Portfolio tips from top studios: dos and definite don’ts


You’ve done the work, but now you need to stand out from the crowd by presenting it in the best light. To help make the most of your assets, and avoid common mistakes, we spoke to creatives from top studios including Pentagram, ustwo, Wieden+Kennedy and Moving Brands to get their advice. Each of them has seen countless portfolios, and here they pass on their wisdom.

Jody Hudson-Powell, partner at Pentagram

We (my creative partner/brother Luke and I) look through loads of graduate portfolios, and although we’re grateful for the time and energy that people put into them, there are a few things we wish people would keep in mind when putting them together.

You aren’t a commercial designer, yet
Of course there’s a temptation to bring your designs into the “real” world, but endless mocking up of projects using LiveSurface doesn’t add anything. Whacking your projects on the same fake billboards or vinyl cover templates that everyone else does visually places your work in a sea of generic things – it makes it harder for you to stand out.

Your portfolio doesn’t need to look like a big agency’s “Work” section on their website, in fact one of the great things about being a new graduate or junior designer is that your work can come from a more creative and looser place. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be craft and rigour in your work, it just means you don’t need to wrap it in a layer of fantasy.  

Be clear about your role in the job.
More people are collaborating on projects at university, which is great, but don’t try to claim everything as your own. We’ve seen a few people who have come in and shown the same project but not mentioned it was a group project or what their role in it was, which is off-putting. Signposting your role, explaining what you did and mentioning what you didn’t do is such a good behaviour to learn. No one is going to believe that you did everything, be honest.

Text is just as important as images
If you’re coming to a design job, present the text on your CV well. It’s a piece of communications design and is often the first thing we see in a portfolio; it’s your initial impression, spend time on it.

Reveal the process
Luke and I like to see stuff that is resolved, but contextualising some of the other interests you have is good too. Show you have an experimental side, show some work in progress, show your sketchbook scans, some of the stuff that lead you there. At graduate level, process is as important as outcome.

Work first
Finally, and this is a simple one, don’t lead with a picture of yourself.

Matt Gypps (AKA Gyppsy), senior designer at ustwo

Make it simple
We’re busy people, so allow us to to see your work as quickly as possible. We don’t want to struggle with navigating a site to get to your work. Tell the story – let us know how you got to the end product. The ups, the downs, the sketches, the prototypes, everything. We want to see how you think, as well as what you can produce. 

Be relevant
If you want a career in a certain field of design, show projects that reflect that in your portfolio. Applying for a job as a digital designer, but only having print projects in your portfolio, is quite off-putting. Even if you don’t have projects in that field, show how you’re trying to learn about it – experiments, courses etc. Show the love! We’re interested in people who live and breathe being creative. It’s great to see side projects, blogs, and other stuff that gets you fired up. Something that shows us that you love what you do. 

Be honest about your work.
If you share some case studies that were a result of a collaboration with other designers, make clear which parts you created. Similarly, if you show some work that was conceptual (i.e. not client work), that’s totally cool, just be sure to state that too.

Attention to detail
Pay attention to your spelling, punctuation and grammar. Get a friend to proof read your portfolio to ensure it’s error free. It shows a lack of care if you let obvious spelling mistakes slip through. And be personal: when contacting companies, make your introduction mean something. We can spot a copy and paste application from a mile off (even worse if you forget to replace the previous company’s details!). Have a look at what the business does, and reflect their language back. What does their site say? What about them appeals to you? What projects stood out for you? This way, you can let them know why you’re applying to them specifically. 

Karen Jane, design director at Wieden+Kennedy London

Great design connects with you almost immediately, so this is what a portfolio should also do. Does the work stop you? Does it make you feel something? Do you want to find out more? It’s really that simple.

Once you’re looking on a deeper level then that’s when you get a real sense of the designer, and who they are. What is their point of view on design? What is their approach? How do they describe their work? What are they passionate about? All of this comes across in the work and how it’s put together.

I’d encourage designers working on a portfolio to let the work breathe, don’t force every project into a consistent system if it doesn’t need it. Keep the selection of projects considered and only show your best work, work that’s authentic to you as a designer. Throw in some personal work, development stuff, sketches and experiments too. Create something that you love, and feel excited about sharing. Tell us what you did and why, and keep it simple.

I’m drawn to work with variety, through different approaches and great thinking. Work that feels brave, visceral and packed with good taste. And not necessarily overly specialised, or honed to a specific style, as most of our assignments at Wieden+Kennedy require flexibility and range. I also don’t think you have to have everything figured out as a graduate. Showing that you have an inquisitive mind and are open to try out different ways of working, will say a lot about your potential.

Stewart Davies, design director, and Madeleine Fortescue, resource and recruitment manager at Moving Brands

Focus on your strongest work, and tell its story
Madeleine: Grads are often very keen to demonstrate the breadth of work they have been involved in, which is great, but this can make identifying skills and involvement unclear when reviewing lots of portfolios. My top tip would be to tailor your portfolio by focusing on your strongest projects. Giving a good level of detail into two or three of your best projects, and why they are significant.

Stewart: It’s great when someone has obviously considered their audience and compiles a clear concise portfolio which demonstrates a balance of skill and creative thinking. My advice would be to focus in on your strongest work, and take us through the story of its creation including the bits with the rough edges. It’s not all about the finished product, we like to hear about how you got to your conclusion.

Stay true to yourself, and avoid the temptation to replicate
Maddie: In my opinion it’s disappointing when grads ask us to pull up their site, chances are, we’ve already seen that. I really appreciate when a candidate has taken the time to add colour to what they consider to be their strongest work. Don’t underestimate the power of tangible artefacts, prototypes and things we can get our hands on.

Stewart: Avoid hiding work in comps, it gets difficult to gauge skill level when your work is hidden. Allow your work to stand out as it gives a truer view of your ability. Also, avoid relying too much on what you see people doing on sites like Behance, a lot of grad portfolios I have seen tend to copy from work on sites like this, and it is often really noticeable. Take influence, by all means. But make sure you’re the one making the decision about the best way of presenting your work.

Top tip
Maddie: A clean, clear portfolio will always stand out to me. One which focuses on relevant highlights. Remember quality over quantity.

Stewart: Tailor your content, ensure it flows when taking someone through it and don’t be afraid to show experimental work or things that you think may feel out of context. A piece of sculpture, or some coding you have taught yourself for example could add a really interesting perspective.

Supported by A/D/O

Founded by MINI, A/D/O is a creative space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn dedicated to exploring new boundaries in design. At its heart is the Design Academy, which offers a range of programming to professional designers, intended to provoke and invigorate their creative practice.

If you’re after more advice and insight into the creative industries, sign up to Lecture in Progress – It’s Nice That’s new sister company, which was launched to inspire, inform and empower emerging talent with information on the workings of the creative world.

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