How to Prepare Your Work Portfolio

Written by
Rebecca Smith

Published
Sep 25, 2020

Sep 25, 2020 • by Rebecca Smith

Graphic designers, photographers, writers, and other professionals typically need to bring a portfolio of work to a job interview. Unfortunately, many amateurs miss out on promising opportunities because their portfolio lacked something, or was otherwise unimpressive. 

If you want a better chance of getting hired for the job you want, you’ll need to spend some time refining your portfolio

Lead With Your Best Piece

This should be obvious, but make sure your portfolio starts with your best piece. Try to find the photo, article, or artistic work that best captures your abilities as a professional, and put it in front. It should be the piece responsible for the first impressions of the people reviewing your portfolio, and it should set the tone for the rest of your work. 

Invest in Good Printing

It might cost a little extra, but make sure you invest in high-quality printing. You can print a professional booklet that highlights your best pieces, or print individual pieces and professionally bind them in some way. Whatever avenue you choose, you should be buying the best quality materials you can afford, and inspecting each item to make sure it’s flawless. 

Include a Variety of Pieces (and Show Off Your Specialty)

Too many amateurs end up filling their portfolio with variations of the same type of work. It’s much better to show off a variety of pieces, so you can demonstrate your range. For example, if you’re an artist, you should include pieces from a wide variety of different mediums—even ones you don’t consider as a specialty. 

That said, you should also spend some time emphasizing your specialty. What type of work do you consider yourself best at? Make this obvious, and include several standout pieces in this area. 

Keep It Uncontroversial 

Building your professional portfolio is not the time to get experimental or dabble in controversial territory. If you have any artistic or professional works that might not be well-received by certain people, it’s best to leave them out. Focus on your uncontroversial, straightforward work

Include (Limited) Commentary

Each item in your portfolio should have a title and a brief description. Feel free to provide some light additional commentary about this work, including its origin and how you feel about. However, be cautious not to go overboard; for the most part, your work should speak for itself. 

Consider Adding Peripheral Items

You may consider fleshing out your portfolio with a handful of additional items beyond what you’ve created on your own. 

For example: 

  • Photos of you in action. Depending on the nature of your work, you could include photos of yourself in the process of creating something. 
  • Collaborative works. You might also include collaborative pieces you contributed to; just be sure to credit the other people who worked on it. 
  • Letters of recommendation. Feel free to add letters of recommendation, reviews, or other forms of praise as addenda to your portfolio. 

Keep It Concise

It’s tempting to stuff your portfolio full of as much good work as possible, but it’s also important to keep things concise; this way, your reviewers won’t get overwhelmed, and they’ll have more time to focus on your best work. Depending on the application, your portfolio should probably take 30 minutes or less to review in full. Length varies here, so if you’re in doubt, ask around to get a sense for the reviewers’ expectations. 

Be Ready to Leave a Copy Behind 

Some artists like to travel with a portfolio, but if you’re heading to a job interview, you need to be prepared to leave at least one copy behind. Get extra copies printed to hand out to other interviewers in the meeting while you’re at it. 

Collect Feedback

If the interview goes well and your prospective employers love your portfolio, you can expect to get a job offer, or at least some praise. If you don’t hear back after a week or two, or if you get a rejection letter, consider following up to collect feedback. Ask if there’s anything you could have done to improve your portfolio, or if there was anything missing. This is a valuable learning opportunity whose lessons can be applied to your next interview. 

Adapt

Finally, be prepared to revisit and improve your portfolio on a regular basis. As you develop as an artist or as a professional, you’ll likely create new pieces that outshine your old ones; don’t be afraid to make replacements and upgrades. In fact, your portfolio will look even more impressive if it has a mix of both older and newer pieces

If your first portfolio draft isn’t a hit, don’t feel discouraged. Creating and refining a portfolio is a process that takes time. Eventually, you’ll end up with a portfolio that shows off everything you can do—and makes an incredible first impression.