How to Put Together Your First Professional Portfolio

man holding a professional portfolio

Creating and maintaining a professional portfolio is part of the price of admission to the creative industry whether you’re seeking an in-house role, agency job or running a freelance business. But what exactly do you need, and what format is right for you? Here’s a quick Q&A.

What is a professional portfolio?

Whether it’s digital or print, your professional portfolio is essentially a collection of work samples that demonstrate your creative skills. Think of it as a “visual resume” that communicates the message “I have done great creative work for others and I can do the same for you.”

Check out our Creating a Winning Portfolio resource page.

Who needs a professional portfolio?

Anyone who wants to work as a creative professional, including graphic designers, web designers, UX designers, copywriters, marketing communications professionals and multimedia experts.

Should I have a digital portfolio?

Yes! Every creative professional should at least have a digital portfolio of some kind. Agency owners and hiring managers often surf online portfolios as their first step when determining which candidates to contact for interviews. If you want to be on their radar, you’ll need a digital portfolio. You can post one on your website or use sites like Behance, Coroflot or Carbonmade to get up and running quickly.

A well-optimized digital portfolio lets you share samples with anyone, anywhere, which can be a great time-saver when you’re talking to potential clients or employers. It also helps you to “pre-qualify” prospects so you waste less time talking to people who aren’t a good fit for you. Some portfolio apps and websites also let you tailor what you show depending on the situation or the prospect’s needs.

Learn what creative directors love (and hate) about online portfolios.

Do I also need a printed portfolio?

While digital portfolios are versatile and inexpensive, it’s sometimes easier to communicate your skills by sharing a tangible item that the would-be client or employer can hold in their hands. Consider having a printed portfolio in addition to your digital presence if one or more of the following apply to you:

  • You frequently present samples to more than one person during face-to-face meetings
  • You regularly work in a larger format than the size of a laptop or iPad screen
  • You want to show fine photographic detail
  • Your work is three-dimensional, such as packaging
  • Your samples feature specialty folding, die-cutting, pop-ups or other custom paper treatments
  • Your samples use elements that don’t display well on computer screens, such as metallic or neon colors, reflective surfaces and varnishes.

How many pieces should I include in my professional portfolio?

A safe range is eight to 12 samples. Aim to show the breadth of your abilities with as few samples as possible, so choose carefully from the best pieces you have. If there is something in your portfolio you don’t love, leave it out. It's important to self-audit and be sure that your professional portfolio represents your best work and clearly demonstrates the type of skill the client or employer is looking for.  

Some creatives maintain a larger secondary portfolio in Evernote or a similar tool. That way you can quickly access two or three appropriate selections when a client says, “We like what we see in your portfolio, but have you ever done X?”

And here’s a quick bonus tip for copywriters: Be sure to include work samples that your design colleagues have done an excellent job with. A little visual appeal makes your work more than just a “wall of words.” If possible, use pieces featuring a variety of design styles to reinforce your versatility as a copywriter.

Read how to tackle tricky questions you could face in a professional portfolio review.

How often should I update my professional portfolio?

Whether it’s digital or physical, you’ll want to update your portfolio regularly to keep it fresh. There’s no hard and fast rule, but looking things over at least once a quarter is a good general practice. Any time you complete a project that you’re really proud of, consider adding it to your portfolio sooner rather than later. You’ll also want to rotate out any samples that are becoming stale or dated.  

Looking for creative work? You can create your own digital portfolio on The Creative Group website. If you’re not yet a TCG candidate, simply upload your resume to get started.

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Tags: Portfolio