Top Tips for building a standout portfolio

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Dylan McDonough, Dream Psychology

In a hugely competitive industry, full of young talent looking for a break, how can you make your portfolio stand out form the rest? Pip Jamieson, founder of creative community The Dots, shares her tips gleaned from extensive research with creative directors and agency recruiters

1. ONLINE PORTFOLIO VS PHYSICAL PORTFOLIO
It always surprises us how passionate people get about this debate. Really, it depends on the audience. In the end everyone should have an online portfolio these days, but the more traditional employers still want the tactile experience of viewing a physical portfolio.

2. LESS IS MORE
Or as we like to say in the office ‘all killer, no filler’! This has been passionately advocated by all the creative directors we’ve ever worked with. Don’t worry if your portfolio isn’t bursting at the seams. While it might be tempting to add filler content, less is actually more. Remember the average quality of your portfolio is brought down by your worst projects, so culling your portfolio back to just your best projects is definitely the way to go.

Design director, Jake Smallman, sums this up: “What you leave out is as important as what you put in. It’s not a problem that you’ve done a bad piece of work, but putting it in your portfolio says you don’t know it’s bad.”

Often employers will only look at the first couple of pages of your portfolio, so don’t feel you need to leave the best until last; it’s far better that you run with your strongest projects first.

3. BE TRUE TO YOURSELF
Your portfolio should reflect your own aesthetic and clearly show the type of work you want to be doing.

According to Creative Directors, Tin & Ed, “You’ll attract the type of jobs that reflect the work in your portfolio. So, if you didn’t enjoy the work, don’t add it or you’ll end up working on stuff you don’t enjoy.”

Standout Portfolio article image 2Morten Borgestad

4. SELF-INITIATED PROJECTS
All the Creative Directors we’ve worked with have been massive fans of portfolios that include personal work, as well as client/student work. So, unless you are one of the few creatives that have complete creative license over your work, include personal projects in your portfolio. If you have already, we salute you.

Self-initiated projects are a great way of showing off your creative thought processes and what you are capable of – helping secure the jobs you want, not just the jobs you need. It’s also a great way to show you’re passionate about the industry.

Projects could be anything from a personal identity, a competition entry, an exhibition, a zine, a pop-up store, a product range, short film or an installation. Contacting a senior creative or a company that inspires you, and asking them for a brief, is also an amazing way to challenge yourself creatively. If they like your response they may even offer you a job.

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Dylan McDonough, Semi-Precious

5. ADD COMMERCIAL WORK
Oh if only we could keep paying the rent by just doing passion projects. But the reality of our industry is that commercial work keeps food on the table, so make sure your portfolio shows you can deliver on a client brief. This is strongly advocated by recruitment manager Adele Leah, “If you can, get work experience so you can include some commercial pieces in your folio. If you are finding it hard to get real world experience, set yourself mock briefs.”

6. ADD PROJECT & BRIEF NOTES
When putting together your portfolio, always keep in mind the importance of communicating your ideas. Well-written project descriptions that allow employers to understand the brief and constraints are really important, since you won’t always be there to explain.

7. ADD YOUR RESUME, AWARDS & ACHIEVEMENTS
In many of the larger companies it will be Human Resource Managers who do the first cull of portfolios, not someone within the creative department. So even if your work is incredible you might not make the shortlist unless you give them a feel for your background and experience, including where you went to University, your skills, past employers and clients. HR managers also love seeing recommendations and work that has won awards, as it can help to determine the quality of work.

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Rose Brissenden

8. CREATE YOUR OWN BRAND
Let’s face it, your own brand is the most valuable brand you’ll ever work on and one of the only ones you’ll have complete creative license over. Creative agencies and employers can sometimes see hundreds, if not thousands, of portfolios a year, so creatives that develop their own identity can help catch their eye every time.

If you’re looking for freelance work it can also help to show that you’re serious about your work as a professional creative business, and not simply just a creative individual.


9. THEORY OF RELATIVITY
Think about the type of clients or collaborators you’d like to work with and make sure your portfolio is relevant to that audience. Do your research and cater for their needs, not just your own.

Illustrator Luke Lucas says, “It’s beneficial to have flexibility with your portfolio, so that you can make it as relevant as possible to the job you’re applying for. Employers are generally looking to fill a specific position for the specific needs of the business.”

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Zeitguised, B&A Reps

10. GIVE CREDIT
Give credit where credit is due. If you’ve collaborated on a project, it’s important to credit those you worked with – not only is it the right thing to do, but it also flexes your capability as a collaborator.

11. GET YOUR WORK PROFESSIONALLY PHOTOGRAPHED
A beautifully shot portfolio will enhance your work. If you’re not a dab hand with a camera, don’t worry, there are plenty of young photographers looking for experience. Just make sure that when you get your work professionally shot, you agree usage rights with the photographer.

12. INNOVATION
Many of our Portfolio Masterclass mentors say a big focus for them is identifying the next generation of innovators and idea makers. Illustrator and agent, Kelly Thompson, sums this up nicely by saying: “It is always impressive to see something that can only ever belong to that one person and doesn’t just look like the work of those who inspire them.”


13. KEEP IT CURRENT
It’s an obvious one, but keeping your portfolio current is key. If you’re not quite right for a project – but you show potential – employers, clients and collaborators will often bookmark your online portfolio and review it at a later date. So, if you have fresh work on your site, you’ll stand a better chance of landing that next opportunity. Keep it current

14. ATTENTION TO DETAIL
Do not, under any circumstances, blow all of your hard work on a lack of attention to detail! When you send your portfolio, CV or cover letter, make sure you direct it to the right person, don’t just address it ‘Dear Sir/Madam’. If an employer has asked to see an online portfolio, make sure that’s what you send, and not a PDF or Word document. Make sure the typefaces are consistent and there are no spelling mistakes.

Always keep an extra keen eye on the exact branding of the company – if there’s an uppercase or a space within their company name, make sure you write it that way. Companies are looking for reasons to cull the huge number of portfolios that hit their desk each day. So don’t give them one.

15. ATTEND THE DOTS PORTFOLIO MASTERCLASSES
Sometimes it’s hard to take an impartial view on what should and shouldn’t be in your portfolio. That’s why The Dots is hosting monthly Portfolio Masterclasses, giving you the rare opportunity to get your portfolio reviewed by industry leaders. The monthly Masterclasses will take place at iconic creative offices around London, covering a full spectrum of creative professions and allowing you to receive honest advice and tips on building and re-energising your creative portfolio.


The Dots’ Portfolio Masterclass Safari is a monthly series of  creative industry-led workshops offering aspiring creatives the opportunity to have their portfolio reviewed by leading industry professionals across advertising, graphic design, illustration, fashion, photography and many more.

First stop on The Dots Portfolio Masterclass Safari is an Advertising Masterclass at Adam&EveDDB where mentors include some of London and the UK’s leading Creative Directors from Ogilvy & Mather, M&C Saatchi, BBH, Grey London, Guardian Labs, Mr President, Lowe Profero & Adam&EveDDB.

Full list:
Daniel Fisher, Deputy Executive Creative Director, Adam&EveDDB
Richard Brim, Executive Creative Director, Adam&EveDDB
Andre Laurentino, Global Executive Creative Director at Ogilvy & Mather
Caroline Pay, Deputy Executive Creative Director & Partner, BBH
Alistair Campbell, Creative Director, Guardian Labs
Jon Gledstone, Creative Director, Mr President
Dave Bedwood, Creative Director, M&C Saatchi
Hollie Newton, Creative Director, Grey London
Eloise Smith, Executive Creative Director, Lowe Profero

More info here

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