assumption among some students that a mock up will make your work better. It will not. Mockups are intended to give your work the impression that it has been manifest in reality so that it is more believable. Making your work believable is not the same as making your work better. When evaluating a portfolio, if the foundational aspects of your design decisions are not formally and conceptually resolved it will not matter what mockup you use.
I encourage students to focus on the design system first and work through the articulation of the system as a logical set of tools using type, color, image and form. If you can articulate how the design system operates then the form factors you chose to show how the system comes to life will reinforce the strength of the system. Keep in mind that not all mockups are created equal. Sites like Graphic Burger and others are available to everyone so when using mockups you run the risk of someone having seen the mockup before which can devalue your work.
One thing I encourage is that you make your own mockups and to also photograph your work. Nothing can replace great photography of your work. Alternatively, there is a trend to mock up your work in 3D which is an option but can be very time consuming. Adobe Dimension, Blender and Cinema 4D are all options but will require a good bit of time to learn and master.
Tips for mockups:
- Nail down your design system first
- Do not use the work of agencies to make mockups. Bad form!
- If you use mockups, pay for them. Try to make your own if you can
- Nothing replaces a great photo of a real artifact
- If you use 3D, be prepared for a learning curve
- Don’t just present something on an empty background. Give some context as to what it is intended to be
Explaining your work
Explaining your work is a tricky one when you are just starting out because a lot of what you have made may be the product of a project for a class. You should always frame your work as a project and not a class assignment. I would suggest you subtly label projects so that you do not have to over explain them. A qualifier such as “thesis project” or “brand exploration” can help. In a presentation format like Keynote or Google Slides, consider having no more than one slide that explains the project problem and solution. The “problem” is the situation you identified that needs to be addressed. The “solution” is what you decided to do to address your central concept. Make sure this slide has visuals alongside it.
In my view, explaining a project should not take much time or be too complex. The key thing to touch on is what is it about your solution that is unique. Don’t assume the viewer can read your mind and know what a project is about. For example, if your solution is based on some kind of formal device that is a metaphor for the client’s mission, then explain that. In the real world, the best work that sees the light of day is never too difficult to explain. If you can make a tagline for each project that encapsulates the reason and value for each one then I would recommend writing this down below the title of the work. If you feel it would be helpful, I would jot down talking points for each project but I would not read these verbatim.
Your ability to write about your work in a short and engaging manner can not be overstated. Consistency, context, brevity, clarity and interest are key. I encourage all students to create a Google Doc that includes language for all of your projects. A Google Doc allows you to read your words without the project visuals so you can determine if the writing makes sense and is clear. It also allows you to more easily make your explanatory writing similar in length from project to project. Writing about your own projects can be difficult. I recommend taking an audit of project descriptions from other agencies and portfolios you find online and dissect what you like about them. You can use these as inspiration and a jumping off point. Once you feel that your writing is in a good place, have at least 1–2 people review it and provide feedback.
Tips on writing:
- Focus on clarity and brevity
- Use a Google Doc to collect your language
- Project descriptions should make sense without visuals
- Make sure project descriptions are similar in length
- Have a few people review and provide feedback
Getting your foot in the door.
Over the last year and a half most if not all interviews for entry level design positions have been done virtually. This means that the first thing that a prospective agency sees is an email from you, your resume and either a PDF of your portfolio or your website. The email you write, your resume and your portfolio are going to do all of the initial hard work. For most agencies, they receive countless emails each month from young designers interested in getting an internship or a full time job. So the question arises, how do you stand out and ideally get an interview?
First and foremost, the work is the most important. Going back to the ratio of okay work, to solid work to exceptional work I see in design students year after year, the fit and finish of your projects has to be great. There are a few things I look for. One of the biggest for me is can I see in the work that the person is aware of the greater world of graphic design and that it is apparent that they are looking at contemporary things and attempting to create contemporary work. This boils down to a person’s command of style and an awareness of what contemporary design looks and behaves like.
If you are a student and you are into design beyond what teachers require of you for classes then you will be looking at agency work and following amazing designers on Instagram and through this osmosis your work should indicate that you are doing this. This will come down to not only your formal ability but also your use of color, contemporary typeface selection, composition, motion and the like. If your work feels contemporary and it is apparent you are exploring relevant ideas and attempting to make your work well crafted and beautifully presented then you have met the first criteria.
Your email and resume should back up your work. If you don’t think you are good at writing, embrace Grammarly. Personalize your email to the agency specifically, mention their work and what you like about it and why you think you are a good fit. Be honest, keep it short and above all else focus on the value you can bring to the agency and where you want to go.
Here are some key things to consider when reaching out to an agency:
- Be in love with design and make sure your work reflects your love of design
- Make sure your work is crafted to the highest level possible
- If an agency has an opening for an intern or junior designer, state that you are applying for this position. It sounds silly but many students overlook this
- Mention the agency’s work you are most excited about
- Explain in brief why you are interested in the role and why you think you are a good candidate
- Do not copy and paste the same email to each agency. Countless times I have received an email from a student that refers to a different agency in their email because they forgot to change the agency name. Do not do this!
- Make sure your resume looks great. Do not over-design it. It is important to list your skills and the programs you are proficient in
- A recommendation from a teacher or professional is very helpful. I have had teachers or colleagues that know me email me and let me know to keep an eye out for a student’s portfolio that they felt was a good fit
- If you are sending digital files (like a PDF) make sure you name the file with your last name. Think about the receiver. How many “resume.pdf” files do you think they receive?
Your personal appearance and vibe
Be it in person or virtually, showing up as your best self to an interview is crucial. There is no need to get too formal in your dress but definitely show up as if you are going to work but don’t be afraid to express your personal style. Being nervous is often inevitable but try to relax and be yourself. Let the person interviewing you lead the conversation and be ready to ask and answer questions. If your interview is virtual, clean up your background. As long as your environment is not a mess and reflects you then you are good. I prefer less visual stimuli on a video call but would also encourage you not to blur out your background or use a fake background. First impressions should be about authenticity while curating the best version of you. I always recommend that you Imagine yourself 2 years from now and project yourself forward toward that.
Considerations regarding appearance and personality:
- Be yourself but dress for work even if it is a virtual meeting
- If you are on Zoom, clean up your background, make your bed, plant life helps
- Be articulate but not verbose
- Be positive and don’t over sell your work
- Ask questions. Be curious. Eye contact!
- Say thanks and be appreciative for the time
Final thoughts on design craft
When you are entering into your first design job the separation I often see is that a student is still trying to understand what design is for themselves while a design firm is looking to get work done. This is not to say that you will not learn on the job, you certainly will, it’s just that you need to have a level of competence that shows that you have your own forward momentum both creatively and in execution that aligns with the agency’s needs.
Given the nature of the world as it is, having access to design references and resources is really a non issue. Just like being into music, art or anything else, if you are into graphic design you will immerse yourself, dig deep and have a natural hunger to know as much as you can. This drive should get you far enough in knowledge and execution to have enough work to get your first job. What separates one job from another is the level of craft you bring.
The more work you put into your creativity as a student and young designer will exponentially benefit you once you work for someone else. Honing your thinking and the craft of the making should be the central thing you are working on. Everyday you should be pulling references, self examining, iterating and listening to your creative colleagues. This is your chance to chart your own path and your own journey as a designer and it will only be as rich as the energy and skill you put into everything you do no matter how cool or mundane.
- Work hard and try to make everything good.
- Do not be paralyzed by fear or over-thinking.
- Create as much as you can and then edit, evaluate, refine. This is the most important thing
- Know your typography and go deep and learn contemporary type foundries and typefaces
- Learn some level of motion. Brands are living things.
- Learn Figma or at least familiarize yourself with it
- iPhone cameras are really good now. Between our smart phones and image processing apps there really is no excuse for bad photography
- Try not to rip everything off the internet. Make your own stuff
- If you dip into progressive technology like AR and VR that is great. Just make sure it feels like design
- Get as much feedback as possible from friends, teachers and anyone in design you respect
- Do your research on agencies, Focus on the ones that align with your work and values.
- Don’t get discouraged!
- Make things you think will be memorable and you will be excited to share
- Be able to talk about your work that is clear concise and positive
I would like to thank Ashley Pigford, Associate Professor at the University of Delaware and Tricia Treacy Associate Professor at Dartmouth for reviewing and providing feedback on this article. Their insights on what students find most challenging when graduating was extremely helpful. Ashley and Tricia have brought many classes to New York to visit agencies and I have always enjoyed speaking with their students.