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Marketing Your Work

Essential Steps to Making a Killer Portfolio

A primer on planning, presenting, and posting your best work.


You have the ability to capture the attention of a creative director in a single glance of your portfolio, so it’s vital to get the details right. What is the most compelling way to curate your images? How do you best present your designs? And what are the important mistakes to avoid?

Since Behance launched in 2006, we’ve seen a lot of portfolios. The website has 7.4 million members who post 12,000 new projects every day and draw a collective 200 million page views each month. That can make it difficult to stand out, but it’s worth giving your portfolio a polish and shine in an effort to do so. Think of it like this: We all tend to eat with our eyes first. If a dish looks good, we’ll be that much more eager to want to devour it. The same idea applies to your work. If your projects are stylishly presented, the chances are likely better that people will want to check out your work — which is the first step to getting more opportunities. 

To help you stand out, we’ve asked Behance’s Brand Director Mark Brooks what one should (and shouldn’t) do to create an eye-catching portfolio. He walks us through the planning, presentation and posting stages of the process.

The Planning Stage

1. Highlight your best work, not all of it

 “Quantity doesn’t necessarily mean quality. Often times when we feel like our design isn’t strong enough, we tend to show a lot of images of the same execution to build it up and to make up for what we probably consider an average or rather weak project. And any professional can tell when you’re doing that.”

2. Showcase the kind of work you want to be hired for

“Your portfolio defines who you are as a designer and where you want to go. If you have a specific interest in a certain design field such as editorial design, that’s what you need to focus your portfolio on. If you show projects featuring web design, branding, and packaging, you will be highly unlikely to get an editorial project. Young designers tend to show that they are versatile and able to tackle any project that comes along, but versatility is not necessarily you being able to work on any design field. It’s rather the ability to be resourceful and to explore various creative approaches within one single field. Once you have explored, and gained experience in that field, move to the next one. Being a Jack of all trades in design rarely implies doing amazingly good in all of them.”

Anagrama is an example of a focused branding portfolio highlighting its packaging and branding.

3. Don’t rely only on personal projects 

“Self-initiated projects are great to explore and practice, but when it comes to your portfolio try to show as much real stuff as you can. A real project means you have had to adjust to certain parameters and production limitations. You have dealt with a client, undergone revisions, and had to justify the choices you’ve made. Things you did in your personal project are things that might never happen in the real world because your personal projects are rarely compromised by real-life circumstances, like client input. If you have created something you really consider worth showing, make a mockup so good that it will be hard to tell the real from the fake and specify it’s a self-initiated and the thinking behind it.”

Self-initiated project by Studio JQ.

Craft the Presentation

1. It’s not just the work you’ve done – it’s how you present it

“An average execution that is beautifully presented can take that project to a higher level, whereas an amazing project poorly presented will lose a lot of its impact and value. It’s almost like fashion shoots. If someone is advertising shoes, they will have a model, great setting, and great light, and a lot of times you will barely notice the product because the whole composition is what ultimately ends up captivating you. It is common to find young designers using blank images from image banks or anywhere on the internet and pasting their artwork on them. No, if you are going to put a graphic on a T-shirt, buy a T-shirt on which your artwork will look best, find an interesting place to shoot it, a friend that will wear it for you, get the right light and then take a photo to create your own thing. A lot of the presentations on Behance have probably taken as much time and effort than the actual design of the piece.”

Branding project by Pavel Emelyanov, Irina Emelyanova, Anatoly Vasiliev, and Eskimo Design.

Perfecting the Post

1. To show the creative process or not?

“A lot of times the process and steps involved in a project are interesting only if it was really complicated and detailed. If your project requires a lot of hands-on skill, like drawing a complex illustration that you may turn into vector and into a brand icon for example, or if you are developing a laborious project that implies multiple stages of production or several participants involved in it, showing the making of it will add value to the project. Otherwise, I’d just show the final result.”

Designer/Illustrator Greg Coulton shows us the complexity of his work process.

2. Keep the words to a minimum

“A lot of creatives start their websites with this big manifesto about themselves, phrases like, ‘Our main goal is to make sure our clients know we understand their necessities and we strive to reach the solution that will please both them and their customers.’ What? If I’m not going to buy that from a well-established design/branding firm, then I’m definitely not going to believe it from someone who just got out of school. Show me your work.”

***

Congratulations, you’ve now successfully curated your portfolio. The best way to ensure you give your work the credit and attention it deserves in your portfolio is to build in time at the end your creative projects for planning and prepping your pieces. It’s essential that you update it regularly with your best recent work and, above all, view it as part of the creation process. 

Matt McCue

Matt McCue is the Editor-in-Chief of 99U. He lives in New York City, but he is willing to travel long distances for a good meal. Find him @mattmccuewriter or email him at mccue@adobe.com. 

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