Portfolio tips from top studios: what to leave in (and out) and how to get noticed


28 May 2018


How best to present all that hard work you’ve been slogging over is one of the great conundrums of our industry. Too much information could drown out your best ideas, but strip it back too much and you might be underselling yourself. To help you build your best portfolio and stand out from the swarm, we’ve asked influential people from top studios and agencies including Google, Nexus, A Practice for Everyday Life and Mother to share their advice for graduate portfolios, drawn from looking at lots (and lots) of them over their careers. Here they tell us what they look for, and how you can make a lasting impression.

Damien Correll, creative lead at Google

Putting together a portfolio is a daunting task, regardless if you’re fresh out of school or a ten-year vet. It’s an easy thing to overthink. The sad truth is that most folks doing the hiring are at best skimming all of that belaboured work.

Have a point of view, even if you’re a generalist.

Being a generalist is far from a bad thing. Often I’m looking for designers that have shown interest in stretching beyond typical role descriptions. However, when hiring, a team may have a very particular need in mind. If you’re applying for a product design job, leading with your illustration work won’t do you any favours. Find where your interests intersect and build your pitch around it.

Editing helps a great deal.

Self-editing is a hard and underrated skill to have. It takes time to get good at it. Having the confidence to show more with less is easier said than done. Show the work you’re most proud of. Show the types of work you want to do more of. Don’t conflate time spent or level of difficulty with personal value. If you’ve done some product design in the past, but don’t necessarily want to pursue a career in it, you may consider taking it out of your portfolio altogether.

Be honest about your role.

It’s particularly rare as a professional to do everything yourself. Credit your collaborators. It’s not only more honest, but also a considerate gesture that shows you’re capable of working within a team.

Kirsty Carter, co-founder of A Practice for Everyday Life

We like to find evidence of an enterprising spirit, especially with graduates who might not have much client work to show yet. Art college offers an exciting opportunity for collaboration, and it can be interesting to see evidence of work with your peers or students from other disciplines. Versatility is also something we look for: it shows a willingness to take on different kinds of brief, to explore different techniques and to rise to different challenges, so think about how your portfolio might communicate this.

It’s important that your portfolio conveys a sense of your personality, and self-initiated work can be really useful to communicate this. Even if a project doesn’t make much sense in the context of client work, or feels more experimental, it can offer insights into what you’re all about – things that the constraints of a conventional, commercial project might not allow you to convey. At the same time, it’s important that this is balanced with some evidence that you’re capable of the fundamentals. We want to see that you can typeset well, make appropriate typographic choices, have a good sense of composition and the use of images, and demonstrate a good eye for colour. It’s all about that balance between experimentation, risk-taking and applied skills. 

Always take care with your spelling, grammar and typesetting within your portfolio – writing and presentation skills are really important as a designer and yet mistakes are all too easily made. We’re looking for attention to detail, precision and care, and we want to see that this has been applied not only to the work but to its means of presentation. Your PDF portfolio is your first ‘in’ with a potential employer, so it’s got to be great visually and to hold up to closer scrutiny.

Don’t underestimate the power of physical objects when you are showing your work. Size, weight, texture, material choices and production details are as important as layout and typographic details within our work – so although PDF is a useful format in which to mail out a portfolio, nothing beats holding something in your hand. Consider how you might expand upon the contents of your PDF portfolio (and your website) within a face-to-face meeting: delve deeper into the details or the story behind a project’s realisation, and take along plenty of physical examples of your work if you can. You’re not going to hold a potential employer’s attention if you’re just talking through the same set of work that they saw when you first made contact.

Natalia Busutill, studio manager at Nexus

We understand it’s hard building up a portfolio when you don’t have much industry experience, but it’s always good to avoid the temptation to put all the work you’ve ever done into it to bulk it out. Instead, cherry pick the bits that you think are the best – also ask the opinion of others to see if they agree with you.

If it’s a showreel you’re creating, put these bits at the beginning. We watch hundreds of reels so it needs to be attention grabbing!

Do some personal projects too. If you have musician friends, make them a poster or do a music video. While you’re waiting for employers to discover your amazing talent, find things to do that are creative, relevant and that will enrich your portfolio. 

If you are a character designer, it’s always great to see some deeper exploration of key characters in your portfolio. Expression sheets are good, they demonstrate your understanding of how your characters become alive, translating into moving image. It also helps the 3D team when it comes to production.

If you created a film in a team, be clear about what your role was in each shot. And have it on the screen at the bottom during, rather than in a separate breakdown document. Removing one layer of file opening may seem trivial but employers are very busy so anything that helps us view your work in a clear and concise way is helpful.

Matt Craigie Atherton, chief production officer at Mother

If we’re looking for creative talent, we want to see a style and flair running through the body of work; something unique, something different and individual. Whenever people come in with their books you’re looking for something arresting to stand out from the norm.
Ben Heap, head of creative resourcing

It sounds overused, but we’re looking for smart, fresh and insightful ideas – these don’t need to be pieces of work that have run. They can be from brands that you think need a refresh or addressing a challenge. Use a new twist on a brand to come up with something a bit bolder, remember you don’t have clients to sell into for this. Ideally, the book would be about six or seven campaigns executed in the most appropriate way to get the idea across quickly and easily (it’s not that fun sitting through lengthy case studies).

It is probably best to keep charity campaigns to one or two at most. It’s always nice to see how creativity can be used to stretch further than advertising, so an outside project like photography or a blog helps us get a better understanding of you.

Supported by Lecture in Progress

If you’re after more advice and insight into creative work and careers, check out Lecture in Progress, It’s Nice That’s sister company. Student membership is free and includes exclusive promotions from partner companies. To sign up, visit lectureinprogress.com

The It’s Nice That Graduates 2018 is supported by Lecture in Progress and Polaroid Originals.

Share Article

About the Author

Jenny Brewer

Jenny oversees our editorial output across work, news and features. She was previously It’s Nice That's news editor. Get in touch with any big creative stories, tips, pitches, news and opinions, or questions about all things editorial.

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.