How To: Create a Graphic Design Portfolio for Entry-level Jobs

My younger brother is applying for his first college job. He is really comfortable with design software, but his portfolio is still in the beginning stages. I typed up my advice for him and thought someone else might benefit from it, too.

The first time I made my "portfolio" (I have to use quotation marks because it wasn't even a real portfolio, looking back on it), I had NO idea what I was doing. There are so many things that seem to be "common sense" to me now, but they were really hard for me to figure out and I wish someone had just told me that you shouldn't put your portfolio in a binder! So I'm telling you. Don't make the same mistakes I did.

NOTE TO SELF: Cutesey binders are bad. Cool book binding is good!


When I got my first job as a designer at BYU, I really didn't have a great portfolio. I had done some posters and invitations for family and friends, but I really didn't have any "name brand" clients, because I had never really been paid for my work. That's OK. Even the most basic portfolio can show your style, organization, and most importantly, your potential.

You may have already done a lot of the grunt work in finding your old work and organizing it, but I just wanted to explain how I put together my portfolio. (I initially told my brother to put his portfolio online (like on a website) and I still think that's a great idea, but for now, I would just make a PDF and get it out there!)

Read on:

1. Collect all the design work you've ever done. 
T-shirts, posters, binder covers, invitations, logos, ANYTHING. Don't be picky. Even drawings, sketches, and unfinished projects can be valuable. If you have digital work like photography, videography, or video editing, I would definitely include that. Go through your old files and folders it all and lay it out. (If all your files are digital, I would even suggest putting each project on a different page and printing them all. Something magical happens when you can hold your work in your own hands.)

2. Organize your work. 
Put each project into a category. You might have, "Branding" for logo designs, "Print work" for posters and invitations, and "Apparel" for t-shirts. Seeing the different categories (and how much is in each category) gives you a good idea of what your strengths and weaknesses are.

3. Select your best work. 
I know when you don't have a lot of work, it can be scary to take something out. But the truth is, you are better off to have 3 good pieces than to have 10 mediocre pieces. And you're better off having 3 mediocre pieces than 10 terrible pieces! (3-5 is probably a solid number for beginning portfolios). If you really don't have enough work, look at step 4.

4. *IF YOU HAVE TIME* Make something new.
I hesitate to add this because if you're reading this, you're the type of person who wants to have an amazing portfolio right off the bat. But the fact is, if you haven't have a paying job as a designer of some sort, you're not going to have 100% top quality professional work. That's OK. This portfolio is just the vehicle to getting you a job. It will grow and evolve over time. So don't worry too much about adding new pieces if you're just trying to get your work out the door and into the hands of an employer.

However, if you DO have the time, it would definitely be to your benefit to make something new. Choose the category of your portfolio that is most lacking and make something. Get online, get on Pinterest, do some research, find something interesting and copy it. (Don't copy it exactly, obviously. Just find something to inspire you and make your own version of it.)

5. Put it all together.
his is the fun part! Make a cover. Make a table of contents. Then put in each of your projects in the assigned category. (Page numbers are definitely a good idea for a physical portfolio.) Each project needs a title and a SHORT explanation (see example below:)

If you are the kind of person who doodles or sketches things out, I would absolutely include a section in the back called "The Creative Process" or something cheesy like that. People LOVE to see how your ideas went from your brain to your pencil to your portfolio. (Plus, it's a great way to add some bulk to your portfolio without having to polish a whole project.)

6. Format it. 
This is probably the part you are wondering about the most. Some jobs will let you upload your portfolio online like you upload your resume. If this is the case, you will want to have a digital/electronic portfolio. That probably sounds more complicated than it really is. It just means it needs to be a PDF you can email or upload as needed. Here's what I do: When I have all my projects collected and organized, I count them off, and then I make an Adobe Illustrator document with that many pages, plus one for the cover, one for the table of contents, and one for the back. So if I have ten projects, I would make an Illustrator document with 13 pages. Make sense? Then I just place each of my projects on a separate page. (If you don't have Adobe Illustrator, you can do the same thing in Microsoft Word, but it will be a little more complicated). I honestly don't really know why this is a thing, but professional designers ALWAYS put their portfolio on 11x17 pages in the landscape (hamburger) orientation. It might not make very much sense but trust me, if you put your portfolio on an 8x11 portrait page, you are going to look like a total rookie. Once your portfolio is all together, you just save as a PDF and Voila! You're done! (Pro tip: If you're uploading or emailing your resume, you'll want it to be a reasonable size, somewhere around 10mb. That can be hard to do when you have so many pictures and high resolution files, so if your file is just huge, just google "compress pdf file size" and there's like a million online services that will shrink your pdf without ruining your files. The one I use the most is called "Small PDF.")

DON'T FORGET:
* Proofreading. Don't save or send or print ANYTHING until you have checked for typos so many times that you feel like your head is going to explode. Have your mom read it; read it out loud, do whatever you have to do to make sure you don't put all this work into a portfolio just to look like an idiot when you send it to someone.

* Printing. Once you have your PDF all nice and neat, you can and should make a physical copy of it. Take the file to FedEx/Kinkos Office and have it printed. Don't print it on glossy paper, that's what amateurs do. Professionals always use MATTE paper. Get the whole thing bound on the left side and then you're done! I like to put clear covers on the front and back of my portfolio but I know a lot of designers don't like that, so just use your judgment.

* Matching. Make your resume and your portfolio match. Use the same font, make the same header, it really doesn't matter, but employers go crazy for that kind of thing!

*Here's some ideas for things you can design quickly that will give your portfolio more street cred:
Posters (especially for events.)
Flyers (Half page/quarter page designs for small-scale events)
Invitations (DON'T do invitations for bridal or baby showers. Try a housewarming party, Christmas party, or employee appreciation event.)
Programs (Church programs don't count!)
Business cards
Letter head
Calendars
Planners
A cool to-do list template (maybe a notepad you did in graphics???)
Book covers
DVD covers
CD covers
Tags
T-shirts
Jerseys
Articles (like one in a magazine)
Nature photography

I hope this helps! Honestly, when it comes right down to it, you shouldn't stress too much because entry level design jobs aren't expecting too much. Just share what you have and it will all work out.