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Building a graphic design portfolio: what to include and avoid to stand out

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Updated on:
December 12, 2022
December 12, 2022
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As a freelance graphic designer, your portfolio is your pride and joy. A well-built one showcases your design ability. It also reflects the way you think, your flexibility, and how you may work with potential clients and collaborators.

A portfolio should include details about your work and who you are. It should be customized for each potential client and highlight your expertise with a distinctive display. Avoid anything that doesn’t highlight your craft, isn’t related, and reveals your entire autobiography. Following these suggestions will help you grow your graphic design business and stand out from the million other designers applying for the same jobs.

What to include in a graphic design portfolio

The main things your portfolio needs to do are display your talent, demonstrate your fit for a particular role, and help people get in touch with you. Include a digestible format, social media with contact details, vivid examples of your specialty, and a personal touch.

1. Easy and simple format

You have options to choose from when deciding on the format of your portfolio. The most common formats for freelance graphic designers are PDFs or through website builders like Wix, Weebly, or Squarespace. These options are easy to use and come with plenty of templates to use as starting points—but you’ll stand out more if you customize them to show off your skills. Once in tip-top shape, test out your presentation by sending it to a friend to ensure they can fully access it. The goal is to confirm it is easy to navigate without having to request access, download, or wait hours for a project to load.

Having a print portfolio is a good secondary option to have. It’s a format that some freelance graphic designers fail to consider. If you have an in-person interview, presenting an interviewer with a physical copy of your portfolio can leave a long-lasting impression.

For a simple format, include a small group of projects in your portfolio. Each one needs to speak boldly yet remain digestible—so no 40-part design sagas unless that’s the kind of project you’re applying for.

2. Social media & information about you

Leverage the power of social media for your graphic design portfolio to stay seen and relevant. It will give potential collaborators a chance to get to know you on a deeper level.

Adding platforms that are connected to your graphic design work can help your portfolio stand out. They will create brand awareness and show off your excellent work, leading you to become more dependable, noticeable, and devoted.

Incorporating social media offers a space for collaboration. In the process, you can receive feedback and grow a following who love and support what you do. Add social to brainstorm as well because graphic design is a fast-paced industry where change happens constantly. This will help you stay up to date and innovative in your designs.

Along with social media, provide a brief About Me section with contact information and a call to action to provide insight into your background. Write short, simple, and compelling copy that will attract people to want to work with you. Include your name, background, expertise, accomplishments, and what fuels you to create quality work. The last thing you want prospective clients to see is your contact information. Let that be at the end with your social media platforms, the point where they will be ready to speak with you directly.

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3. Demonstration of your specialty

Your specialty as a freelance graphic designer is a particular skill at which you excel. If you specialize in packaging graphic design, for example, the projects in your portfolio should reflect that talent. The goal is to always find ways to be striking. Be detailed and descriptive in order to prove what you have to offer.

When assessing your work, future clients are looking to identify your specialty. You will need to know how to clearly showcase what that is.

packaging graphic design by Alex Spenser
Image by Alex Spenser

Take Alex Spenser, for example, whose specialty is packaging graphic design. Within that realm, he focuses on identity design for lifestyle and wellness brands, which speaks for itself in his portfolio.

Put your most relevant and powerful pieces at the front for clients to see. In the end, it all boils down to how your specialty can be of service to them.

4. A personal touch

Incorporating your unique character as a designer will give your portfolio a personal touch that will set it apart.

Use fonts, unique colors, and designs that show off your style. You’re in a creative role; here’s your chance to make a grand entrance. Kate Moross is one graphic designer who consistently emphasizes her personality through her work.

Kate Moross website
Image by Kate Moross

Kate Moross uses consistent, saturated colors in her artwork and designs. The vibrancy in her craft is what makes her memorable. When looking at her Instagram and Twitter platforms, you’ll find that her personal touch is there as well, with a consistent color scheme.

The work you include in your portfolio is just one way you demonstrate your unique style and skills.

Things to leave out of your graphic design portfolio

To save time and energy for the people reviewing your portfolio, make it worth their while. Don’t make a potential client read a long, rambling block of text. The goal is not to put them to sleep but to grab their attention immediately. To increase the chances of that happening, remove the things that do not belong—information that can take away your shine, irrelevant work, and your entire life story.

1. Don’t talk about your weaknesses

Clients are looking for the best of the best—so make sure that’s how you come across. Highlight the pros over the cons. Prospective clients want to see what you are great at, not where you don’t excel.
Only your strong suits will win new business; no need to call attention to where you’re lacking. For example, a client looking at this image, where a designer visually explains their proficiency in several programming languages, will see the weaknesses stand out more than the strengths. If you know your strengths include CSS and HTML, show that and nothing else.

programming language proficiency illustration
Image by Design Shack

2. Irrelevant projects

Relevant projects are current, they highlight your specialty, and they’re tailored to what each client is looking for. In other words, if you’re applying to design logos, don’t include a trove of website design work. From your best-graded project in your senior year of college to the most recognized piece you produced for a reputable brand, you may want to include it all. Save yourself and resist the temptation because clients are not going to have the time to dissect, nor will they care. Instead, present projects that fit what clients are seeking and can solve their problems.

If a client is specifically looking to hire a UX/UI freelance graphic designer, Marco Marino would be an ideal fit based on his portfolio. His projects are relevant because they only focus on two categories: web branding and UI/UX design.

Marco Marino web branding
Image by Marco Marino

Don’t fill your site with irrelevant content and fluff. Someone is looking at your portfolio to get a better understanding of what skills you can perform. Being specific is key, so take a second to think about what is relevant and leave out anything that is not. You have a limited amount of time to showcase your talent. Avoid including irrelevant work so that you make a good first impression.

3. Your entire life story

Describe your style and what inspires you, but no one wants to read a memoir. Keep your About Me brief and let your projects speak for themselves.

Tom Parkes shows a great example of how to efficiently talk about yourself in your graphic design portfolio. No one needs to ask him what he does and who he is because it’s right there. You will know everything that you need to without unnecessary information. When you scroll down the main page of his site, each mission of the project is clearly explained and gets to the point.

Tom Parkes brief introduction
Image by Tom Parkes

Keep your portfolio looking sharp

Now that you know what you need (and don’t need) to include for your graphic design portfolio to stand out, make sure it stays that way. Create a habit of updating and polishing your portfolio regularly. Doing so will help you reflect on past projects, grow as a graphic designer, and identify what rates you should charge. You never know when another project may pop up, so stay ready.

With a sharp portfolio, you will likely obtain more business than ever before. Whether you’re transitioning from managing one client to two, five, or 10, our freelance project management tool will easily help you organize and work more efficiently.

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