Top creatives' advice for grads on putting together a portfolio

9 July 2015

So you’ve finished university, you’ve drunk your local alcohol vendor dry, you’ve got a stack of brilliant, brand new work that’s taller than you are and your pockets are bulging with the business cards of all the people you schmoozed at your degree show. What the bloody hell do you do next?

First and foremost, you’ll need a portfolio. Whether it’s printed, on your website or in PDF format, you want to do the best job of it you can. We spoke to a bunch of top creatives, from artist and illustrator Ian Wright to Tony Brook, the creative director of design studio Spin, with a whole host of photographers, designers and illustrators in between, to get their advice.

1. Length

When it comes to the quantity of work you include everybody we spoke to agreed that less is definitely more. “You have to be concise and make tough choices about what to keep in and what to leave out,” Tony Brook told us. “I have had several emailed PDFs lately that started off well but then went on far too long, and the standard naturally dropped. We tend to judge someone from their worst piece of work.” Oliver Jeffers agrees: “Basically, people are busy, so show the best of what you can do in the fewest amount of pieces. Don’t repeat yourself too much by having lots of the same sort of thing.”

Editing is a skill you’ll want to demonstrate your proficiency at – so showing more than you need will likely do you a disservice. “Remember, more is not more,” designer Shaz Madani reinforces. “Be a harsh editor. Don’t put work in that you are not proud of.”

“I have had several emailed PDF’s lately that started off well but then went on far too long, and the standard naturally dropped. We tend to judge someone from their worst piece of work.”

Tony Brook

2. Quality

Fortunately, making your portfolio as concise as possible should be easy – all you have to do is take out anything which isn’t fantastic. “It should go without saying, but don’t put work in you think you could do better,” Oliver says. “Go do it better, then put it in.” Graphic design Leif Podhajsky, who graduated from North Coast Institute of TAFE in Australia in 2006, is even more brutal. “You probably have my attention for ten seconds,” he says. "I want to see something amazing straight away. In which case I will continue browsing.”

Leif has some interesting points when it comes to recent graduates including university projects, too. “If you include school projects make sure they look and feel like a real job, trick me into thinking so.” But most importantly, you should be brave in your work. “Be honest. Experiment. Be bold. Be different.”

“It should go without saying, but don't put work in you think you could do better. Go do it better, then put it in.”

Oliver Jeffers

Photographer Francesca Jane Allen, who graduated from London College of Communication last year, agrees that only your best and favourite work should make it in. “There’s no worse feeling than someone flicking through photos you’re not proud of. Someone once told me to start my portfolio with my personal work, leading to commissions,” she says. “It makes sense really; why would you present someone else before yourself?”

3. Tailor to your audience

Shaz compares putting together your portfolio to curating a mini show. “You’ve got to think about your audience, how you want them to feel looking at the work, and what you want them to take away from it,” she says. Illustrator Chrissie Macdonald adds: “It’s also worth considering the kind of commissions you’d like to be getting, and who you’re showing it to, as the work you present will guide this. You may need to tailor your folio for different clients.”

A little fluidity goes a long way when you’re talking somebody through your work – and the feedback you get from the first few people who see your portfolio could be invaluable the next time you rework it. “Don’t be afraid to edit,” Ian Wright says. “Notice how others respond to what you are showing, and take appropriate action if you feel they have worthwhile comments.”

While tailoring the work you show to suit the person you’re showing it to is advisable, copycats won’t be appreciated. “Don’t try to emulate the personal style of the artist or studio you are applying to,” Leif says. “Chances are it wont be as good.” Most importantly, be confident with your edit of your work – if you’re having to edit out your favourite projects before a meeting, you’re likely not meeting the right people. “Don’t try to come across as a Jack of all trades,” It’s Nice That art director Jamie McIntyre says. “Show what you are interested and passionate about developing, not what you think people want to see.”

“Don't try to come across as a Jack of all trades. Show what you are interested and passionate about developing, not what you think people want to see.”

Jamie McIntyre

4. Can you talk about it?

Portfolios can be beautiful objects, but if they don’t serve as tools to facilitate a conversation when you’re meeting a potential client or employer face to face, they’re useless. Best to treat them as something like a visual aid, Ian Wright says. “A portfolio is a vehicle to enable you to talk about your work. Create pages that you easily can talk about, that can then spark a conversation.” When it comes to explaining your work, take some time to practise what you want to say so that you can communicate it clearly and confidently, but “without bombarding them with too much detail,” Chrissie says. It’s Nice That art director Ali Hanson agrees. “Being prepared to answer questions well is really important, and it’s equally as important to have your own set of great questions to ask the person you are meeting. These will portray your passions, ambitions and interests in finding about who you are meeting, and the industry you are graduating into.”

“A portfolio is a vehicle to enable you to talk about your work. Create pages that you easily can talk about, that can then spark a conversation.”

Ian Wright

We’re great believers that there’s nothing more valuable than a face-to-face meeting, and Chrissie agrees. “I think it’s important to spend time researching who you’d like to work with and try to meet them in person. It’s not always easy to pin them down, but it’s worthwhile as they’ll often have feedback, and you can gauge their response to particular pieces, as well as developing a relationship with them.”

Don’t be put off emailing by a big name – many established creatives are keen to invest time meeting up-and-coming talents – but be respectful of their time constraints. Keep your initial email brief, include your basic information, and avoid ambushing anybody with a barrage of links and unnecessary information. More importantly, listen to what they have to say. “Even if your work isn’t right for them, they might be able to suggest someone else to contact,” says Chrissie.

5. Presentation

It seems obvious, but when you’re trying to sell your skills in creating visual imagery, presentation is key. “Whether it’s an online or printed portfolio, consider not just the work but how also it’s presented, from the way it’s photographed to the type and layout,” Shaz says. “Pay attention to all the small details.” "Make sure your portfolio is clean and tidy,” Tony Brook adds. “Nothing ruins a piece of work like a grubby fingerprint”

Photographer Ryan Hopkinson has some words of wisdom when it comes to considering layouts. “Make sure your portfolio shows an aesthetic that is true to the work you want to create, and also feels original enough to hold the attention of your potential clients. If you get stuck, look at how your favourite magazines progress through interesting layouts and take this into account when designing your own portfolio. The most important thing to remember is it should speak about your interests and define you as an individual artist.”

Leif suggests treating your portfolio as a holistic demonstration of your skills, like a project you have full direction of. “Show me (in an interesting way) that you can set projects up for print, have basic coding skills, can take a photo, have an eye for layout, can pick a good typeface, can communicate an idea or concept.”

As It’s Nice That art director Jamie points out, you shouldn’t feel restricted by the format you’ve chosen. “If you can bring real, physical objects, books etc., then amazing!” he says. PDFs do the job, but if you can feel something and experience it, then that is equally if not more valuable. That said, it’s worth a trip to a stationers to get these bits and pieces in order. “The way you present your work reflects you as a person. If you have a scatty box full of dog-eared zines and ten copies of the same screenprint loosely lying around, it says you’re missing that attention to detail and consideration within your work.”

“Please, for the love of baby Jesus, don't include your shitty resume. If you do, don't include the time you worked as a nanny or washed dishes at the local cafe. Or at least call it 'Underwater Ceramic Engineering’.”

Leif Podhajsky

6. Practical Advice

Finally, when it comes to putting together a beautiful document to show off your work, whether that’s a website, a PDF or a printed object, there are a few practicalities to bear in mind. First of all, they can go missing, so “with a physical folio, remember to label it clearly with your name and address,” Chrissie says.

Leif Podhajsky is not an advocate of including your CV in a portfolio. “Please, for the love of baby Jesus, don’t include your shitty resume. If you do, don’t include the time you worked as a nanny or washed dishes at the local cafe. Or at least call it ’Underwater Ceramic Engineering’,” he says.

Other faux pas in Leif’s book include exaggerating your job title – “don’t say you are a creative director while still studying” – and he prefers receiving a website link over a PDF. “I’m more inclined to click a link than download a file and open it.”

Finally, it’s not all about the work! “What makes you tick? Why would you be a great addition to a team or studio?” Ali says. “People want to know who you are, as much as what you can offer in terms of the ideas, craft and execution behind your work.”

It’s Nice That has created a special Grad Pack for new Graduates, which features a collection of tailored advice on how to land on your feet after leaving uni. We had a chat with It’s Nice That Graduates of years gone by, listened to words of wisdom from established creatives, and put together a studio-wide list of references and resources. Download it now!


We are very pleased that The It’s Nice That Graduates 2015 will once again be supported by Represent Recruitment. The graphic and digital design recruitment specialists have developed a peerless reputation working with designers of all levels and matching them up with the right positions in some of the top agencies around. Represent’s support has helped us grow the Graduate scheme over recent years and we are thrilled they have partnered with us again in 2015.

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About the Author

Maisie Skidmore

Maisie joined It’s Nice That fresh out of university in the summer of 2013 as an intern before joining full time as an Assistant Editor. Maisie left It’s Nice That in July 2015.

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