What makes a great design portfolio?

13th May 2015

When it comes to portfolios, a lot has changed in just 10 years, but the important things – the principles behind what makes a great portfolio – have stayed the same.

Grab attention

Clear communication is essential to a great design portfolio. The person flicking through your portfolio probably has a good number to wade through, and you need to get their attention in a matter of seconds – so make it count. The best folios are those that are bold, confident and intrigue the viewer.

Show a process

As my maths teacher used to say, “You’ll get marks for showing your working out, even if you get the answer wrong”. The same principle applies to great portfolios. Some of the best portfolios I’ve seen are the ones that show how the designer got to the final product. Each project should also have a beginning, middle and end. What was the problem, what was the method, how was it solved and why is it better than everything else out there?

The viewer might not agree with the final solution, but they are still interested in how you got there. This shows that you can develop an idea from conception to completion, and that the object you created has a reason to exist.

Simple, but with variety

A clear understanding of graphical layout is crucial, because a great layout allows the viewer’s eye to seamlessly scan and absorb the information in the intended order. “The simpler the better” I say, keeping a clear, distilled message on each ‘page’. Your portfolio could contain sensational ideas, but if this is not clearly communicated then it’s a waste.

However, ‘simple’ doesn’t mean ‘boring’. A great folio also contains a variety of projects showcasing the applicable skills for the position – if the job asks for great sketching skills, then you better show you can draw.

Be Visual

As a designer, it is essential that you can communicate an idea using visuals alone. I’m not saying it’s easy, but being able to present an idea without words will show a potential employer that you didn’t take the easy way out with a text box. More often than not, the person reviewing the portfolio is a designer themselves; therefore they are visually stimulated – give them what they want to see.

I’ve developed my own highly technical and complicated test for this one. It’s called The Mum Test. Simply take one Mother, place her in a chair with a cup of tea. Pass her your portfolio, and don’t say a word. After she’s looked through it, ask her to explain what she thought were the key points for each project. If she gets it, then you know your portfolio is intuitive.


A portfolio should not be about quantity; it should be about showing the applicable projects for the job in question. That means filtering your work, and this takes time. But it will pay off when your potential employer sees that you understand what the job requires, and that you respect their time by only showing them relevant work. Having a large skill set is valuable, but don’t overwhelm your audience with projects.

Creative but clear

Great portfolios stand out when they are different and unconventional. They show creativity and personality and do not necessarily follow any ‘rules’. There is a fine line between making a portfolio brimming with creativity and keeping a simple and clear message. The best portfolios live on this line. They show that the creator has personality, but also can present a piece of information to a viewer concisely. The format of a portfolio can also make the difference between an OK piece of work and a great piece of work. It all depends on the best way of communicating the content you have to the person it is being presented to.


Above all remember to put yourself in shoes of the person you are presenting to. What do they want to see? What are they interested in? What are they looking for? Are they looking for someone who is great at exploring form with foam models or someone who is more CAD literate? Use this information to show the skills you have with the most appropriate projects in the most appropriate way. For example if you were applying for a User Interaction role you might put together a beautifully constructed online journey through your work and experience whereas if you were applying for a Graphic Print Design role you might put together something more tangible but equally as exciting for the viewer.