A designer’s portfolio: art vs strategy

The perfect graphic design portfolio should be a PDF of high-res images of your “best” work, right? They should be photographed from funky angles and laid out in a way that demonstrates your creative style. And that’s it. Easy. Right?

And then, when the Creative/Art Director gets your portfolio into their inbox they open the PDF, scroll through the pages, and from seeing the images of the press ads, brochure covers, logos, magazine layouts and web pages you’ve so carefully positioned and included, they will be so wowed that they will pick up the phone and hire you on the spot. Right?

Wrong, wrong, and wrong again.

You could be the world’s greatest designer, but a collection of pretty pictures saved as a PDF will very rarely get you a new job. What about the thought process behind your design? What about the brief? Was the campaign/design successful? How can someone tell all that from a PDF of images?

Strategy is a word that is thrown around a lot, probably too much. And, whilst the word may be over used, the thinking behind a design is just as, if not more important than how aesthetically pleasing it is. So include it in your portfolio.

For example, let’s say you have designed a brochure for a financial services company and the front cover has a beautiful photograph of a mountaineer summiting a snowy peak. Or you’ve designed a stunning new logo, with bespoke typography for a construction business. Great, they should definitely be featured in your portfolio, but what you MUST also include is the thought process behind your design showing your response to the creative brief.

Who were the target audience for the financial services company? What product is the brochure marketing? What was the key message behind the campaign/design? Why did you choose that image? Why a mountaineer? What did the old logo for the construction company look like? Why were they re-branding? Why did you choose that style/colour? How was the campaign rolled out?

You don’t need to write War and Peace for each campaign, as the detail can be discussed at interview, but a short paragraph or a few bullet points to explain each piece goes a very long way. It gives the reader an insight into the design, to you as a designer, why the design looks like it does and what you were looking to achieve.

You may have been working as part of a creative team and therefore weren’t involved in the strategic thinking. That’s fine, and whilst you should never claim work that wasn’t yours, it’s important to demonstrate you understand why the design evolved in the way it did.

A portfolio is the single most important tool that a Designer has at their disposal. It’s a platform on which to showcase your skills, so put some time into the design and presentation of it but don’t think of it as just a collection of images – in our current economic climate, where margins are lower and every decision and cost needs to be accounted for, the strategy behind a design is just as important as how it looks.


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