Creative Portfolios: Ten Tips for Showing Off Your Work

By Kristen Harris

In the creative industry, a portfolio is one of your most important tools. Whether you’re looking for a new position, seeking freelance work, or interviewing for a promotion, you’ll be asked for samples of your work.

The portfolio’s function hasn’t changed, but its form certainly has. Gone are the days of lugging around huge art portfolios filled with printed pieces and tear sheets. Today so much creative work is electronic, portfolios are often fully or partially electronic as well.

Beyond the format of your portfolio, the content is what really matters. This is the opportunity to showcase your best work. The viewer is looking for something, you need to grab their attention and show them it’s you.

Here are ten tips for a great creative portfolio:

1.     Stay current. A.B.C. Always. Be. Current. The viewer wants to see what you’ve done lately. Leave out that favorite piece from last decade, even if it won an award. No schoolwork unless you just graduated. Include mainly work from the last 2-3 years; anything older can look dated.

2.     Show your best. Edit. Edit. Edit. The impression of your whole portfolio is lowered to the level of your weakest piece. Choose your strongest 15-20 pieces. Then eliminate the weakest one, the next weakest, and the next weakest, until you get down to 10-12 excellent pieces. That’s your portfolio. If it’s hard for you to be subjective about your best pieces, ask a friend for help.

3.     Choose a format. A portfolio can be anything you want—a book, a box, a slideshow, a deck of playing cards. The goal is to create the best possible showcase for your work. Decide whether your work looks best printed or electronic, bound in a glossy book, or shown on an iPad. Then create the best possible version in that format.

4.     Be creative. You are a creative person, after all! Feel free to get creative with the format of your portfolio. However, remember that the goal is to showcase your work in the best possible way. Don’t do anything that distracts from the work, or that is more memorable than the contents.

5.     Go digital. Regardless of how you choose to format and present your work in-person, you need to be able to share your work digitally as well. In fact, this might be the first or only way someone views your work, so make it great. Create a website, online portfolio or slideshow that can be sent to viewers electronically. Many viewers will request a printable PDF as well, so go ahead and put one together that highlights a few of your best pieces.

6.     Focus. Many creative people have multiple, varied skill sets. You may be an excellent graphic designer, wedding photographer and oil portrait artist. Just don’t try to show all of that in one portfolio. Create a separate portfolio for each main skill set or audience. Show only the one relevant to the work that viewer is interested in; you can share another specialized portfolio if those skills come up in conversation.

7.     Organize your work. Arrange your portfolio specifically for each meeting, and lead with what you think that viewer is looking for. If they need a logo, start with and show several great logo projects. If their website needs redesigned, show your interactive samples first. People tend to remember what they see first and last, so open and close with your strongest work.

8.     Tell stories. Tell a story about the strategy, concept and result behind each of the pieces in your portfolio. Share a sentence or two about the piece, then watch the viewer’s body language. If they’re ready to move on, do. If they ask questions or want to know more, let them lead the conversation. Be clear and don’t ramble.

9.     Practice your pitch. Before the meeting, walk through your portfolio presentation several times. Practice what you’ll say about each piece, and make sure the flow is logical. If necessary, rearrange pieces to create a cohesive story.

10.  Love every piece. You must passionately believe that every item in your portfolio represents your best work. Who cares if your boss, teacher or client liked it? It’s not their portfolio. If you love it, believe it’s effective, and can explain why it’s a quality piece, keep it. If not, ditch it.

By being particular about what’s included, creating the perfect showcase for your work, and practicing your presentation, you’ll create a portfolio that best represents your work.