7 Common Mistakes to Avoid In Your First Design Portfolio (and What To Do Instead)

February 6, 2021
Samuel Lee Miller

Samuel Lee Miller dives into what designers might consider when building out their first design portfolio.

I was recently approached by a designer who wanted advice on how to get going in the design industry and to provide feedback on their portfolio. As I was reviewing, I quickly realized that much of the advice I was going to offer them was advice I could’ve used earlier in my career. If you’re just getting started, or are even just curious about starting a design career, I’ve come up with a few points to keep in mind when making your design portfolio:

1. Avoid showing too many projects

A temptation designers who are early in their career often face is wanting to publish every project they've done. When building out a portfolio of work, it's important to edit. Edit down the number of projects that you showcase and focus more on creating more select, high quality projects. This is not to say don't take on projects. It takes reps to build up a portfolio. But that doesn't mean that you're obligated to make them publicly available. Use discretion when publishing work in your portfolio. The work you want to show might change over time—and that's okay.

Since it's likely that most people will simply click on the first or second project, think through what people see first. Because people's time is limited when looking at work, you might consider what would best start a conversation or stick in people's minds most. This gives you the best shot at continuing to talk with a potential employer or client.

While there's not a magic number of projects to include in your first design portfolio, having an excess of projects can quickly become overwhelming and look cluttered.

You can always create a PDF of additional work to show people.

2. Avoid showing imagery without context or explanation

Simply showing images, even beautiful ones, is not enough. Though creating quality imagery showcasing the work you've done is important, pictures only tell part of the story.

Part of being a designer is telling stories. When you guide people through your work—outlining the details, process, and lengths you went through to arrive at the finish line—you establish yourself as more than an artist.

Ultimately, you're looking to earn people's trust. While fancy looking mockups are nice, they don't tell the entire story. It's one challenge to have a beautiful portfolio from an aesthetic perspective—it's another to have work with effective explanations and storytelling. Honing your writing and documentation process remains an important piece to creating a strong portfolio.

Tell the story of how you brought this project to life.

3. Avoid showing the type of work you wouldn't want to do in the future

Having a focus throughout your portfolio is a great way to become known for that area of design or style of work. If a person was to land on your portfolio, what would the takeaway be? What would you want to be known for as a designer? If you wouldn't want someone to hire you for it, don't include it.

4. Avoid ambiguity

Leaving people to guess what your role was in a project—especially if you're working with others—is not only frustrating, it's unethical. Take the time to accurately outline the challenge, your role, and the project results. Not every portfolio project is necessarily going to be the same—and that's okay! It not only gives people a better understanding of what you're capable of but if you'd be a good fit for their needs.

Though the results may vary from project to project, they're important to show. It could be as simple as, "After a 2 month partnership, [the client] confidently moved forward with a new visual identity that aligned better with their mission and vision.” If you have access to raw data, include this. Both of these instances help put your work into perspective while giving it credibility.

5. Avoid hesitating to publish conceptual or self-directed projects

When you're just starting out, you may not have clients yet or know how to get them. One way to combat this is to give yourself a project. What are you interested in? Let's say you're a brand designer that loves movies. Why not develop a brand for a streaming service? By doing this, you can create an immersive project that showcases your design abilities, process, and problem-solving skills. Employers and potential clients want to understand how you can help them.

6. Avoid forgetting about your brand

In design, every choice you make impacts the final product. From your visual design decisions (think about your logo, color palette, typography, iconography, etc.) to your messaging (think about brand voice and how you want to come across)—each element is a contributing factor to developing an effective, uniquely-you portfolio. When a person sees something of yours—be it a project or your résumé—you want them to have a consistent, cohesive experience. Take the time to treat your portfolio as you would a client project and you won't regret it.

7. Avoid using website templates "out of the box"

Even if you don't have a web design background or coding skills, thoughtfully approaching your website is essential. While using a template isn't wrong (I've used them) by any means, customizing it as much as you can—making small tweaks to colors, typography, and layout—will help you to stand out from others who might be using the same template.

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While making your first design portfolio can be daunting, it doesn't have to be. If you take it in strides and remember these concepts, you'll be well on your way to a portfolio you're proud of.

Interested in working together? Let's chat.