Paving the path to a job offer often starts with creating — and presenting — a killer creative portfolio.

Developing a creative portfolio can be pretty intimidating. Whether putting together a first portfolio or updating an existing one, many creative professionals don’t know where to start or find themselves paralyzed by indecision. That’s a problem because a strong portfolio is the single most important career tool for creatives today.

And while it’s fine to have a printed portfolio, you absolutely need a digital one. In fact, many job seekers and freelancers land offers exclusively with online portfolios, never assembling a physical book at all. A TCG recruiter in Denver told me that hiring managers often ask to see a person’s work before a resume. And by work, they mean a link to an online portfolio.

When not meeting with clients and candidates, TCG teams spend a big chunk of their time reviewing digital portfolios. If they find themselves struggling with a site’s navigation or overall design, they’re going to quickly move to the next one. You likely have about 30 seconds to capture the attention of a recruiter or hiring manager and draw them in closer. (That’s probably less time than you spend writing a social media post.)

TCG recruiters always say good design grabs them first, but it takes amazing creative work to keep them looking. That doesn’t mean you need a super-fancy website, especially if you’re not a web designer.

Focus on creating a digital portfolio that’s clean, intuitive and reflective of your personal brand. Your overall goal is to make it as easy as possible for people to see your very best work and get a sense of your style, range and who you are as a creative professional.

Putting the right pieces in place

Be a tough and strategic editor. Take a hard look at your samples and put your most impressive pieces first. If you’re struggling to make a decision, ask a colleague, designer friend or mentor for a second opinion. They can help give you a gut check on which creative pieces and projects are truly your best.

Skip the design bells and whistles. Take a cue from spare, white box art galleries. White space gives your work plenty of room to breathe and a place for the viewer’s eyes to rest. Mimicking this feel online keeps the emphasis on your samples.

Include captions. Written descriptions add context and value (assuming they’re free of spelling and grammatical errors, of course). When writing captions, think about these questions:

  • What did I contribute?
  • Did the piece generate sales or boost the bottom line? How much?
  • Did I receive positive feedback from a boss, client or the target audience? (Metrics matter, but compelling qualitative information can also be helpful.)
  • Did I overcome major creative, budgetary or timeline constraints?
  • Did the project win any industry awards or get mentioned in the media?

Focus on quality over quantity. Personally, I’d rather see eight great pieces in a creative portfolio than 20 mediocre ones. It’s tempting to pack in as much work as possible, but showing you know how to spot the best concepts and tailor your portfolio to the job opening is even more important. One bad sample can call your skills and judgment into question.

Make sure your website is responsive. Always think of functionality and the end user. Put your portfolio to the test by checking image load times and making sure your portfolio functions properly on every version of every browser on every platform.

Be consistent with your branding. If you create a visual theme, carry the design through. The theme should also be evident in your resume, cover letter or other application materials.

Use a portfolio site if necessary. Not an expert designer? Sites such as Behance, Coroflot or Carbonmade can get you up and running quickly thanks to a template. The Creative Group also offers a free portfolio tool to registered candidates – and we showcase exceptional talent, too!

Take the time to customize. Tailor your samples to the needs of the company. Think about whether you’re applying to a buttoned-up Fortune 500 firm, a scrappy start-up or something in between. It’s easy for employers to spot who’s done their research and who hasn’t.


Pitching your creative portfolio

As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. Don’t head out to present your portfolio to a potential employer or client until you’ve created a compelling and cohesive overall pitch.

Think of it like this: You’re auditioning for the job, and how you present yourself (and your work) gives clues as to how you’d perform in a meeting with internal or external clients. While your creative work will be the focus, your interpersonal abilities will also be evaluated. Show some personality. It’s your job to engage, persuade and enlighten your audience.

Hiring managers often tell us there’s nothing more disappointing than someone with a great creative portfolio who doesn’t have the ability to connect in person. Employers need to know you’ll be able to successfully fit in as part of a larger creative team, collaborate with other departments and sell your ideas. With all this in mind, use technology as a presentation tool and not a crutch.

Organize your samples and customize them for each interview or meeting. For each individual sample you feature, think about your caption content and then use this simple formula: problem, solution, results.

The problem the client faced was …

To solve this challenge, I …

As a result, there was …

Be as specific as you can, especially about results. Don’t be afraid to brag about a bump in conversions or sales. Offering specific numbers when you have them can help bolster your case and show that you think strategically.

Take the time to practice talking aloud about each sample and be prepared to answer tricky questions. An interviewer might ask you about a typography selection or how you approached the discovery process. Make sure you’re ready to answer.

Ideally, you’ll be able to walk the interviewer through the bulk of your work. But often, hiring managers are pressed for time. To be on the safe side, develop a “top five pitch.” Choose the five best samples in your portfolio – the ones that show off your skills and most closely match the company’s creative needs. Then spend 30 seconds talking about each one. You’ll want to develop a condensed version of the problem, solution, results formula I mentioned above. This will enable you to showcase both your work and your ability to communicate quickly – a skill all busy managers, executives or potential clients prize.

Diane Domeyer is executive director of The Creative Group. For more tips on landing a new job or freelance work, subscribe to the blog now.