Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Your Design Portfolio Has 10 Mistakes

Almost every designer with a baleful eye toward the economy has a portfolio of their design work locked and loaded. But when you take that book in for interviews, make sure you’re not making really stupid mistakes that drive hiring managers up a wall. I guarantee you’re transgressing on at least half the items in this list.

Is it a creative director’s job to critique a portfolio during a job interview? Depends, of course. Maybe you ask me to. Maybe you don’t, but I just feel the need to comment. Maybe you resent the feedback or maybe you welcome it; maybe you couldn’t give two craps in a coffee can what I think.

Honestly, it doesn’t matter whether you want a critique on your book or not. As designers, our currency is visual output; everyone in our profession is judged, at least partly, on their body of work. And every creative hiring manager you show it to is passing immediate, severe, permanent arbitration on your actualization as a designer.

Unfortunately, here’s everything you and almost everyone I interview do wrong in your portfolio:

  1. You include too much shit work. Get rid of the weaker pieces. Stop thinking quantity over quality matters — only accountants and stupid “creative recruiters” think in numbers. You and I both know the logo for your uncle’s limo service you did in 11th grade sucks. Banish it. Show me your strongest work on every page, and cap out between 12 to 15 pieces.
  2. You emphasize the personal filler too much. If the work was a personal side project, it needs to be really good, and it must show a dimension not present in anything else. I want to see stuff that was created for clients — the solutions you created to achieve their vision — because that’s what I am going to pay you for. No flaming grungy skull graphics for your Twitter page. No covers for the album a web label “released” of your GarageBand noodling. No photography of cemeteries. And jeebus no personal logos.
  3. You’re not showcasing the actual finished product. If it’s a printed piece, a real sample would be ideal. You know, as opposed to the crappy print of the scan of the fax of the low-rez comping PDF you bribed your former art director to unearth from the bowels of his e-mail archive last night.
  4. You pretend every piece is the immaculate concept. Sketches are almost as important as the work itself. Include them. The design process is tenfold better shown, not told.
  5. You provide zero context. Who was the client? What were the project limitations? What was the budget and timeline? When was it first published? Be prepared to do a lot of talking if this stuff is not included, because it all matters.
  6. You don’t have an actual book. I want a real live actual physical holdable book whose real live tangible turnable pages are filled with high quality prints that do not require squinting into the hellish white glare of my LCD. A printout of your PDF does not count.
  7. You clearly have no sense of organization. I want a thematic arc to the order of the work. A logic of placement. A beginning, a middle, and an end, with a compelling storyline that keeps me turning pages. Don’t play 52-card pickup with your work. Show me organization, consideration, and (gasp) creativity.
  8. Your excuses and apologies are annoying. Your job is to explain your thought process, strategy, and creative problem-solving. Not blame the quality of work on bad clients, poorly written briefs, lazy art directors, uncooperative talent, minuscule budgets, or any of the other hurdles every other designer has to leap on a daily basis. There is a wide delta between explaining how you overcame obstacles to produce great results and pitiful whining that betrays your utter lack of self-confidence.
  9. Your typos make you look stupid. Anyone with typos and grammatical errors in something as important as their personal design manifesto demonstrates exactly how much they don’t care about working in a profession that demands an eye for detail. Go work at Kinkos; their raison d’etre is to make client work look unprofessional.
  10. You failed to chitchat after intimacy. Give me a leave-behind piece with your contact information. Send me a thank you card, hand-written and addressed to me. And spell my name correctly. A little post-portfolio conversation goes a long way.

There are articles that stipulate every designer should have an online portfolio, but I have mixed feelings about this. Yes, you should. No, you don’t have to. But you must have a means of getting me a digital representation. This could be a personal site, something set up through Creative Hotlist, or just a PDF. (And since we’ll be reviewing your real book in the interview (see mistake #6), the PDF should be low resolution. I do not want a 927 terabyte file that crashes every server farm from Alberta to Albuquerque.)

I’ve interviewed no one who does not make at least half of these mistakes. Overcome them, and you already have one foot in the door.

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commentary + criticism

Liam Maskell

wrote the following on Sunday January 10, 2010

Awesome Post – Really helpful. Thanks :)

Sean Stewart

wrote the following on Sunday January 10, 2010

Fantastic list. Hopefully more designers read this, especially recent graduates.

Michael Green

wrote the following on Sunday January 10, 2010

This is great. Thank you!

Jared Christensen

wrote the following on Sunday January 10, 2010

Great advice. #6 is a tough one for web designers, and arguably unnecessary, but I like the idea of leaving a physical book behind at interviews. If nothing else, I’ll enjoy making it. Immensely. :)

As for whether or not designers should have an online portfolio or not, the answer is “oh yes” for web designers — even if you’re not a “coder” — and “yes, if you want to play on a level field with your peers/competition” for everyone else. I’ve not been in the position of doing the hiring, but I have been in the position of filtering applicants. No online portfolio puts you at the very bottom of the list, if you even get on the list. There are enough portfolio-building services out there to remove any excuses.


wrote the following on Sunday January 10, 2010

Jared, you are correct. An online portfolio is mandatory for a web designer applicant; those without don’t just get sent to the bottom of the list, they are kicked off the list.

Brad Colbow

wrote the following on Monday January 11, 2010

Every so often I have the chance to talk to students about our field, I’ll definitely be sharing these. Thanks..


wrote the following on Monday January 11, 2010

#2 has always made me crazy. If a designer has a lot of their own projects in their portfolio it tells me they are either one or both of these things: arrogant, not doing a lot of work.

Sometimes having a great portfolio, that meets all of the recommendations noted above can be a struggle though, depending on your employer. If you work for a big company you may not be able to share that work online, let alone your creative process, which obviously makes it difficult when you want to make a case for why someone else should work with you.

Shurandy Thode

wrote the following on Monday January 11, 2010

Very useful thanks for sharing. Working on mine so i might keep this for reference =D


Nicolas Chevallier

wrote the following on Thursday January 14, 2010

I have to rework my book I think :)


wrote the following on Friday January 15, 2010

Good advice, and honest.

Everyone has weak spots in their portfolio; mine sure does.

Your comments will help me think about them from a potential client/employer’s perspective and, I hope, spin the process in my direction.


wrote the following on Friday January 22, 2010

This is very informative. a good portfolio really matters, especially when you’re a web designer.
Thanks a lot for this advice!!! :D


wrote the following on Tuesday January 26, 2010

So I have a question on # 2
I been out of school for about 5 years, and when I graduated I couldn’t find a job in this line of work so I was have been doing another kind of work (medical) and here lately I have been wanting to try again to find a job in design. I have in the past year done a little work with a logo here, a t-shirt design for someone, and a poster for a fair. But other then that I have only done design for my t-shirt/clothing “business” that I make business cards, letter head, website, and a catalog. I also have quiet a bit of work that I have done to just keep my design skills up, you know giving myself homework assignments by making packaging, labels, coaster, matches book covers, things like this. Should I not include any of this? Would it make my portfolio look unprofessional? I haven’t had a job in the field so does it not show ambition that been trying to keep my skills up even with out a job?

C. Gollatz

wrote the following on Monday February 1, 2010

Very well stated. Everyone NEEDS follow these guidelines.

Do this and you’ll be in much better shape. I would only add that if you want to stand out a bit, the trend these days for web designers is to show a movie clip or reel of their websites. Websites are interactive. Sometimes it’s not enough to show static images of the site. Find a recording tool and surf your site recording the cool stuff. Again, editing what interactions you show is key… Then edit more. Pay your friend to help edit if you can’t yourself. Man-up & get it done… No excuses.



wrote the following on Tuesday February 2, 2010

@Jason — This is a tough spot to be in, for sure. Your best bet is to be completely honest in the interview. If you were talking with me, I’d ask the following question more than once: “If you love design so much, why didn’t you work harder to get into the field? Why did you settle for something you don’t love?” This may seem a bit unfair, but be prepared to give a better answer than “the economy”, because the economy always sucks for someone, somewhere.

Furthermore, I’d want to hear the following things:

  1. You have a passion for design. You just want to get your foot in the door to show that you can take the work you’ve done for yourself and apply it to the needs of my company. (Remember, always stress me, not you.)
  2. You’re actively working with real clients on a freelance basis. That you’re listening to them, building relationships with them, and creating design solutions that fit their needs. Even if you’ve only done a small amount of work in this regard, stress its importance.
  3. You are current with the design industry, and that you pay attention to trends. You read design books, blogs and magazines.
  4. You want to learn from other team members and from the creative director. (Subtle flattery never hurts.) That you know you have the talent to contribute at a high level.
  5. Draw a line between your current non-design role with what it takes to be a designer on my team. You work well with others, and collaborate. You understand deadlines. You know some days are going to require more caffeine than others. You are professional, and not an asshole. Remember, being a designer often has little to do with actually designing.

I hope this helps. Its not a comprehensive list of suggestions, but you’re going to have to sell yourself hard, and at the end of the day, you’re going to need to catch a break from an understanding CD.

@C. Gollatz — Welcome to the site, my old friend. :)


wrote the following on Thursday February 18, 2010

awesome advice you got there! ill take note of this :D im sure these things we’ll help me make a better portfolio later on

thanks for this keep em comin \m/


wrote the following on Tuesday February 23, 2010

great share. thanks!


wrote the following on Wednesday February 24, 2010

I have a question that I would really love some feedback and insight on. I have been working for various companies full time for over 10 years. For the past 2 years I’ve been very busy doing freelance work on the side and even though I would never let it interfere with my full-time job I think it’s hurting my chances of finding a new full time position. I have a lot of freelance samples in my portfolio and I’ve recently removed some because I think potential employers are being turned off by the amount of freelance work in my portfolio.

Would you all agree or disagree with that statement?


wrote the following on Saturday March 20, 2010

Fantastic advice without any unnecessary sugarcoating. I will pass this along to my friends and classmates who are building portfolios right now- and of course keep it in mind for myself too.


wrote the following on Thursday August 27, 2015

Finding this article now as I’m trying to rebuild my portfolio – it’s very helpful! Thanks.