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Tips for Crafting the Perfect Design Portfolio

Here at Sassafras, we’re passionate about helping the young marketers and designers of tomorrow find their way, stand out, and settle into the professional world. From choosing samples that demonstrate clear skills and problems you’ve solved, to nailing a brief case study that perfectly communicates your design process, we take a look at some of the best tips for nailing your design portfolio.

Focus on the client(s)

When you’re fresh out of school, there can be the temptation to oversell and center yourself in your portfolio — after all, you want potential clients to be excited about you and your unique vision. In fact, the best design portfolios take a step back and focus on the needs of potential clients, often presenting sample designs and solutions geared to particular industries.

Obviously, this advice will depend on the type of work you’re hoping to do and the sorts of clients you’re interested in working with. But if you have a clear goal in mind — say, working for a fashion company — you’ll want to demonstrate your fluency with that industry and its design trends.

Tell a story, and not just about yourself

That said, a smaller part of your portfolio should showcase you and your personality — a quick “About” section is usually enough to do the trick. What gets you out of bed in the morning, and how does design connect to this inner drive? What about your work excites you? Where do you locate your passion in the design process?

If it’s not already clear, you’re not simply relaying facts about yourself, but telling a story and crafting a narrative about how you view yourself. That same knack for storytelling should be evident when you’re discussing your design experience and samples. Why did you make particular design decisions, and what problems were you solving? The ability to craft a narrative is a central part of the design process, and one that hiring managers love to see.

Make sure your images pop

The visual element of your portfolio is its heart and soul, and finding ways to increase the variety of the viewer’s visual experience is helpful for making your work stand out on the (digital) page. Don’t simply display your finalized designs, but give us an idea of how they appear in the real world — as a logo on a shopping bag, as a subway ad, or as a piece of product packaging, for instance.

You might not have access to these more three-dimensional images, so it’s perfectly okay to create mock-ups. And of course, depending on your line of work and the clients you’re looking to attract, there might not be a “real world” product to show off, which is perfectly okay.

Leverage your case study

Recruiters are interested in how you solve problems and the particular solutions you arrived at. Ideally, every aspect of your portfolio should speak to these concerns in some way. But providing at least one clear and more in-depth case study that defines a problem, explains your solution, and elaborates on the results of it is critical.

Choose a project that you feel you knocked out of the park, and walk recruiters through it. What was your thinking at every stage of the design process? What lessons did you learn? What problems did you encounter, and how did you fix them? Turn the evolution of your design into a clear narrative, and finish with a clear statement of its impact.

When you’re just starting out

For many new designers looking for a foothold in the field, crafting the perfect portfolio can feel like a stressful experience, especially if you don’t have a wide variety of completed projects to discuss. Remember that there’s nothing wrong with drafting “fake” designs or redesigns, or selling your strengths based on smaller projects you might already have completed.

Most design firms are looking for passionate, driven, creative designers, no matter what career stage they’re in. If you can communicate why you love design and the unique way you approach projects of any scale, you’ll already have the core of a great design portfolio.


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