What to Include in Your Portfolio?

Hi there.

So I’ve been wanting to update my portfolio for a while. The one I made when I was in college is, well, one that you could probably expect from someone in college doing it just to do it in class. It’s full of a lot of student projects. Some of which I don’t think I would mind including in my new portfolio.

Where I’m kind of hitting a road block is knowing what professional work I can include in my portfolio. A lot of the projects I’ve completed are done with the clients brand guidelines - only a couple of my companies clients have NDA’s so I know I couldn’t include those projects (even though those tend to be the more eye-catching ones unfortunately).

Am I overthinking this? If I created it, even if it is for another companies brand - it’s appropriate to put into my portfolio right? For some reason in my head it’s like - everything in a portfolio has to be of my own original creation. But a lot of the things I’ve created have the company logos, patterns, colors, etc. Because I make it to match their brand - not creating a brand for them from scratch.

I once bid on a project and during the portfolio review/interview they said they had already seen one of the designs… it was in the portfolio of one of the other bidders. It was an ad I had done and the client placed it in a publication designed by the other bidder, who was showing the publication as part of their portfolio. But they didn’t bother to note that not everything in the mag was their own. Misleading. Maybe intentional, maybe not.

If I’m showing something like a publication, which includes the work of other designers, I delete their work where I can. If that’s not possible, I’ll put a semi transparent white frame on top of the ad so it looks ghosted. People can see it’s there, but the muted colors aren’t going to pull the viewers attention. And then I’ll annotate somehow so they won’t mistake it as part of work I’m presenting as my own.

From my point of view, you should assemble your portfolio with the audience in mind. For example, if you’re freelancing, your portfolio should reflect the work you’re trying to get. If you’re looking for employment, build your portfolio to cater to the type of employer you want.

With that in mind, working within pre-existing branding standards is common. So is working with other people’s photographs or implementing things clients want instead of what you might personally recommend.

In some ways, graphic designers are like movie directors or symphony conductors. We think things through, we weigh the options, we consider what we have (and don’t have) to work with, then we coordinate it to achieve the best possible results under the circumstances. Like a movie director, we don’t necessarily write the script, do all the acting, or argue too much with the producers who have lined up the funding. Like an orchestra conductor, we don’t play all the instruments, write the music, or handle the ticket sales.

Graphic designers are not jacks of all trades who do everything on every job. We work with others who contribute (or interfere) with the job. Designers solve problems within the parameters of what we have to work with. We’re not simply people who make things look pretty — we take what we have to work with and are often expected to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.

Your portfolio is your opportunity to communicate to clients and art directors that you understand this and know how to work with others to obtain the best possible results. A portfolio isn’t about showing what’s only 100% yours. It’s about showing how you managed to work with the things available to you and how you achieved results.

For example, if your portfolio is online, your accompanying text should explain what you achieved and how you accomplished it within the problem’s parameters, such as budgets, collaborators, client-supplied photos, deadlines, etc. If you show your portfolio in person, it’s a chance to explain how resourceful you are to the interviewers.

In movies, directors always put their names up front in the opening credits. However, at the film’s end, another set of lengthy credits lists all the hundreds of things the director didn’t do and entrusted to others.

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What Mojo describes is kind different from your situation.
If you have permission to show the work in your portfolio, you can explain the design as a “layout design” using an existing brand guideline created by others.

great feedback! I really appreciate it. Thank you.

There’s not much I can add to what has already been said, but what I will say, is that working within a brand is not a negative; it’s a positive.

Brand identities only work when they are consistent. We’ve all seen work by poor designers, or employees who have been let loose on internal communications (and sometimes, external) that is supposed to work within guidelines to maintain and build a brand, but the Marketing Director’s assistant loves comic sans … ‘it’s really fun …’

To show, you can be creative within a brand is a skillset that I would want to see as a potential employer. It shows a specific level of understanding about what the job entails.

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