Graphic Design Portfolios: The New Online Resume

Building an online portfolio is possibly the most important step you can take in your graphic design career. Here at HOW, we decided it was time for a three-part HOW-to guide on graphic design portfolios and the process of building them. Included is advice from well-known designers like Malika Favre, tips from in-house designers and tricks from students going through the portfolio building process themselves.

I. Pick your Purpose:

The most notable reason for creating an online portfolio is to have quick and easy access to your best works from nearly any location. Having an organized and eye-catching design portfolio can easily turn a chance meeting with a stranger into an interview for a potential client or employer. A well-designed website can also set you apart from the thousands of other designers looking for work by showcasing your personal style and design abilities in a unique way.

First impressions are hard to gauge, but having an online portfolio ensures you make the best impression possible. Your website is the place to share what employers wants to see from you in a way that suits your style and needs. It should not only show off your technical skills, but also create a lasting memory of you as a professional designer.


Simple masonry-style portfolio by Ian Barnard

Step one to creating a graphic design portfolio is to determining its purpose. Are you trying to get hired? Trying to sell your art or services? Trying to build a reputation? Obviously the purpose of your portfolio will influence the decisions you make when it comes to the overall design and ingredients to your page, but regardless of the specific purpose, it is important to note that online portfolios have become much more than just a collection of work—they are personal websites that can function as a designer’s resume in the digital age. Let’s dig in.

II: The Design:

Portfolio TrendsAfter only a few minutes of browsing the web, it’s easy to pick up on today’s design trends, the most popular being interactive and responsive designs. These strategies engage audiences and can act as a map for visitors to follow. Keep in mind that while interactive design can look beautiful, it can easily be overdone, which may result in a cluttered difficult to use website.

If interactive design isn’t your forte, you may want to consider one of Patrick McNeil’s suggestions from the 4th volume of The Web Designer’s Idea Book to make your site stand out.

III. The Ingredients:

The components for your portfolio may vary depending on your site’s purpose, but the most significant aspects include:

Logo and BrandingFrom your logo often comes the beginnings of your personal brand. It is important to build a brand for yourself that not only looks nice, but also gives insight into the type of designer you are. According to Build Your Own Brand, a book by Robin Landa that offers readers strategies, prompts and exercises for marketing yourself, branding is used to “evaluate your talent and skill based only on shapes and colors” and allows people to “understand your essence through one visual symbol.”

Art directors Ronson Slagle and Adam Ladd agree that when creating a brand for yourself, it is important to keep things simple: “For example, all of my websites have plain white backgrounds because I like things to look clean,” said Slagle in an interview. He went on to say one of the biggest mistakes a designer can make is “over doing it.” Your resume and portfolio design should not outshine the works you are showcasing. Instead, the design should remain subtle enough so that it doesn’t distract, but rather enhances. Continuity is key—create a brand that can be used across all of your professional media, from your Facebook cover photo to your resume letterhead.


Personal branding by Julia Miceli


TaglineA tagline, while not necessary, can be very helpful. Placing a tagline at the forefront of your portfolio gives your audience initial insight into what it is you do without having to dig any further. The tagline, after your name, will usually be the first thing your audience notices.

To create the perfect tagline, suggests the following:

  • Start with a unique vantage point
  • Don’t worry about being cute
  • Make it memorable
  • Inject personality

About MeArguably the most important part of your design portfolio, next to the actual “portfolio” part, is the section that tells your story. This is where you share with your audience who you are. Be careful NOT to cram too much information here.

The information should focus on you and your personal life (where you’re from, how you ended up in your field, etc.) in addition to the work you most enjoy doing. Give your work experience its own page separate from the “About Me.” recommends creating a bio that “expresses your unique process and/or point of view,” by:

  • Sharing your point of view
  • Creating an origin story
  • Grounding your experience using external details, and
  • Being approachable

If you’re going to include any work in your “About Me,” make sure it shows off the type of work you hope to focus your career around.

PortfolioNow that you’ve created an awesome brand and an “About Me” to match, it’s time to showcase the main event: your work.

The first thing everyone I spoke with recommended when it comes to building a strong portfolio is this: curate, curate, CURATE. Before you fill a gallery with all of the work you’ve ever done, take the time to sort through the pieces you’re most proud of.

Illustrator Malika Favre says, “Online folios need the same rhythm as printed ones: you need to tell a story, and order your projects so that they feel fluid and complement each other. If it means that an old project has to be removed to fit the new story, so be it.”

In a nutshell, employers and clients aren’t interested in seeing that painting of your dog you did back in high school—even if it won an award. They’re interested in seeing how your style can be used to benefit them. Sometimes that means digging into your bank of creativity; other times, it isn’t so exciting. “Most of the designers I know that get the most work are the ones who can do cool, sort of out there things, but also know how to do something less glamorous like an annual report,” says Slagle.

So how can you showcase your incredibly creative works and methodically businesslike works in the same place while keeping continuity? Easy. Use content buckets.

Adam Ladd explains, “Content buckets allow your audience to filter through the types of work they’re looking for.” For example, if you’ve created a number of typefaces, give them their own location, away from logo designs or personal pieces.



Content categories & buckets on Daniel Mackey’s portfolio site

Contact informationFinally, we have arrived at the easiest part of your portfolio: the contact information. The most important thing to remember when it comes to contact information is the placement. Make sure it’s easy for your audience to find the information they need in order to get in touch with you.

Include your preferred method of communication in noticeable places like near your logo or in the website’s header. If needed, dedicate an entire page to getting in contact with you. This is also a great spot to include a call to action for your audience, which can be as simple as a “hire me” button that links to your full resume and email address.

Is it time to create or refresh your portfolio? Are you ready to switch jobs or attract a freelance following? Then whip your portfolio into shape in Denise Bosler’s online course, Preparing Your Portfolio. See an excerpt from this course here.