Our friends at Toptal screen a lot of designers, so over time we have learned what goes into making a captivating and coherent portfolio. Each designer’s portfolio is like an introduction to an individual designer’s skill set and strengths and represents them to future employers, clients and other designers. It shows both past work, but also future direction. There are several things to keep in mind when building a portfolio, so here is the Toptal Guide of tips and common mistakes for portfolio design.
1. Content Comes First
The main use of the portfolio is to present your design work. Thus, the content should inform the layout and composition of the document. Consider what kind of work you have, and how it might be best presented. A UX designer may require a series of animations to describe a set of actions, whereas the visual designer may prefer spreads of full images.
The portfolio design itself is an opportunity to display your experiences and skills. However, excessive graphic flourishes shouldn’t impede the legibility of the content. Instead, consider how the backgrounds of your portfolio can augment or enhance your work. The use of similar colors as the content in the background will enhance the details of your project. Lighter content will stand out against dark backgrounds. Legibility is critical, so ensure that your portfolio can be experienced in any medium, and considers all accessibility issues such as color palettes and readability.
You should approach your portfolio in the same manner you would any project. What is the goal here? Present it in a way that makes sense to viewers who are not essentially visually savvy. Edit out projects that may be unnecessary. Your portfolio should essentially be a taster of what you can do, a preparation for the client of what to expect to see more of in the interview. The more efficiently that you can communicate who you are as a designer, the better.
2. Consider Your Target Audience
A portfolio for a client should likely be different than a portfolio shown to a blog editor, or an art director. Your professional portfolio should always cater to your target audience. Edit it accordingly. If your client needs branding, then focus on your branding work. If your client needs UX Strategy than make sure to showcase your process.
Even from client to client, or project to project your portfolio will need tweaking. If you often float between several design disciplines, as many designers do, it would be useful to curate a print designer portfolio separately from a UX or visual design portfolio.
3. Tell the Stories of Your Projects
As the design industry has evolved, so have our clients, and their appreciation for our expertise and what they hire us to do. Our process is often as interesting and important to share with them, as the final deliverables. Try to tell the story of your product backwards, from final end point through to the early stages of the design process. Share your sketches, your wireframes, your user journeys, user personas, and so on.
Showing your process allows the reader to understand how you think and work through problems. Consider this an additional opportunity to show that you have an efficient and scalable process..
4. Be Professional in Your Presentation
Attention to detail, both in textual and design content are important aspects of any visual presentation, so keep an eye on alignment, image compression, embedded fonts and other elements, as you would any project. The careful treatment of your portfolio should reflect how you will handle your client’s work.
With any presentation, your choice of typeface will impact the impression you give, so do research the meaning behind a font family, and when in doubt, ask your typography savvy friends for advice.
5. Words Are As Important As Work
Any designer should be able to discuss their projects as avidly as they can design them. Therefore your copywriting is essential. True, your work is the main draw of the portfolio – however the text, and how you write about your work can give viewers insight into your portfolio.
Not everyone who sees your work comes from a creative, or visual industry. Thus, the descriptive text that you provide for images is essential. At the earlier stages of a project, where UX is the main focus, often you will need to complement your process with clearly defined content, both visual diagrams, and textual explanation.
Text can also be important for providing the context of the project. Often much of your work is done in the background, so why not present it somehow? What was the brief, how did the project come about?
Avoid These Common Mistakes
The culture of the portfolio networks like Behance or Dribble have cultivated many bad habits and trends in portfolio design. A popular trend is the perspective view of a product on a device. However, these images often do little to effectively represent the project, and hide details and content. Clients need to see what you have worked on before, with the most logical visualisation possible. Showcasing your products in a frontal view, with an “above the fold” approach often makes more sense to the non-visual user. Usually, the best web pages and other digital content are presented with no scrolling required. Avoid sending your website portfolio as one long strip, as this is only appropriate for communicating with developers.
Ensure that you cover the bases on all portfolio formats. Today it is expected for you to have an online presence, however some clients prefer that you send a classic A4 or US letterhead sized PDF. You need to have the content ready for any type of presentation.
Try to use a consistent presentation style and content throughout the projects in your portfolio. Differentiate each project with simple solutions like different coloured backgrounds, or textures, yet within the same language.
Both Sketch and Photoshop are great tools used by almost every designer to accomplish a huge variety of tasks. To Photoshop has even become a dictionary verb. It doesn’t come as a surprise that most clients will expect a designer to have a high level of Sketch and Photoshop expertise. The majority of Toptal design jobs have either Sketch or Photoshop listed as one of their main required software. All of this is probably making you want to demonstrate your Sketch and Photoshop mastery throughout your portfolio.
Before proceeding, keep in mind that both Sketch and Photoshop are just tools and although tools do not make great designers, being a master of the tool gives the ability to execute your ideas professionally and efficiently.
So, how do you showcase that you are a Sketch or Photoshop expert in your portfolio? It mostly depends on the kind of design work you mainly use either program for.
You do visuals, photo manipulation and illustration
If the focus of your design work is in the creation of visuals, illustration, photo manipulation and photo editing in Photoshop, you’ll want that to shine from your portfolio. When deciding which projects to showcase in the portfolio be sure to choose only your best work and try not to be repetitive. There might be some clients that fall in love with your unique style but often clients prefer designers who can adapt to different styles and trends.
Choose work that demonstrates your mastery in detailed visual compositions, combining various layers, masks and advanced blending and some other qualities that demonstrate your proficiency with using light and shadow. Show that you understand perspective. Include an example that illustrates how immaculately you manage colors. In addition to showing complete visuals or illustrations put some emphasis on perfectly crafted details and make a few close-ups of the most interesting details that really demonstrate your perfection. Share your work process in the portfolio, give some sketches, display how raw materials looked like and what you’ve accomplished to make out of them. If it’s appropriate to showcase photo editing skills, put in some before and after the visuals.
You are the branding expert
While developing the visual identity as a part of a branding project you preferably won’t use Photoshop as your main tool of choice but one of the vector tools such as Illustrator. However, Photoshop will come in handy to visualize how that identity (logo, chosen colors palette, and typography) will work and look on stationary, signage, visual identity guidelines, website, apps and other additional advertising materials.
To showcase your branding project at its best, the first step you’ll need to do is to find or make some 3D mockup templates. Be careful to choose ones that won’t interfere with work that you are primarily showing, but instead, choose ones that will put emphasis on its best features. Avoid weird perspectives, too many distractions in the form of surrounding objects, colors, patterns.
Remember that you are showcasing your branding capabilities to prospective clients and not trying to sell them good looking mockups, especially if you haven’t made them by yourself. If you are buying or using some free templates be sure they are of quality. When applying your work inside a mockup, give attention to details, align everything perfectly, take care that there are no pixels hanging around.
Double check that you are putting your pages or screens in the right perspective, that lighting, white balance and shades are all adjusted and that nothing looks pixelated or distorted. Keep in mind that the scene you are building must look like a real one and although it might not be noticed at the first glance some inconsistencies could signify to a potential client that you are not giving enough attention to details or that you are not so versed in Photoshop.
You are a web or UI designer
Photoshop was not developed for web and user interface visual design, but since no completely corresponding tool existed at the time, most web designers were using it as their primary tool. With the adoption of responsive design and the arrival of more appropriate tools and workflows developed specifically for web and user interface design, Photoshop lost its web design tool throne. There are still some designers, especially those not working on Macs that use Photoshop, but Sketch is now the leader in the field.
If you are working as a web or user interface designer, no matter which tool you use you’ll want to show your proficiency and effectiveness in it and that could hardly be accomplished without revealing your process. High-quality visuals can be produced even if you are not a master of your tools, but glancing through your work files and workflow can show potential clients and collaborators that you are one. That is the reason for showing and describing in your portfolio how you use grids, artboards, structure your layers, and deal with Sketch symbols or Adobe CC libraries, handle typography and styles. Show some close-ups that will place emphasis on your attention to detail. If you craft your pixel-perfect icons and other elements in Sketch, display them with pride.
When choosing mockups in which to present web design or UI work stick with ones that won’t interfere with your designs. Let them be clear, without any unnecessary clutter. If using 3D perspective views, be sure that your work, which is core content of your portfolio, is shown in a way all important components are visible and understandable and there are no perspective distortions.
No matter what, take care of this
If you claim to be a Sketch or Photoshop expert, be sure that all your portfolio projects and presentations look professional. Some minor details, like the wrong direction of a shadow, or any pixelation might show a well-trained eye that your design skills are weak or that you lack the ability to polish your projects up to the last detail.
Be sure that all pictures you are putting in a portfolio are sharp and that nothing is pixelated, posterized or distorted. All elements in photomontages should blend seamlessly, and perspectives of different elements must be aligned and lighting effects, shadows and white balance in compliance.
Remember also that although the presentation of projects in your portfolio is very important, and can be a good means of showing your Photoshop skills, don’t let it become more important than the work itself. If by looking at your portfolio, one is more aware of the presentation than the content, be sure that something went wrong and reconsider rebuilding the portfolio around your best projects.