Building a Strong Portfolio


In the design industry, your work speaks for itself. You might have the longest resume in the world, the coolest credentials, the slickest identity kit. It all matters for naught if your portfolio is weak. Clients and employers evaluate you for jobs primarily on the basis of work you've accomplished.

Building a strong portfolio is essential to launching your career as a designer. But how do you craft quality work when you're still learning the ropes?

Nomi Altabef, Associate Education Director at Sessions --

Q. A portfolio can be an artistic statement in itself. What defines a good portfolio in your mind?

Nomi: An effective portfolio accurately represents the designer's abilities and skills in the best possible light. This means that it is clean and well put-together, and while it's nice to try to be a little different, a portfolio should not look gimmicky. The viewer should be more aware of the work than the portfolio itself. An effective portfolio illustrates the designer's self-presentation and communication abilities as well as showcasing the work.

Q. When you're starting to learn design, it's tempting to stuff your portfolio with everything and the kitchen sink. What defines a "portfolio piece?"

Nomi: For a design student, the more in-depth the project, the more chance it has of becoming a good portfolio piece. A piece that clearly shows the ability to research a project and also exhibits skill with typography, color, composition, and technical issues will say a lot about the designer in a small space. A prospective employer will be going rapidly going through your work, and so you have limited spaces to fill in a portfolio.

Q. Sounds like you need a clear picture of your work's strengths and weaknesses. How it important is it to get a second opinion about your body of work as a whole?

Nomi: Getting a second opinion is super-helpful. It's very difficult to self-edit, especially when you're putting together your first portfolio. You may be really attached to a certain piece of work that just doesn't fit in with the rest of your book, and it really should be taken out. Without a second opinion, it's difficult to see that.

Q. Nomi, you coordinate the portfolio review panel at What goes on in a portfolio review at a traditional art school?

Nomi: At Parsons, where I studied, students all bring their portfolios to the review, and one by one they lay them out on the table and have them torn to shreds! It's really a hard-core critique.

And the work that's getting critiqued in a portfolio review may have been critiqued more gently at an earlier point in the year, when you had just done it. But at the end of the program, when it's all gathered into your portfolio, it's looked at with a harsher perspective, more like the fast appraisal it will be met with in the job market.

Q. Sounds intimidating. Don't people get upset when their work gets shredded? I know I would. . .

Nomi: Absolutely! People would burst into tears, run out of the room crying. You'd be high-strung and extra-vulnerable too, because you stay up all night for weeks trying to make your portfolio what you hope the teacher will want, working your butt off on pieces that get cut with a wave of the teacher's hand. And you're afraid some of your favorite pieces may be axed—which they often are.

In a portfolio review nothing is sacred, no matter how much love or effort you put in to a piece: if it works it stays; if it doesn't, it goes.

Q. What's different about a portfolio review at an online school?

Nomi: Well, for one thing, you are receiving your comments privately in writing, as opposed to verbally in front of an entire classand by the way, the atmosphere can be very cut-throat competitive among students at a traditional art school, especially when they are all that stressed out! At an online school, the emphasis is more clearly on each individual, as opposed to a class where there is a competitive vibe between students.

Students in our online review will definitely find their work being reviewed by a more critical voice than they've heard in their classes up until that point. Classes can be challenging, but they're supportive environments. In the portfolio review, we're looking for unflinching, industry-honed impressions of the work from a professional portfolio standpoint.

Q. 90% of the time, designers don't have a review panel, except perhaps those nagging critical voices in our heads. How can designers develop the ability to become more objective about their own work?

Nomi: Objectivity often comes from letting go. Rememberremoving a piece in your portfolio is not equivalent to burning it! You don't invalidate a work by editing it from the book you take on job interviews.

Another way to become more objective is to spend time looking at other people's work with a critical eye, thinking about what could have been done differently to improve the work. When you train your eye on the work of others you can do so without having your judgment clouded by the fact that it's yours.

Q. What are some portfolio-building opportunities that students often overlook?

Nomi: Every time you have an assignment that is set up from a client's perspective, where you are doing an industry-specific project, you have an opportunity to create a portfolio pieceit is not just an exercise to help you learn a certain software or technique. If you are asked to make revisions, you have the chance to perfect that piece for your portfolio, so it is best to really put the time in, not rush on to the next project.

Q. Quality of work matters most, of course. But how much does a portfolio presentation affect the client's perception of the work itself?

Nomi: If the portfolio is clean and well-presented, that speaks to the designer's communication skills. Also very important is the designer's ability to speak about and explain the concept behind each project. The portfolio tells the prospective employer that the designer understands the relationship between art and commerce.

Q. How essential is a Web portfolio, in this day and age?

Nomi: Very important! A Web presence is de rigeur these days, even if your focus is primarily print design. It's the quickest, least expensive way of getting a range of clients to view your work. Don't leave home without one!

Sessions Online School of Design
Nomi Altabef, Associate Education Director at Sessions

Sessions Online School of Design, established 1997, offers dozens of individual courses in Graphic Design, Web Design, Multimedia, Digital Art, and Business Marketing Design. In addition, we offer certificate programs in Graphic Design, Web Design, Multimedia, Digital Arts, and Business Marketing Design with concentrations available in advanced portfolio, corporate identity, digital photography, digital illustration, digital imaging, e-commerce, editorial design, typography, web design, flash, information design/usability, web coding, visual identity, and web business.

Sessions welcomes both novice and experienced designers, giving them the professional skills and techniques they need for successful careers in digital arts and design.