Portfolios

How to build a portfolio when you’re new to design

4 min read
Emily Esposito  •  Dec 28, 2018
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Creating a portfolio is the ultimate chicken-and-egg situation: you need a portfolio to land a job, but without professional experience under your belt, it can be challenging to find projects to show off.

Whether you’re a graduating student or simply changing careers, it’s easy to feel stuck. But, once you get out of the traditional mindset of what a portfolio should and shouldn’t be, you can find out-of-the-box ways to create work worth highlighting.

Here are five ways to build your portfolio when you’re new to design:

Invest in the portfolio itself

If you’re struggling to find projects to include in your portfolio, look no further than your portfolio itself. Take creative license and create your own mini websites that highlight your work.

Design a homepage, custom 404 pages, a contact form, subpages, navigation, and blog. Think through user flows, microscopy, and microinteractions, and weave in your branding (see the next tip!).

If you’re feeling extra ambitious, you can code the website yourself, or enlist a friend to help you bring it to life. However you choose to develop the site, try to mimic an actual launch. Conduct user research, build low-fidelity or high-fidelity prototypes, and test them out. Not only will this give you a glimpse into the actual job, but it can also create extra assets to include in your portfolio.

It’s up to you to design what you love.

Develop your own brand

What better client to work for than yourself? Develop your visual identity as a designer and use those assets as a way to add personality to your portfolio.

You could create yourself a logo, font, color scheme, illustrations, animations, tagline, and more. Think of it as developing a solid brand that can help introduce you to the design world.

As an extra bonus: adding these fun projects to your portfolio also highlights who you are (the human behind the designs). So, don’t be afraid to incorporate your interests and hobbies into your branding.

Donate your skills

Build up your portfolio and give back to a local business, nonprofit, or startup at the same time. There are two easy ways you can do this: first, reach out to local businesses you frequent or reach out to any connections you have at growing startups. Offer your skills pro bono and ask if they need any design support for X number of months. Or, if you’re feeling confident, research their digital presence and pitch a design project that could fill in any gaps or holes.

Second, you could use a marketplace, like CatchaFire.org, that connects you to mission-driven organizations in need. You can browse volunteer-based projects based on skills (like graphic design or web design) and causes (like environment, homelessness, or education).

Figure out your passion and show it in your work.

Whichever way you pick, remember not to create extra work for the business. This isn’t a traditional designer-client relationship where you should await direction every step of the way. These businesses will look to you to be a self-starter and take ownership of the project (what a great way to flex your design leadership skills!).

Create your dream assignment

Instead of waiting years for your perfect, dream project, why not create it now? Think about a brand, industry, website, or product you’ve always wanted to work on and create your own brief for that project. Treat this dream project like any professional design project and practice going through the steps of the design thinking process.

This idea also applies to designers in any phase of their career. If you’re a more senior designer and want to spruce up your portfolio, add your passion projects. When you create something you’re really excited about, that will come through in your portfolio.

Write case studies to accompany your designs

A portfolio is as much about showcasing your design approach, process, and results as it is about the design itself. And without professional design experience, you may feel like you can’t accurately convey this kind of information. However, the secret is to get a little creative.

Putting in the effort to explain your work will convey thoughtfulness and knowledge.

As you work on portfolio pieces, make sure to jot down your thought process and decision-making approach. This doesn’t have to include anything revolutionary, but it should provide reasoning behind your designs. For example, perhaps you reference customer research you found online that informed your design. Or, if you design your own portfolio website, you could conduct informal user research and testing.

And, don’t forget, the main goal of these little case studies is to show how you work and who you are as a designer, not always to show off the most impressive results.

Take control of your portfolio

When you’re new to design, or any field for that matter, your portfolio may feel scattered as you gain experience. As you begin to build your identity as a designer, make sure your portfolio clearly states your interests and what you want to do. Perhaps you display a tagline on your homepage like, “Illustrator working for lifestyle brands” or “Seeking opportunities to learn XYZ.”

Your portfolio is flexible and customizable, which also means that you can take charge and control the message. You don’t always need to wait for the work to find you. Instead, have the confidence to make it what you want it to be.

If we’re already talking about portfolios…