8 Portfolio Building Tips For Panicking Design & Ad Students



Your college graduation is right around the corner.

If you’re like many students in graphic design or advertising, you have a sense of panic growing faster than the national debt.


It’s likely because that all-important portfolio showcasing your work to potential employers consists of a folder… just a folder… well, and whatever stock papers that were included inside when you purchased it. We can’t forget those.

Even if you have been working on your portfolio for quite some time, you may still feel like it isn’t ready for anyone other than your parents to see (My baby is so talented!! Oh, mom…), let alone prospective employers.

Our team has witnessed countless students freak out over their portfolios, becoming overwhelmed by what we have coined Portfolio Panic Syndrome. While it may not be a true condition, it is real in the sense that many, many students experience and suffer from it.

As hopeless as it can feel, there’s no need to panic.

Putting together a portfolio should be a fun experience; maybe not “going out with friends on a Saturday night” fun, but more of the “look how far you’ve come and accomplished” grown-up fun. If done well and with true effort, seeing the end product will make you proud.

Portfolios are about putting your best foot forward and showing off what you are most proud of from your college career. It’s like going to meet the parents of your significant other for the first time… nerve-wracking, of course, but if you have to do it you may as well go all out with your best.

Now take a deep breath, be confident, sell yourself and your abilities, and just give it your best shot.



Here are 8 essential tips to remember when creating or building your design and advertising portfolio:


1. Turn It On Its Head

Perspective - Turn It On Its Head - 8 Portfolio Building Tips For Panicking Design & Ad Students

Prospective employers and clients want to know what makes you different than the thirty other candidates pitching their material. A great way to start off is thinking about how you can turn portfolio creation on its head. Don’t feel bound to using a traditional leather portfolio or binder. The options for how you present your material are endless and limited only by your imagination. Even then, there are tons of examples out there that can inspire you and get your creativity flowing.

The key to being effective in design or advertising is seeing what no one else does or approaching something traditional in a completely new or interesting way. Make yours intriguing. Make it something that would make you stop and take notice if it were laying on a table with others. (ʇı dılɟ – Time To Change Your Perspective)

2. Brand Yourself

8 Portfolio Building Tips For Panicking Design & Ad Students - Brand Yourself

As someone in advertising, branding will become something you must learn to love, appreciate, and understand beyond words. Branding yourself and your material is critical. If you can effectively market yourself, demonstrating that you are capable of building and maintaining a brand identity, then you can do it for a client.

Do you have your own personal logo and consistent coloring that help set your portfolio apart from all the others? Create a look of consistency across the board that runs throughout your portfolio. Branding is a cornerstone that you must live and breathe. (Ways To Utilize Personal Branding)

3. Support and Explain Your Work

Support and Explain Your Work - 8 Portfolio Building Tips For Panicking Design & Ad Students

Sell yourself effectively – your work is an extension of you. Do you know who you are? Even if a project honestly involves a brilliant fluke or random stroke of genius, evaluate your work and listen to critiques so you can better sell your designs and ideas. Your work might occasionally involve a little luck, but it’s still your work, so own it and be proud of it. Someone who doesn’t seem to understand the work they are presenting shows they are disinterested in their own work. So then why would a client or employer be intrigued? (How a Student Used Lego to Build the Ultimate Resume)

4. Practice For Game Time

You may feel your portfolio is light on content… well, you’re still practicing. Employers will know you’re new to the job market with minimal experience and will take that into account. But don’t rely on classwork as the be-all, end-all for your content. Practice some more on your own. Find a company you think is interesting, do some research, and create a campaign that you think would be effective for their brand. You’ll benefit from critical thinking and probably learn some new ideas along the way.

Also, freelance if you have the opportunity… nothing kicks the creative juices into gear like a little pressure to deliver (Just be upfront about being a student). Also, internships are great opportunities to practice and build your portfolio. (50 Freelance Job Sites For Designers & Programmers)

5. Put a Cap On It and Peacock

It is unlikely you will not have an unlimited amount of time to present your work, so be very careful in selecting enough to prove your abilities and expertise without needing a U-Haul truck to get it to the review. Choose the pieces you are most proud of and would consider content that would be effective in accomplishing its goal of moving consumers to act or increasing brand awareness, etc. If you’re having trouble deciding what to include, ask a trusted friend or better yet, find someone with experience in marketing for their opinions. (Getting Started With Student Portfolios)

6. Go From Start to Finish

Start To Finish

Show prospective employers you understand how to make a cohesive design package for a client. Most clients don’t need just a business card…they need a website, social media presence, and print materials including business cards, signage, mailers, a new logo, etc. Feel free to be diverse in your work, but in putting a portfolio together an employer wants to see something that demonstrates ability and focus. Showing you can mesh an idea across multiple pieces and mediums highlights a solid understanding of how true business works.

Also, be sure to have a digital component of your portfolio. These days, a website that houses your work is an absolute must. It allows you to easily update material whenever needed, creates a virtual storefront to “sell yourself” 24/7/365, and also gives you the ability to instantly shoot a link to anyone requesting samples. (A Guide to Designing a Portfolio Website)

7. Broaden Your Abilities

No matter if you’re a graphic designer, copywriter, digital guru, social media pro, or account manager, everyone in today’s ad industry, regardless of job title, is asked to do more and more as technology advances and trends change at a pace that would make Usain Bolt look slow. Being able to work with new technologies, use new techniques, and stay up-to-date with the latest trends are essential for catching the eyes of prospective employers, clients, and, ultimately, the consumer. (Learn Real-World Skills)

8. Ask Questions

8 Portfolio Building Tips For Panicking Design & Ad Students - HEROfarm New Orleans Public Relations and Marketing

Diving into something without having a good idea of what you’re doing is like going skydiving for the first time and not talking with the instructor before jumping out of the plane… That can only end badly. Asking questions isn’t a sign of weakness or incompetence, it prevents everyone from wasting valuable time. Questions are good. They show you are listening and trying to get a solid handle on what you are doing.

College is meant for learning, yet most students are afraid to ask for help, opinions, or clarification on something they don’t understand. Right now, you are in a position to ask countless qualified individuals (Professors, Employers, Students further along the same track, etc.) about things you don’t understand. The design and ad community is becoming more and more collaborative; and while very competitive, sharing techniques, ideas, and knowledge, in general, is a trend that won’t be going away, so take full advantage of it now and in the future. Never stop learning and find how to pull the parachute’s strings before jumping. (Ask questions: The single most important habit for innovative thinkers)

Perfectionism - 8 Portfolio Building Tips For Panicking Design & Ad Students


Lastly, don’t think your portfolio will be perfect or needs to be the absolute best thing anyone has ever seen. It will change (vastly) over your career as you continually outdo your previous work. If anything, when you look back at your first portfolio in a few years you’re probably going to laugh at how awful it was. It’s a natural progression that means you are learning, growing, and putting out better work.

Now put on your Sunday best, it’s time to show off what you can do.


Additional Resources

5 of the Most Impressive Graphic Design Portfolio
The Do’s and Don’ts of Portfolio Presentation
8 reasons every digital designer should have a physical portfolio
Asking questions is more important than finding answers — why?
7 great places to find free print design templates
39 brilliant design portfolios to inspire you

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