The Online Portfolio: What Creative Directors Love (and Loathe)

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Which design samples should you put in your online portfolio? And what's the best way to display them? Four top creative directors gave us the scoop, so you can stop guessing and start delivering the goods.

A digital portfolio is a must for designers these days, whether happily employed or seeking work. It's a powerful way to build your personal brand, and it helps you avoid a last-minute scramble if an appealing freelance or full-time opportunity unexpectedly pops up.

For our Creative Team of the Future project, we surveyed more than 750 designers across the country to get a pulse on design portfolio trends. While 18 percent of respondents said they don't have an online portfolio, more than half (57 percent) told us they update theirs at least once a year. If you want to stay marketable, you better keep yours current, too.

So where do designers feature all this work? Often in multiple places, including a personal website or blog (63 percent), a portfolio site like Behance or Cargo (54 percent), and on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram (30 percent).

Unfortunately, not every portfolio makes the cut, at least in hiring managers' or clients' eyes. We talked with some top creative directors about their online portfolio loves and loathes so you can ensure yours hits all the right notes.

Love: You put your best work first

"Make sure your first project is either killer or else a collection of your greatest hits," says Allan Peters, associate creative director at Target. You might, for instance, pick out three to five of your best projects and put those front and center.

Why: Hiring managers tell us you might only have 20 seconds or so to capture their attention as they sort through candidate portfolios. It's probably less time than you spend writing a tweet. That means you need to take a hard look at your samples and put your absolute best work first.

Loathe: It's hard to find your work

"Keep it simple like an art gallery – all white and easy to navigate," Peters says.

Why: Bells and whistles aren't the key to capturing attention with your digital portfolio. Instead, take a cue from all those spare, white-box art galleries. Mimicking this feel online keeps the emphasis on your work.

Love: Your work shows a point of view

"What is your take on this?" says Ann Willoughby, founder and chief creative officer at Willoughby. "Beautiful work by itself may not interest us if there's not a story behind it."

Why: Show work that reveals a little something about you. This might be a short description or just a piece that includes your design point of view.

Loathe: You include less-than-stellar work

"A mediocre piece in the portfolio is a red flag," Willoughby says. "It tells me the designer did not thoughtfully craft his or her presentation."

Why: Editing your online portfolio (and making sure that it's easy to navigate) shows you have good design judgment. Focus on quality over quantity. Willoughby told us she'd rather see six or seven great pieces in your portfolio than 20 mediocre ones. Take out anything that's questionable.

Love: You include passion projects

"What are you doing outside the workplace?" says Tommy Sheehan, design director at LPK. "I'm always looking to see what designers are really passionate about."

Why: Outside projects show that you're a self-starter who wants to explore new things. It's also a strong indicator of a good work ethic that's going to take you far at the office.

Loathe: You show five different versions of the same design

"Minor iterations of the same thing annoy me," Sheehan says. "Pick the one you truly like and show it."

Why: Showing you know how to spot the best concept is more important than padding your portfolio. Instead, demonstrate how you solve a range of different design problems.

Love: You tailor your online portfolio for the job

"I can tell if you did your research and crafted it for my eyes," says Andy Kurtts, design manager at The Fresh Market.

Why: For many job openings, you'll be asked to submit a PDF portfolio that showcases a handful of design samples. Managers look at these mini portfolios first and then head to your website if they like what they see. Take the time to customize your samples to the needs of the company and position.

Loathe: You resort to cheap gimmicks

"One applicant's logo was an ink drawing of his face with a bunch of piercings," Kurtts says.

Why: Personalization is important, but you still have to fit in with the culture of the company. Think about whether you're applying to a buttoned-up Fortune 500, wild tech start-up or something in between.

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

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