Articles - 23rd October 2020

What do clients expect from a design portfolio?

Words by Elly Earls
Illustration by Jon McCormack

A good design portfolio is about a lot more than pretty pictures. You also need to build trust with the potential client and demonstrate the commercial viability of your designs. Here are our five best tips from hirers on how to get it right.


Quantify your experience

Sarah Weaver recruited design staff for four years for real estate agency teams and brokerages and says very few designers use numbers, figures or, most importantly, show results in their portfolios.

“It’s absolutely crucial for designers to show businesses the measurable results of their designs,” she advises. “I understand designers aren’t sales people but their designs have an effect on the bottom line and businesses are looking to hire someone who can help them move the needle and make more sales.”

Fashion designer Sarah Cordery, who founded her own design agency Sarah Denise Studio a year and a half ago, agrees. “Commerciality is so important. When people come straight out of university, for example, they can be very artistic and creative, but how does that translate into a commercial product that will sell well?

“I want to know if they can follow the process from inspiration to development to a final product that’s commercially viable. That’s going to be massive for someone like me bringing someone into my small business.”

Her advice is to include a lot of market research with each project on your portfolio. “If you’re going for a fashion designer job, look at what’s out there, what’s in the stores, what’s in fashion and figure out how you can move it on so it’s not ridiculously out of the ordinary but is new and different. And maybe include things that are key at the time, such as sustainability or using recycled fabrics, but not in a way that’s really expensive.”


Be clear about what you can and can’t do

It’s important to be clear about exactly what your role was in creating each design you include on your portfolio and the team you had around you.

“What often happens is that designers show me a gorgeous portfolio, but when they’re hired they don’t have the skills alone to create that same result because previously they were at an agency and had access to content creators and other team members,” Weaver explains. “They might still get the job if they didn’t create the whole project, but the employer would know they’d also have to hire a content creator, for example.”

On the flip side, it’s really important to emphasise your strengths, Cordery says. “I always concentrate on my creativity and expertise at pattern print. Being authentic and concentrating on the things you’re really strong at helps get your personality across a bit more and ensure you don’t get a job that you’re not actually that good at!”


Keep it succinct

Nobody wants to read a 60-page essay or wade through everything from your first project at uni to an illustration you once did for your friend. “Kill your darlings!” Cordery stresses. “Edit everything down and only include five projects, max. These should all be in really neat PDFs, show exactly what you can do and you should be really proud of all of them.”

She receives a lot of portfolios that are quite ad hoc and she doesn’t understand what she’s looking at. “Create a nice front page, a page about who you’ve worked with and your CV and then move onto each project, each with a nice heading. Keep it consistent – landscape or portrait. Don’t switch between the two,” she says. “And whatever you do, don’t send me huge files on WeTransfer. Designers are busy and that link is going to expire in a few days.”


Make it relevant

It’s an obvious point but make sure you read the brief. “You need to answer every single point like it’s an exam or any other job application,” Cordery says. “It’s about building trust because at the end of the day bringing someone into your business is really scary and one bad egg can spoil the batch.”

Think about who you’re designing for, too. If you’re a fashion designer going for a high street brand, you shouldn’t be using examples like ball gowns. “It has to be in line with the price point,” Cordery says.

And if you don’t have anything relevant that you’ve done for a paying client, don’t be afraid of creating a fake project. “Choose a customer you’d love to work for and create a project for them, always keeping in mind the point about commerciality,” Cordery advises.


Get your personality across

Weaver loves a portfolio that shows the designer’s fun side. “It’s great when they show up and say, ‘Hey, I’m so and so, come on in. Everything’s beautiful here.’ That attractive laidback language really stands out,” she says.

You can even go one step further for the right client. “One intern sent their portfolio in a helium balloon and if you really want to get noticed and if the brand has that kind of appeal and will understand it, those gimmicks can be fun,” Cordery laughs. “If it’s something a bit more serious, maybe don’t go down that route!”


If you’re looking for an easy way to make a portfolio, check out our portfolio builder in our virtual office!

We champion the freelancers and every entrepreneur who took a leap of faith with their idea.

If this sounds like you, head over to our Virtual Office and send us your best work via an UnderPinned Portfolio. We want to hear from you!

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