How to Turn your portfolio into a marketing weapon


Going by the survey I just sent out to you guys, some of you are getting exciting interviews with design companies. I wish you all the best of luck!

When looking for an internship or a job, art and design students tend to have a leg up compared to other, more “traditional” degrees (like, for instance, a business major applying for their first internship). So, to pack an extra punch,

what’s more powerful than the resume? The portfolio.

Most of the time, your resume is pretty lightweight and not so different from that of all the other candidates who took those babysitting gigs and had a part-time job at McDonald’s. It’s not so easy to shine in the middle of the crowd. However, designers have something extra up their sleeve: their portfolios.

1. What is a portfolio?

A portfolio is a compilation of the best of your work that you show to prospective employers when you apply for a job or an internship. Your portfolio is the best business partner you’ll ever have, and it should basically be able to talk for you. Your portfolio showcases your work, your personality, your interests and your ambitions.

A portfolio shows your employers how your brain works.

Every student designer needs to build one, and I definitely recommend you start early. Your first projects might be clumsy, but don’t stress – you can freshen up the portfolio with newer, more skilled projects as you go. It’s great motivation to improve, as well, since you’ll always be trying to top your other designs with your latest addition.
I also recommend that you bring along one of your most creative research sketchbooks for one of the projects in your portfolio. The quality of the lines and the artistic style of the research sketchbook don’t matter as much; what’s important is that you show your thought process and your creativity in your approach to the project.

2. Should I have an online portfolio?

Nowadays, online portfolios are pretty popular, and for good reason. With them, you can expose your work to the world over. Other designers can let you know that they appreciate your work, which can be the first step in building your network. The world of design isn’t actually that big. Sooner or later, you might meet some of these designers in real life as a colleague, a friend, or a supplier. I quite like these two portfolio websites:

3. What if people copy my idea?

This is a risk, but to promote yourself you must promote your work. You can’t hide. If you are copied, it at least shows that you inspire people, and that you’re doing good work. If they misuse it, let them, and maybe your style and creativity will help them to improve in the long run. It’s better to spend your energy improving your own abilities and perfecting your own style than wasting energy hiding from copy-cats. Most importantly: just keep going, keep putting your work out there. Otherwise, what if no one sees your work? You’ll miss out on so many opportunities that might otherwise come your way. Hiding your ideas and doing nothing with them is the same as throwing them away.

When I was first starting out, I didn’t bother as much with issues of intellectual property. Show off your greatest projects, get hired by good companies, and from there you’ll have a platform to be able to do even more awesome stuff. Though all of this, your portfolio is your best tool.

There is an exception if your plan is to build your own company, or if you plan to go through with one of your projects seriously. In this case, patent your drawings. Your most private content you can password-protect online, or even better, only show physically.

4. A digital vs a printed portfolio?

I recommend you play around a little with both. Send a sample of your portfolio and your resume as a .pdf file to your prospective employer as a teaser. If you have Adobe PDF Creator, add the option FULL SCREEN. That way whoever’s viewing it won’t be able to be distracted by anything else.

During the day of the interview, some candidates show their portfolios on a computer screen, bringing in their laptop or iPad. I personally still recommend the traditional portfolio, because the interaction you get will be much different. People tend to be so used to seeing pictures on screens that we don’t pay them as much attention. A digital image may attract the eye for a second, but then it’s already being passed over to the next one. A printed portfolio, on the other hand, invites the eye to stay. It’s also easier to navigate a printed portfolio than to scroll through images one after another on someone else’s touchscreen.

As for format, I’d suggest printing your portfolio pieces in size A3. An A3 printer is a good investment for a designer, and you’ll likely use it for degree projects as well. For your portfolio, consider printing on photo paper – I particularly recommend the mat and soft paper. And finally, try to keep your images either all horizontal or all vertical if possible.

Canon PIXMA iX6550 A3 printer

5. Okay, so what exactly do I put in a portfolio?

At design school you’ll work on various projects, which will beef out your portfolio. While it is a good move to put your best stuff up front, I’d still recommend you put the work that most relates to the job you’re applying for at the beginning. Come up with a system for ordering the projects after that. Best to worst is one way of doing it, but I stand by presenting by categories or themes.

If you find yourself in a situation where, for instance, you want to apply for a job dealing with footwear but you haven’t done any related projects for any of your design classes, go ahead and make your own!

You’re a student; it’s the time to go crazy and dream big. Later on when you get hired you can always tone your ideas down to more realistic concepts. The opposite is more difficult.

DO NOT include too many pieces. You don’t have to bring along every project you did for your degree; between 6 and 10 will do. Prepare a short pitch for each. The story is essential. Describe the topic of the project with an explanation of why your idea will improve peoples’ day-to-day lives. Then go into the product features if necessary.

I recommend a few pages per project:
1. Cover (optional) with the project brief
2. Mood board with keywords
3. Compilation of research. Don’t overcrowd it with sketches; a few key drawings will do.
4. Your product

If you have a prototype, bring in some pictures and if possible a piece of it. A material sample, for example.

Some people warn against including older projects in your portfolio; I have to say I disagree. I’ve shown work I did ten years previously in my portfolios. The process of realization may not be as relevant anymore, but the idea itself is still strong and is still a part of myself. Stick to what you believe in.

Killer Techniques for Getting Noticed

The secret is always to do things differently from the masses. These tricks are designed to put you on top of the list of prospective candidates, and to get you noticed in a positive way. Here’s a set of “marketing weapons” to make you stand up and stand out.

Weapon #1: An Attractive Resume

Your resume is your first and main point of contact, since you’ll send it to the company by email. Done right, it will tease their curiosity and get them interested in your online portfolio. Remember to print a few for the day of the interview. You may have few people present to meet you.

With different countries there come different rules, and resumes come in all shapes and sizes. Some resumes include pictures; some don’t mention gender, and so on. We tend to write resumes like we’re filling out tax forms or writing code. But we’re not machines; we’re designers. In my opinion, when you’re applying for a creative job, the normal rules fly out the window. Don’t worry about discrimination; trying to impress people with how professional we are creates a plain and boring resume that doesn’t make any sense for someone trying to make a living on creativity. But before I went to design school I did exactly that, because everybody else did too and I never thought to question it.
Do something exciting for the eyes. Dare to show your personality. Make it graphic, and if you’re not good at that, try minimalism or getting a design friend to give you tips. They might warn you not to play too much with the fancy fonts you’ll find on sites like Ha! Give it a try.

Weapon #2: A creative Business Card

I know you guys aren’t working quite yet, but a business card is still a great way to introduce yourself. You can specify on it which design field you specialize in (such as product design or transport architecture, etc.). It’s always a fun moment when people exchange their identity and position, but it also looks professional. There’s an immediate understanding of mutual respect to the exchange.
Make your card creative. It doesn’t have to be a rectangle with a white background. You can play with colors, format, mater ials, and so on. I personally lean towards “creative but simple”. For my master’s degree I created multiple sets of business cards, all the same except for a different background on each. Sometimes, I let people choose the one they preferred. I’ll say it again: rules out the window. Be crazy or be more contained; it’s up to you so long as your card reflects yourself.

Weapon #3: A Mini-Portfolio

Create a mini-formatted portfolio. I print my work on glossy photo paper. This may be a bit expensive, since you’ll give these small prints away to companies. Think of it as an investment, and give them out strategically.
Anything physical which looks nice and has value will gain you exposure. It may remain on someone’s office desk a bit longer. I might heighten your chance of being noticed by other people who happen to see it. Your prospective recruiter could show it to their colleagues or a busy boss on the go. Besides that, they could carry it home and show it to friends and relatives. “Hey, today I met a great candidate, want to have a look?”. The opinions of those around recruiters can have more of an influence than you might think. Without that mini portfolio, your work would hardly be seen by so many people.
If you’ve got good vibe from an interview, go ahead and gift one to your interviewer. They might be surprised and you’ll have shown them that you really appreciated the meeting. If you didn’t like the interview, simply don’t bring it up.

Weapon #4: Extra Artworks

If you like photography, manga, illustration, concept art, sculpture – anything related to art that is not your major – you can also prepare a booklet to showcase that. I do not recommend that you add this to the main portfolio. Take it out only if you feel the recruiter is open to it. Usually this booklet remains in my bag, but who knows? Some interviewers enjoy seeing what else you do. You may share a common passion.

Preparing a portfolio is a lot of work, but it’s absolutely worth the investment. Always remember to try to build it up along the way, so that you’re not stuck rushing around, trying to come up with one at the last minute. Remember, it’s your finest asset. Take care of it.

Let me know your though or question. If you also have special techniques to get hired, please share with us!
I’ll be posting another article soon giving some tips about design interviews. Stay posted!

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About The Author


If the sketching methods I’ve acquired aid me in my life and in my career, I believe that they can also help you to learn, and help you with your projects. Whether Design is a job or a hobby it doesn’t matter, so long as you do what is important to you.


  • jimmy

    Reply Reply August 8, 2016

    You have to be crazy to put your portfolio online these days. Thievery is common now to the point of it being a destructive force to the industry. People in other countries are not subject to the same laws.

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