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How To Create a Design Portfolio That Will Get You Hired

by Chloe Gordon on 08/29/2022 | 8 Minute Read

"I've just been traveling for seventeen hours." 

Petrula Vrontikis, the creative director and senior faculty member at ArtCenter College of Design, casually mentions this as we begin our conversation. From this simple comment alone, it’s instantly clear how genuine Vrontikis is—despite being extremely jet-lagged, she’s kind, authentic, and, above all, massively talented and insightful. 

Beyond being an avid traveler, Vrontikis is an educator, designer, and author recognized by AIGA as an influential voice in the design industry. Her work has appeared in countless print publications, including her own book Inspiration: A Creativity Sourcebook for Graphic Designers. She has taught at ArtCenter for over 30 years, where she currently teaches Grad Theses 1: Portfolio Lab and Portfolio & Career Preparation. 

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In 2019, Vrontikis created a YouTube video about Portfolio Tips with Matthew Encina, creative director at Blind, for The Futur Academy's account. With well over 600,000 views and a comments section that's full of heaping praise and positivity, Vrontikis' advice is highly regarded by her industry peers and students, in addition to those just embarking on their design careers. 

Basically, she’s the expert in helping you land a design gig.

Navigating the unfamiliar space between being a student and a working professional is a difficult and often confusing process. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to sit down with Vrontikis to dive deeply into successfully traversing post-grad life. The valuable insight and advice below will propel portfolios from the "no-pile" to one that's Petrula Vrontikis-approved and likely to help you land your dream job. 

Your First Impression Is Everything 

Making a good first impression is beyond important, even more so in a portfolio review. So often, recruiters view countless portfolios in one sitting, so being clear and concise helps keep the viewer's curiosity peaked. 

"The first step would be making a straightforward landing page. Not necessarily straightforward, meaning conservative. I don't care if it's straightforward or dynamic. I just need the information to be clear," mentioned Vrontikis "I need to know who I'm looking at. I also need to know whether I've gotten to the right page because sometimes the URL is abstract. For example, if it says xyz.com, then I really don't know if I'm in the right space." 

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If the person viewing your site doesn't know who they're learning about or it's challenging to navigate, they might immediately move on to the next candidate. 

An easy-to-navigate, clear page will help create a positive and memorable impact. You can start by sharing just three to five of your top projects, writing a succinct description for each project, and ensuring that your name is on each page of your website. 

Context Can Make or Break Your Content 

"No designers in the professional field design things for everybody, everywhere,” Vrontikis wisely stated. “It just isn't part of the problem presented to us."

Essentially, when you share work in your portfolio, explicitly define who is the intended audience or demographic you created the work for. "Understanding who it's for is crucial as a designer. Otherwise, you're just producing graphic art, which is fine. But it doesn't show your skills as a graphic designer or prove that you deeply understand the problem being presented to you," mentioned Vrontikis.  

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For example, if you design a poster series for, say, DropBox, the campaign will look wildly different if the project is aimed at first-year teachers versus software engineers that have been in the business for decades. 

Explain to the viewer who you develop work for, that way, they will know that you understand more than just basic design skills; you grasp the importance of strategy, research, and demographics. This context proves you'll be capable of creative problem solving and allows the viewer to trust your skillset. 

Instill A Sense Of Trust 

When building your portfolio, it's naive to think it's all about the images or graphics. Visuals are a critical way to showcase your skill set, but employers are working towards solving a problem. While the outcome of a project might include beautiful visuals, solving a specific problem is often more important than the subjective beautification of the by-product.  

"I want you to think of a portfolio viewer as somebody sitting right next to you, and you're explaining your site in simple language while looking at the projects carefully," she says. "Emulating that personal experience helps me trust you as a person." 

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Building that confidence creates an experience within your portfolio that's accessible to the viewer. That can occur when you design a portfolio that clearly walks the viewer through each project, explaining the brief, challenges, goals, and the outstanding solution you created within each description of every project. From clear communication comes trust, and from trust comes appreciation. 

KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid 

"Yesterday, on the airplane, I had the chance to listen to Malcolm Gladwell's Masterclass for writers," Vrontikis excitedly shares, "And I was delighted to hear Malcolm Gladwell advise writers about context, rough drafts, and jargon. It was just one gem after another delivered so carefully, beautifully, and concisely. In his class, he continuously stated that his writing is understood at an eighth-grade level. That's not in any way negative; it just means he's writing simply and effectively for most people to understand." 

It might seem like, as a student, you're supposed to speak using eloquent design terminology. But, often, the people reviewing your portfolio want to be able to read through your site without having to work too hard to get to the meat of your project. For example, Vrontikis noted that she often finds students saying things like "substrate" instead of "paper" and mentioned that the jargon is unnecessary and distracting.

Straightforward, simple descriptions can help the viewer better understand the context of your project without getting distracted by the unnecessary. If your project is easily understood, the reader will more easily connect, comprehend, and appreciate the work you've put into it (and if you need additional advice on how to write a succinct project description, check out this guide we featured on The Dieline).  

Tailor-Make Your Portfolio For Its Intended Audience

"I'm still seeing projects in people's portfolios that are book covers," states Vrontikis, "And as much as we want to be nostalgic about books, the reality is that the projects need to solve current problems." 

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When thinking about the work you share in your portfolio, think about the lens through which the viewer will observe it. If you want to work for a publisher designing book covers, then book covers are appropriate to share. Yet, suppose you want to work for a new and upcoming branding agency. Well, you're going to need some branding projects. There's a chance that the work you created in school might not line up for that kind of agency or studio, in which case, you shouldn't be afraid to create design concepts that solve a problem and make you a more alluring candidate. 

Regardless, you have to be mindful of the work you're sharing. Depending on the design field you want to go into, it's a helpful idea to tailor-make your portfolio to the job you want to land.

Lean Into Your "Geekdom" 

While portfolios exist to showcase your work, they also allow you to highlight your fresh perspective. Often, portfolios act as a supplement to your resume. By allowing yourself to shine through, the people hiring you will understand what kind of person you are and what extraordinary viewpoints you might bring to the table. 

"I know people are geeks about things, and I love when people express their gifts and can't help but produce things that have some reference to their geekdom," said Vrontikis.

Showing your personality helps generate a sense of energy, and that flavor of exuberance can breed imaginative work. Plus, portfolio reviewers can better understand you outside of who you are as a designer when they see what makes you tick. 

For example, let's say you're incredibly interested in NFTs and birdwatching, so you design bird-inspired NFTs. Sharing this work in your portfolio will highlight your design skills while presenting an entirely different, bird-inspired side of yourself. 

You're a Student, and That's OK 

If you're in school or you've just graduated, don't pretend otherwise. Be honest with your skillset, past, and passion; the rest will naturally fall in line. Inevitably, you'll experience self-doubt, but Vrontikis stresses that students and post-grads are not imposters, especially when they're first beginning. 

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"Students possibly feel a lack of confidence because they don't have experience, but that's an expectation of students. I don't think we should pretend that they don't exist," Vrontikis mentions after I broached the subject of Imposter Syndrome. "I don't think they're an imposter. When people describe Imposter Syndrome, it's typically after somebody has achieved a certain level of prominence, and then they feel that prominence is not reflecting reality."

Portfolio reviewers understand where students are coming from. At some point, they experienced the same challenges in landing a job after they graduated. Own your portfolio, even if it solely consists of conceptual work. 

Don't Get Defensive 

There’s nothing more nerve-wracking than a live portfolio critique.

Critiques can certainly breed anxiety. Often, the heightened sense of worry can lead to students feeling defensive, but it's essential to be open to criticism and understand that it can only lead to better work. "People feel like they need to defend their work. And there's this sort of animosity about this idea of a critique,” said Vrontikis. 

"Let's say you're in a team at Nike or Apple, and somebody presents something,” she proposed. “When there's a dialogue about it, it's almost like iterating through communication. Instead of the ‘hero,’ independent designer, coming up with all these ideas, today's market is really about how you communicate in teams. And to me, training young designers to share and use iteration through dialogue with their work is almost as important as developing the work through our traditional revisions and development."

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In the future, if you are a part of a critique or a live portfolio review, let down your defenses and allow yourself to listen to what others are saying from a more open mindset. Creating a conversation about how you can improve your design helps build better and more resonant work that will ultimately make you a better designer. 

Shifting from being a student to finding your place in the "real world" can be as daunting as it is exhilarating. But maximizing your portfolio's potential will help you feel more confident in your work, allow your skills to shine, and, fingers crossed, help you land a job at a design firm or company you love.

Remember, be concise, consistent, and authentic; everything else will fall into place.