Don’t stress to impress! What I learnt reviewing student portfolios

Zackerea Bakir

Putting a design portfolio together can be a leap into the unknown. But reviewing several in one sitting made it clear what to put in, how to stand out and what pitfalls to avoid.

Portfolios. Does anyone love them? They feel like a minefield of dos and don’ts. How do you boil months of work down into a couple of pages? And how do you make sure it really captures ‘you’?

I’ve always struggled with this part, but recently had an invaluable opportunity that’s helped change my view. I got to sit in with our Design Director and Strategy Director as they reviewed the portfolios of London College of Communication (LCC) students. This was it! The chance to see how agencies judge people’s work and find out what they’re looking for.

Here’s what I learnt.

Make your portfolio specific

When I think of portfolios, I imagine really strong, striking visuals that wow the viewer. This can be effective for some agencies. But an over-emphasis on aesthetics can mean you miss a major part of your portfolio: showcasing your thinking.

A portfolio is ultimately a job application. Use it to highlight your skills. Make it specific. Focus on how you work and the process through which your ideas were formed, explored and branched out to achieve your goals.

I found the portfolios that did this were the most effective. Students who had expanded the brief. Opened it out. Shared audiences, problems and solutions. The ones who used data and Miro boards to show their research really captured my attention. I started to understand how their brains worked and what a great fit they could be at Output.

What’s the format?

Gone are the days of printing and binding pristine documents. PDFs, Keynotes, Google Slides and live websites all offer ways to showcase your skills on a screen. But which format is best?

Like application letters, style it to the job you’re applying for. For an agency working in print media, a printed portfolio can show confidence in designing for that medium, but you’ll need to consider how to flex the content.

Focus on three projects. Each one should showcase a different skill or thought process to crack the brief. This helps you select your best work and shows off your distinct skills.”

As a digital agency, the screen is best for us. Everyone I saw used a presentation format, which I found effective. Treating the meeting like a pitch helps employers see other skills you possess. How do you talk about your work? How do you build narrative across a presentation? Can you coherently showcase a project?

This works when you’re in the room talking through your portfolio. But what about when you’re not there? You send a portfolio into the ether of email with no chance of knowing how it was received. In this instance a PDF version of the portfolio is most useful. You can build a story across each page, with key information for the reader to engage with. Think of this as the written version of your ‘script’.

Different and concise

I’ve always struggled with editing my work. It felt repetitive. Constricting. But it’s vital to separate the gold from the fluff. Editing is your best friend when building a portfolio.

Because one of the pitfalls is wanting to include everything you’ve worked on. Determined to showcase your versatility the portfolio becomes awash with different projects, often of varying quality. This can become overwhelming and distract the viewer from your best work. Keep it concise.

To do this, focus on three projects. Each one should showcase a different skill or thought process to crack the brief. This helps you select your best work and shows off your distinct skills. Maybe one highlights the difference when working with a non-profit client. Or perhaps it shows how you effectively told a narrative journey to a specific audience.

By being concise you’ll create a focused and hardworking portfolio, which agencies can skim through and still get a rich understanding of your working style.

Be confident in your work

Being concise doesn’t mean losing depth. It’s important you know the ‘ins and outs’ of your projects. Agencies want insights into your learning and this can only be achieved if you really know the subject.

It was obvious when students were less sure about their work. They relied on visuals without context. There was less narrative. Overall I struggled to understand what the project was about or what the student’s role was. A vague portfolio communicates a lack of confidence.

Be prepared to talk through your portfolio in 10-minute, 30-minute or one-hour chunks. By perfecting this, you’ll know where to be concise and where to expand out your thinking.”

To counter this, test out your portfolio with friends. Give them short case studies for each project, explain what you did and see if they’re able to repeat the key findings. Who was the client? What was your role? How effective was your solution? If they’re able to answer this, you know you’ve told a strong story.

This skill is also super-useful for interviews. The advice I heard was to be prepared to talk through your portfolio in 10-minute, 30-minute or one-hour chunks. By perfecting this, you’ll know where to be concise and where to expand out your thinking.

Put yourself in their shoes

Not sure if your portfolio is working? Put yourself in their shoes. A portfolio is the first and lowest hurdle towards employment. Try objectively reading yours and think: would I hire them? How would they fit in our agency? Get friends to do the same.

If there are moments where you find it hard to understand your point, dissect that. By reading your portfolio from an agency’s perspective you can adapt it to the appropriate audiences.

Design is a collaborative process. Agencies are looking for people they think they can work alongside. Make sure your portfolio showcases that. Show how your skills were beneficial in projects and how the thing that makes you unique can be invaluable in the workplace.

Ask for help

My last piece of advice is to just ask for help. It’s through the external eyes of friends, other designers and lecturers that you’ll see the strengths and weaknesses of your portfolio. Share it around and see what people think.

Portfolios can feel like big documents you have to get perfect, but really they’re just a way to show your best side. Work out how you want to be perceived and be honest about the successes and shortcomings of projects.

It’s not about being perfect, it’s about being you. That’s who we want to hire.

Zackerea Bakir

Zack (he/him) started his career in design right here at Output, with a successful internship leading to his role as Junior Strategist. As well as writing about his experiences in the industry, he’s interested in the role of representation, and how it can be improved to create more inclusive brands.