Andy Cooke

Design & direction across brand identity, screen and print

Navigating your Portfolio

Tips for putting together the best representation of yourself and your work

  1. 1,859 words
  2. 9 minute read

I’ve spent almost 15 years designing portfolios. For myself, for the design studios I’ve founded, for the creative agencies I’ve designed for and the creative teams I’ve worked as part of. There is always a presentation of work to put together at some point along the road.

I’ve also spent the last 6–8 months working into my latest portfolio site, which has informed some of thinking in this article.

How you put together a successful portfolio is amongst the single most important skills inside a designer’s locker. It’s all well and good knowing how to do something, but if you can’t talk, show or write about it effectively, then you’re making things significantly more difficult for yourself in the long run. It’s also all well and good seeking out those amazing opportunities, but if you have to scramble at the eleventh hour to put *something* together to show your skills and expertise, then you’re risking that opportunity slipping away. Which brings me to my list.

1. Be prepared

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”, as Benny Franklin said. I love a good quote, and this is one that we can all relate to. Sometimes, leaving things until the last minute is exciting; it’s where the best ideas often come to light, or when we tend to have the best travel-related experiences, for instance. Never underestimate the positive value of spontaneity in your life.

However, life has a funny way of throwing the unexpected at you in a negative way — and when the kind of stuff happens that affects your means of living, any joy in the spontaneous quickly dissipates. I know people who were happy at work one day, and couldn’t wait to leave the next. Or people who have been made unceremoniously redundant or fired without notice.

2. Update as you go

Expenses. What a nightmare. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that all this food, travel and accommodation is covered by the company I work for. But pulling out a folder full of receipts after a two-week stint in Shanghai doesn’t inspire me to sit for three hours and try and remember what they were all for. Especially when they’re all in Chinese. Slightly off topic, but it does relate. The big revelation that makes this monotonous task easy, is that by uploading the receipt to Expensify at the time of paying (or at least on the same day), the reason for the expense is freshly in mind and works to break a large task to a granular level. Groundbreaking.

Taking the same approach with the projects you’re working on makes for better case studies. The work is fresh in your mind; you know why you did what, who said this or that and—perhaps most importantly—you have access to your files there and then to put assets together. For the love of god, little can be more frustrating in this process than trying to find files from years prior and remembering what was what. Avoid that stress.

3. Breadth and depth

A lot of people have opinions on how many projects a designer should show, and how detailed each project should be. Well, newsflash. There is no should. No right or wrong. Just opinions. And, much like submitting a tender for work or going in on a pitch—you just never know what the person on the other end of your work is going to prefer.

Personally, I like breadth and depth. I like seeing an array of different types of projects that show a wide range of approaches, knowledge and skills. I like seeing the small projects, and the big projects. Some say you shouldn’t write an essay or make a case study big… but sometimes a project is just that big.

If so, go and write about it. Things in life aren’t always concise. What was the brief? Did you solve any problems? What were the results? Don’t be scared. Tell me about all the things that happened, and let me see all the work that came with it. It proves that you can handle big projects, and can show your thinking.

4. So, how many?

No less than 5. No more than 20. You know what? Forget what people tell you is ‘right’. It’s so dependant on many factors as to how many projects you show in your portfolio. For instance, design veterans Pentagram show 1125 projects on their site, while the trailblazers over at Koto only ever show 4, which are rotated every now and again. Of course, there’s just a few years difference between how long these companies have been in existence, so one factor there is that Koto don’t have as big an archive as Pentagram. But that’s not the point here. The point is that we have two branding companies, both working on projects of similar scales at this moment in time, both with different ideals on how many projects they publicly show. They’re doing what works for them.

Put as many projects in your portfolio that you think is right.

5. Process

There’s also a lot of opinion about process. Here’s one more. Every designer tends to approach things slightly differently. From the way we organise our files, understand the brief or articulate ideas. When we join a team, we either adopt what process is in place, influence it, or work to change it entirely. But for the most part, there are only so many creative processes that teams tend to follow. So unless there was something radically different about how you solved that problem, was led to this decision or ended up with this career-defining creative… I’d say, it doesn’t really matter. I’m not saying to not to talk about it, just don’t labour on it.

6. Ownership

I’ve found that designers can get really hung up on the projects they ‘own’. It’s a funny notion in many ways, and unless work is conjured up in a vacuum by a lone creative, then it’s fair to say that true project ownership is often split between multiple people, in multiple roles. I think it’s important that every person involved in the process gets to include the project in their portfolio.

Projects only ever end up where they do because of the individuals who have touched it along the way. Designers, directors, clients. Every person who is involved affects the path and therefore the final destination of creative work. We all have different perspectives and inspiration points from vastly varying lives, experiences and opinions. Even if somebody has had, say, 10% involvement in a project—it’s still theirs. They don’t have to be the one crafting the final thing to claim ownership. Design is a team sport.

The key thing is to make sure that you’re always honest about your role, and who else was involved. A respectful portfolio has a broad credits list. Greater than the sum of its parts, and all that.

7. Types of projects

Client work, conceptual work, self-initiated and unsolicited redesigns. I see a lot of different types of projects in portfolios. I have a range of these types of projects in mine, and I quite like to see a range in others. That’s what’s key, in my opinion. A range. It goes back to breadth and depth again.

I like to see designs that have had real-world constraints, changes from client feedback and team efforts. I like to see conceptual work based on ideas that suddenly pop into your mind, whether it’s for real world clients or not. Self-initiated examples are important to see—they show you’re driven, ambitious and can handle the entire process and actually completing a project by yourself. Unsolicited redesigns have their place—mostly as an exercise for practicing fun within design. That was one of the best aspects of being a student!

But like anything, there’s a balance to be sought. If you’re lucky enough to have an abundance of real client work in your portfolio, great. But some people haven’t, and that’s when it’s absolutely fine to have other types of work in there.

8. Mockups!

There are so many ways of presenting work. This is true for the final case study in a portfolio, and when we’re presenting concepts to creative directors or pitches to clients. In those last two instances, we often use mockups of how design ideas will work in the real world. It’s often how we sell ideas.

So why is there a tendency to look down on mockups in designer’s portfolios? It makes no sense. For a number of reasons. Unless your projects are actually produced (more applicable to non-digital projects) and you either have the skills or access to somebody with the skills to photograph the work in it’s natural habitat, how else is one supposed to show how effective their thinking in a real world environment?

Mockups are fine. I’d just encourage to pick the best examples you can find and use one once as part of a single case study. Repeating different designs on the same mockup file quickly decreases the impact of a project presentation.

9. Artistic license

While I’m on the subject of project content, I think it’s important to talk about artistic license. I’ve been guilty in the past of only ever showing work that was ‘signed-off’. In some kind of skewed loyalty to the work that only made it over the last hurdle, so much good stuff that didn’t get as far has been left wallowing on hard drives. But, much like the multiple people involved in the creation of a single project, multiple designs and revisions on those designs all informed the final outcome.

So, let’s see them. It doesn’t necessarily mean that because a design didn’t see the light of day, that it wasn’t effective. Or that it didn’t solve the problem. We all know that there are dozens of ways to answer a brief. So, even if there’s a different version of the ‘final’ design you prefer, or there’s great work that is on the cutting room floor from along the way, include it.

10. Iconifying projects

Is there one image that sums up the entire project? In an ideal world, there is. Apparently any advertisement only has a window of a few seconds to capture the imagination of a potential customer. That’s why we’ve ended up with taglines siting next to homogenous layouts on home pages and billboards. Everybody is trying to be as simple as possible by iconifying their offer.

It makes sense to do the same for a portfolio piece, too. A powerful image that encapsulates the overall feeling of a project will draw people in and encourage them to make that all important click to go through to the case study itself. It needs to find the balance between abstract and intriguing to informative and revealing. Too much of either and people won’t be interested because they won’t understand what it is, or they’ll feel like they’ve got everything they need to know from that single image.

Portfolio resources

Squarespace · Cargo · Carbonmade · Semplice

Layers · LS Graphics · Yellow Images · Pixeden

Further Reading
Portfolio Principles · Bestfolios · DESK