How to Create a Portfolio that Actually Gets You a Job

December 21, 2017

Every student is trying to figure out how to create a design portfolio that actually gets them a job. Making yourself stand out isn’t as easy as it was in college. The market is far more competitive, with well-known and sought-after veterans in the industry that are now in direct competition with you. It’s tough to come out on top in the real world — especially when you’re far removed from having a group of mentors and professors to help improve your work.

Many colleges have career services departments that will help students write resumes, but this is usually better suited to more traditional lines of work. When it comes to design work, resumes only get you so far. You need to create a design portfolio that grabs your future employer’s attention and makes them want to learn more about you. You need them to want to see more of your work more than anyone else’s.   

Never fear, future grads. We’ve got you covered. We talked to some successful designers and asked our own design team to tell us exactly what has worked for them. What got them interviews? What helped get legitimate leads to new clients? And what landed them that first really great job?  

First and Foremost, Build a Website

Designers graduating from college at the turn of the century were still creating physical design portfolios. It was rare to own a website back then (it was still pretty expensive), which meant you didn’t keep your portfolio with you at all times. You really couldn’t, or you’d risk ruining it, and it was so expensive to make, you’d have to land at least two or three more jobs to pay for another one. It’s not as if you could just hand them out like business cards.

A photo of a woman drawing in a sketch notebook.
Being so digital doesn’t mean there isn’t room for sketching in your design process.

Luckily, that era is far behind us. No one is investing hundreds of dollars into one copy of a design portfolio anymore. Why would they when the internet exists? These days, everyone has a website — or at least, they should. “I talk to so many design students that are looking for jobs but don’t even have a website,” graphic designer and photographer Anna McNaught told us.

McNaught believes that a website will put you in a good place relative to your competition coming right out of school and we’re inclined to agree. At this stage in the game, you need to have a website. It’s going to be the landing page (literally) for potential clients and collaborators. It’s where you can host your design portfolio, leave your contact information (yes, you still need an email address), post upcoming events or shows you’re doing, and promote any publications you’ve been featured in.

McNaught suggests spending a weekend on your website, creating a “gallery for each project that you have worked on and write a summary with the project goals and your role in it.” However, you don’t want to be long-winded in your summaries. Keep them short and to the point. No one wants to read a novella on your senior project — you’re a designer. They want to see your work. Just tell them what exactly you did for the project and what it was for.

And on that note, don’t just throw up every single piece you’ve ever worked on. It will seem temping at first, especially if you haven’t worked on many projects, but it’s important to be selective. Every single designer we walked to agreed on this point.

McNaught says you should “only show your best work — some advice that I received that will always stick with me, ‘you are only as good as your worst piece of art.’ This may seem a little harsh but when you think like that, and give your work a good, hard, critique, it will pay off in the end.”

Get On Top of Social Media

Learning how to create a portfolio that actually helps you is just as much about thinking outside the box as it is about showcasing your best work. You’re going to be competing against talent you simply did not experience in college. There are veteran designers easily taking work you’ll be pitching for. It’s time to think big picture. Tap into that inner millennial and take social media by the reins.

A photo of a man using a tablet.
A tablet is a good investment for designers because they allow for work to happen anywhere.

McNaught says you should focus on Facebook, Instagram, Behance, and Pinterest to start, which makes sense, since these are the most visual social media platforms — but, you don’t need to be focused on followers or fans. You just need to have a space where you can promote your work and cultivate brand awareness. For her, Instagram acts as a “moving design portfolio” on a daily basis.

As more people see your work, they’ll like your page or follow you and the easier it will seem to find new work. Remember that Facebook’s algorithm shows your friends things you’ve reacted to, so the more people that react to your posts, the further your reach will go.

For some designers, this means having a separate “business” account as part of their design portfolio and then they use their personal account to help promote their business account. How you do it is up to you, but we recommend sticking relatively close to the topic of your designs on the channel you’re using to promote your work.

If you’re the type of person who posts a link to every single adorable cat video you see (no judgment here), maybe it’s best to make a page specifically for your design work. If you rarely post, perhaps your personal account will suit you just fine.

And above all else, make sure you’re following best practices on each platform. Even though hashtags appear on Facebook, it doesn’t make them useful. However, hashtags on Instagram are its bread and butter because they’re search terms. It’s how people find you. Read up on how you should use each platform to promote your design portfolio from a business standpoint — because that’s what you are now: a design business.

Bring Something Physical (Like a Prototype!) to the Interview

Yes, even in this digital world, you should still bring something with you to a job interview. We know, we know — we just told you that you don’t need a physical design portfolio anymore, but just bear with us.

A photo of multiple job applicants sitting in a waiting area before their interviews.
The waiting is the most nerve-wracking part of the interview process.

Regardless of whether you’re meeting with a potential client at Starbucks or walking into a design firm to apply for a staff position, you should have something you can show the interviewers. Some people just prefer to have a physical object in front of them, but more importantly, if the interviewer wants to look at your design portfolio for reference, they should be able to (no matter where the interview is happening) and on something larger than their smartphone screen. Again, you’re a designer. Your work should be viewed full size (or something close to it).

The exception to this rule, of course, is your mobile app design, which is full size on a smartphone or tablet and should be able to be viewed on both — let your interviewer decide. You can open up the app and let them play with all your prototypes while you explain (briefly) what the project was about and the role you played.

But for all of our sakes (especially yours), put your phone in do-not-disturb mode when you hand over your phone. The last thing you want is your potential employer looking at inappropriate texts from your friends or some personal details about the argument you’re having with your significant other or mom or whoever.

Don’t Assume You’ll Have Reliable Internet Access

Another big reason you need to bring something physical to interviews is that you don’t know for sure you’ll be in a room with a computer or internet access, so can’t count on them for your presentation. And frankly, it’s tacky to open up your laptop or whip out your tablet and ask what the WiFi password is. And it’s even less acceptable to ask to use the interviewer’s computer to access your design portfolio.

For some designers, this will mean printing out key pieces and for others, it will mean keeping assets on your laptop or tablet (like your prototype!). Whatever method lends itself to your area of expertise, make sure you have physical copies — note we said “copies” in the plural, because you might have more than one interviewer and they shouldn’t be expected to share.

A photo of a woman giving a presentation with sticky notes on the wall behind her.
Confidence is key during job interviews.

Create a Killer User Experience

Of course we mean that your mobile apps should have a stellar UX, but why should it stop there? Your design portfolio should also have a great UX. It’s something a lot of people often forget about when they’re creating a portfolio, but it’s so important.

Your portfolio is a direct representation of the work you’re capable of creating and making it UX centric shows you’re constantly thinking about the end user, no matter what you’re working on. In the design business, attention to detail is everything, so there’s no reason you can’t make your design portfolio this way.

If you’re a mobile app designer, this means prototypes — and live apps if they’re recent and still mostly based on your design. If the design has changed significantly since you worked on it, stick to the prototype. Potential clients and bosses will enjoy being able to physically move through the space you’re creating, so let them swipe and tap their way through your prototypes.

If you’re a graphic designer, it might mean sketches, but definitely images. And for interior designers, make sure you’re including textures in your physical portfolio (people like to touch things). Include carpet squares and fabric swatches and then create a digital rendering of the rooms you designed so they can take a tour and get a feel for the aesthetic you created. In the digital sphere, make sure the photos you’re taking accurately portray the texture of your fabrics.

How to Create an Effective Design Portfolio

A lot of undergraduate and graduate programs help their students create a design portfolio on their way out — some even offer discounts to specific companies through affiliate programs so their alumni can get cheaper web hosting rates or save on an annual subscription. Make sure to check with career services or your department head to ask what’s available to you as a current student (maybe you can lock in a better rate for a year) and also as an alumnus.

If you’re a mobile app designer, there isn’t a more effective way to create a design portfolio than to make prototypes. If you’re meeting with a potential client (as opposed to a design firm), go ahead and sketch out a couple design ideas for them, then do at least two different prototypes with varying architecture and color.

A photo of a man giving a presentation to his design team using a whiteboard.
Visuals are an important part of any presentation you give to potential employers.

The ideas don’t have to be completely thought out (and maybe shouldn’t be), but this will help the client see the vision you have for the mobile app as well as how you could serve their newest project. This is especially important if the client doesn’t already have ideas for what they want the mobile app to look like or if they have little-to-no experience building them.

On the other hand, if the client tells you a few tidbits here and there about what they want in the mobile app, be sure to include them. If they want that dreaded hamburger menu, go ahead and include it, but make another version that follows current mobile design trends and show them how they could benefit from following them.

When you’re making a design portfolio, what you’re really doing is showing proof of concept. Anyone can say they’re a designer, but proving you know what you’re doing and that you can add something invaluable to a business is all about physical (and digital) evidence.

And of course — be confident! You may not have 30 years of experience yet, but you’re still an expert. Go ahead and let your confidence shine through. It can go a long way in landing a job because the more confident you appear to be, the more confidence your potential client will have in you. lets anyone build mobile app prototypes that feel real. No coding or design skills required. Bring your ideas to life quickly! Sign up for a free 15-day trial of today and get started on your next mobile app design.

How did you create a portfolio that landed you a job? Let us know by tweeting us @Protoio!