How to Make a Portfolio for your Art & Design University Place: Tips From the Tutors
Got your sights set on a university degree in art or graphic design? First you have to impress the tutors by blowing their socks off with a demonstration of your incredible creative skills at a placement interview. It’s not as scary as it sounds, though, and we’ve got tips on how to make a portfolio from one of the very people you need to impress.
Joanne Greenhalgh is a Graphic Design Lecturer (and employability champion) at the University of Salford, and she knows a thing or two about what makes the perfect art portfolio. Jo examines the portfolios of every student wishing to be accepted onto the University’s BA Graphic Design course, evaluating everything from work presentation to visual communication skills, storytelling and conceptual ideation.
So if you want to know how to make a portfolio for university (and pick up some tips for your career portfolio along the way), take a look at these top tips from Head Judge, Jo:
How to Make a Portfolio: 6 Presentation Tips:
1. Invest in a Quality Portfolio Case
Even though this is a university interview rather than a career interview, you’ll still want to make a professional impression on your future tutors. With this in mind, you’ll need to invest in a good quality portfolio or work carry case to keep all of your work neat, tidy and presentable. Most students bring A3, A2 or A1 art portfolio cases, either containing foam presentation boards or pages protected in plastic wallets.
2. Avoid ‘GraphicBurgers’ and Mock-up Templates
There is a temptation, particularly with branding projects, for students to apply the same logo design to 20 different photographic product mock-ups (e.g. iPhone screens, T-shirts, stationery, bags and billboards) with little or no consideration for the reasons behind it. Doing this will only result in your portfolio being filled with pages and pages of repeated imagery, which will do you no favours, and will also mean your portfolio risks looking the same as everyone else’s.
While these templates can be very useful for demonstrating impact and scope, we would advise all students to think very carefully about the reasons for choosing certain applications and keep it to a minimum where possible. A better approach to help your portfolio stand out would be to take your own high-res photos and carefully edit these.
3. Avoid Borders and Backgrounds
When presenting your work you need the work itself to be the star of the show. To achieve this effect you need your presentation boards and portfolio pages to look clean and tidy, with no unnecessary decorations. Adding decorative borders and backgrounds will only serve to distract from the main event – your amazing work.
Keep your layouts classic and clean, with plenty of white space and clear margins. Use a simple grid system to help line everything up and create impactful pages.
4. Keep Text Subtle
Keep all text annotations to a maximum of 10pt size and always use a simple font such as Arial or Helvetica – remember it’s the visual communication we’re most interested in, so fancy fonts will do nothing to help you. We would also recommend you set all text to 80% black, as this softens the text appearance compared with solid black and helps keep the focus on the visuals. Keep an eye on sentence length and line length too, as nothing looks worse than sprawling, overhanging sentences. Justify text blocks where possible
5. Keep Annotations to a Minimum
Annotations are important but don’t get too carried away and try to explain every last little detail. A short, concise explanation of the initial brief, your concepts and your solutions is all you need; there will be opportunity for you to verbally explain things in greater depth at your interview.
6. Spell Check Everything!
Although you are applying for a visually-led course, correct spelling and grammar is still highly important for interview processes and for your projects in general. Go through your annotations and any visual designs that use type to ensure your work is free of spelling and grammatical errors. It is also very useful to get somebody else to read through and help you practise talking about your work.
Now you’ve got the basics of how to make a portfolio presentation sorted, here are 10 portfolio building tips to help you nail the flow and content in your interview. These tips work just as well for both your university interview and future career portfolio interviews, so pay close attention!
How to Make a Portfolio: 10 Portfolio Building Tips
1. A Portfolio is a Story About You
Your portfolio is essentially a vehicle for showing off your skills, but it is also so much more than that. If you think of your portfolio as just a sales tool, you tend to focus on execution skills or how many pieces of software you can use, which is great for us to know, but your portfolio should more importantly tell an engaging story about you. It should show everyone who reads it exactly what your passions, ideas and strengths are, how far you’ve come in design and where your interests in the design industry lie.
2. Include an Intro Page
A good way to start your portfolio story is to have a 4 sentence summary about who and what you are all about (also known as your personal statement). This is especially useful when sending your portfolio to potential employers as a digital PDF, as they won’t initially get the benefit of meeting you face to face. A well-designed introduction page sets the tone of your portfolio presentation and gives everyone a useful insight into who you are.
Use this page to share a little about your background and give your portfolio story more depth and inform everyone about your strengths. Keep it light though; you are summarizing your design experience, not writing a biography.
3. Limit the Number of Projects in Your Portfolio to a Maximum of Six
Pick five or six of your very best projects to showcase in your portfolio. Too many and most people cannot remember what they have seen, too few and you risk giving the impression that you cannot approach a good mixture of brief types. And, although it really goes without saying, do not put weak work in; not even just to bump up the number of projects.
There is one caveat to this rule, and that is the number of pages per project. If your portfolio tends to have a lot of pages for each project, you can cut the total number of projects down.
4. Ensure Projects in Your Portfolio are No Older Than Three Years
This is less of a consideration for college students attending university placement interviews, as all of your work will be relatively recent. However, once you go on to search for jobs after graduating you should not present work that is older than two years, and once you’ve spent a few years in the industry you should keep portfolio projects to no older than three years.
5. Know the purpose of each project in your portfolio
Every project in your portfolio should have reason to be there; a USP (unique selling point), if you will. This purpose should highlight your strengths and ability as a designer and make you stand out from the rest.
Here are some example questions you could be asking yourself when choosing your portfolio projects:
Does this project show my potential employer that I can deliver award-winning designs? Is this project only showing my 3D rendering skills? Does this project show conceptual thinking and my design process?
As a rule of thumb we would always advise students and graduates to show creative concepts and processes, not just polished finals that suggest style over content. We as tutors (and any future employers) will want to see how you go about tackling a brief from start to finish.
6. Create Customised Portfolios
Selecting and deciding on projects for your portfolio can be difficult, especially if you have a large pool of options to choose from. On the flip side, having a lot of projects allows you the flexibility of customising a portfolio to make it suitable to the type of creative course or employer that you will be showing your work to.
Are you meeting an art tutor or a design tutor? Are you meeting a marketing executive, a designer, or perhaps even a CEO? Tailor your projects to help make your portfolio more relevant to the course, the individual or the company to ensure it hits the spot. Do research into the University, the course or the company beforehand so you know what they do, but don’t take out a project that shows off valuable skills. Just because they don’t do it doesn’t mean they don’t want to do it.
7. Know What You Want to Do as a Designer
Knowing what type of design you want to specialise in can help you build a more engaging portfolio. If you’re attending a university interview you might not know exactly which area you want to go into just yet. However, if you do, then make sure you demonstrate this.
Do you want to work in a consultancy? What about in an in-house design team, or even in a cross disciplinary role that reports to the CEO? Research is key. Knowing what you want in your design career can also help you shape the projects you get to work on throughout your course. There are lots of different briefs, design pathways and other choices open to you along the way.
8. A Portfolio is a Living Document
A portfolio should always be evolving, even while you’re studying. Update your portfolio every six months (or every time you need to show it to someone). This way you can evaluate what’s there and keep the content fresh. Waiting longer tends to allow for work or documentation to go missing. A job opportunity might also pop up that could leave you scrambling to get organised before the submission deadline. The Scout’s motto applies here: “Be prepared.”
9. A Killer Portfolio is Well Designed
As an artist or designer you should take every step to make sure that your portfolio is well designed. It should not simply be a bunch of images sitting in a plastic folder. Unfortunately, there are a lot of portfolios out there that are poorly designed, even though the content might be acceptable.
You should always aim to have a consistent portfolio layout designed to work in your favour. Ensure a consistent landscape or portrait format as well as consistent tone and presentation of copy. A good way to get started is to create a template by using a grid. You can then quickly and neatly populate your design work from there. It is always tempting to over-style your portfolio, but always keep your layout design simple and classic. You don’t want fussy backgrounds or busy portfolio layouts to overshadow your design work.
10. Digital v.s. Printed Portfolio?
For university placement interviews we always recommend students bring a physical portfolio. This is mainly because most foundation and college art and design courses generate a lot of physical artwork. However, digital is usually still acceptable for your university interview if this best suits your projects. It is best to check with your chosen universities to make sure before you go.
When it comes to career portfolios, digital is fast becoming the norm. Most portfolios are now sent to recipients via email as a reduced-size PDF. Design candidates are also presenting their portfolio on laptops or iPads, which is convenient and simple. Some, however, prefer to project onto large screens for more impact.
There is no hard and fast rule here though, and we would always advise that you design for the medium. In many cases the layout for a printed portfolio will not work on a laptop screen or projector. Digital versions meant to be viewed on a laptop must always be in landscape format. However, presentations intended for iPads should be optimised to rotate.
But don’t be afraid to have a physical portfolio too. There is a certain tactile quality that a physical portfolio has over an on-screen version. Paper also tends to be a much more forgiving medium, which can help with presenting. On the other hand, a digital portfolio viewed on a laptop screen allows for back lit, bright and vibrant images. So make both if you can, or stick to the format that best showcases your style of work.
That’s it! Now you know how to make a portfolio to knock the socks off any university interviewer or employer. Follow these basic rules and you’ll have a portfolio that sells you both as a person and a designer. Ultimately you’ll become a solid contender for your university placement or new design job.
Best of luck!