How to Prepare a Portfolio That Showcases Your Strengths
A portfolio is your best foot forward—a representative sample of your work that demonstrates through language and image your greatest strengths and accomplishments. Formerly reserved for artists, models and architects, today’s portfolios are used by a variety of job seekers as a way to demonstrate to prospective employers their particular skills, achievements and professional goals.
Why are portfolios important?
In some ways, your portfolio is more illustrative of you and your work than the resume and cover letter. It should be:
As you put together a portfolio, you will need to make two critical decisions: what to include and how to present it. Below are portfolio styles to consider:
The Chronological Portfolio: The chronological portfolio can be an effective way of demonstrating growth and improvement over time. For instance, if you are looking for work in the marketing field, you might include a flyer, promotional photos and advertising copy that you produced for a campaign. Anything with your name on it that demonstrates an active and conscious commitment to your chosen profession and goals is perfect for a portfolio.
The Functional Portfolio: Functional portfolios, like functional resumes, allow you to assemble artifacts around specific skillsets related to the work you are seeking. This type of portfolio is ideal when you lack significant long-term experience, are changing career fields or are a recent graduate. If you are a looking for a job as an editor, you might group your artifacts in the following manner:
- Evaluations: transcripts, Dean’s List, letters of reference, SAT scores, etc.
- Publications: campus newspaper article, yearbook or literary magazine, samples from an internship at a local newspaper or other writing samples, either from coursework or an assignment
- Awards/Honoraries: lists of honoraries, special commendations or awards, including any certifications or letters of commendation, award-winning essays, etc.
- Related Communications Skills: skills assessment test results in editing, typing speed, library and Internet research skills etc.
The Targeted Portfolio: Targeted portfolios are used when you have a specific position or interview in mind. To make this presentation effective, you will need to have a thorough understanding of the company and/or department. General internet searches can yield articles and factoids on the company, and the company’s website will often reveal, both in tone and in content, what the company is about. If you know someone who works at the company, ask that person what the company’s priorities are. Once you have this information, choose the artifacts that best complement the values and goals of the company.
Creative departments will always have a steady flow of materials they produce, such as newsletters, magazines, web pages, brochures, etc. It’s fairly easy to obtain samples and to “adapt” your portfolio pieces to specific department needs. Remember, employers have little interest in your fine art or creativity unless it will help them get their projects done. Before an interview, don’t hesitate to ask interviewers what they would like to see and develop a presentation strategy around those pieces.
Specifically for Graphic Artists and Writers
Graphic artists and writers have unique considerations when putting together a portfolio. They must balance creativity and aesthetics with an awareness of functionality and client satisfaction. Most employers will see right through a portfolio that has a lot of pizzazz, but little substance.
Prospective employers will certainly be impressed by your style and talent, but they are also interested in seeing how you addressed and solved a particular client problem or challenge. They want to see that you are able to compromise and collaborate to achieve a particular objective. There are a number of ways you might organize your material:
Storytelling: Each portfolio piece tells a story. Tell the story of each featured item clearly and as efficiently as possible, almost like a 30-second commercial. Don’t drone on about each and every piece. Review your portfolio regularly to eliminate outdated pieces—always keep it current and fresh.
Chronological: Organize your portfolio with the most recent job or project first.
Functional: Sort your portfolio according to specific types of assignments, such as:
- Print vs. web products
- Promotional vs. educational
- Corporate vs. non-profit
- Objective-based (according to a particular challenge or problem solved)
- Product-specific (group brochures together as one unit, print ads as another, magazine covers as another, etc.)
- Achievement-focused (feature award-winning work or work that generated high sales or leads, etc.)
- Always make a clean presentation. Loose, sloppy or disorganized portfolios show a lack of attentiveness and professionalism.
- Don’t overload the portfolio with too many samples. As proud as you are of your work, you must recognize that less is more when sharing a portfolio. It is far better to have a few impressive samples that leave a vivid impression, than hundreds of samples that leave the interviewer overwhelmed and bored.
- Provide a self-addressed, stamped envelope if you leave your portfolio behind. This ensures the portfolio can be returned to you at no cost or inconvenience to the employer.
- Always include a business card with contact information. Direct the interviewer to your website or online portfolio if you have one. This is a great way to reinforce your professionalism and legitimacy.
- Bring a few extra print samples to leave behind. For writers, this is particularly important, as it is unlikely that the interviewer will have the time to give more than a cursory reading of your portfolio samples during the interview.
- Design your business card. For graphic artists, leaving behind a postcard with a sample of your work printed on the front and contact information on the back, can be more effective and memorable than a standard business card. Some designers will even leave behind a CD-ROM with examples of their work. This is a great way to address the “out of sight, out of mind” problem with portfolios.
- Prepare and practice a narrative to accompany the portfolio presentation. Don’t just drop the portfolio in the interviewer’s lap and sit there. Explain what the interviewer is seeing. Who was the client, what was the objective, what was the result, why did you especially like this assignment, and how did you answer a particular challenge? Remember, your excitement about a project and pride for your work will be attractive and compelling to an interviewer.
- Ask the interviewer for anything specific that you did not provide in the portfolio. If there is, plan to send some additional samples to the interviewer later.
- Always be honest about your work. When you include items in your portfolio that are not legitimately yours, or when you claim credit for work you were involved in only tangentially, you are misrepresenting yourself and your credentials. Inevitably, this will backfire. Employers in the creative field place a high value on integrity. They should be confident that what they are seeing is what they will be getting.