Experience / Graduates / Graphic Design / Portfolio / Side Projects

How should you curate your design portfolio?

If you want to get work as a graphic designer, one of the first things you’ll want to consider is how to present your portfolio to show it in its best light and to attract the right kind of clients. When you’re first starting out, it can be pretty hard to decide which pieces of work to include, especially if you haven’t got very much to show.

But even after years of experience and many projects, it doesn’t really get any easier – you just end up with a different set of difficulties in deciding which projects are the right ones to include.

Head over heart

Most of us came to this profession because we have a love of design. More than that – it’s something that always been part of us. Maybe you’ve always seen things in a slightly different way to most people. Your eye naturally picks up on the beauty of objects that others see as mundane. The colours and composition of the things around you seem to stand out and make you feel…something.

So how on earth do you decide which pieces to omit from your portfolio? After all, when you look at some of your best pieces, you remember how you felt when you were creating them. You know every detail of it, the work you put in, the thought process, and the sense of pride you felt when you sent it to the client.

OK, so maybe I’m being a bit melodramatic with this – but I think most of you will see some truth in it.

And the question remains – how do you choose?

Start by thinking about your past projects and your past clients. Which ones stand out as being the most enjoyable? Which clients did you find easy to work with? Which ones shared your ethos and saw your designs in the same way that you did? Those are likely the kind of clients you want to look for again, right?

You’ll also want to consider other factors, like your skills and abilities.

This is particularly important if you want to focus on a specific type of design. For example, you might be looking to gain more work in web design, if that’s the type of work you enjoy most. In this case, you don’t want to fill your portfolio with logo and branding stuff. And likewise, if you want to be known as a brand designer, by all means, put some website design in your portfolio, but make sure you add a variety of logo and branding projects as well, so they can see a breadth of skills. The aim is to tell a story of what you can do in order to give your ideal client whatever it is they’re looking for.

Have the confidence to only show your best work and not everything for everyone.

Thoughts about presentation and what information to include

Every designer has their own unique process and their own story. When you create your portfolio, you mustn’t neglect this – your images alone won’t sell. Your potential clients don’t just want to see what you do; they want to know how you do it.

So if you’ve worked on a great logo, rather than placing an image with a caption something like, “I was asked to do a logo, here’s what I did”, tell them the whole story. What was the client looking to achieve? What did you talk about to get the ideas flowing? Talk about their background/where they were starting from and the processes and techniques you used to get them the desired results.

People love stories – tell them yours. Give them an insight into your mind, how you work, and let them imagine what it will be like for them to work with you. What can they expect if they need something similar from you?

Side projects

There are some situations where you can use personal projects in your portfolio – and if you can, I’d encourage you to do it because it can really work in your favour.

You might be in a place where you have recently started out on your own, and you don’t have a whole lot of stuff to put into a portfolio. So what are your options?

Completing side projects can work well in demonstrating your will to take the initiative and allows you to experiment in ways you might not be able to under the constraints of a client project. Having the freedom to create projects of your own can be a great jumping-off point because you get to choose the kind of projects you do, and you can absolutely design the type of things you want to be doing through client projects in the future.

Article / Experience / Graduates / Graphic Design / Self Publishing / Side Projects

Favours for favours?

As part of the design community, the question of working for free often comes up. I think in most genres of the creative industry, there’s almost an expectation that we should be expected to take on projects for free, or under the guise of ‘exposure’, with varying opinions.

For designers who are right at the start of their careers, or who have a limited portfolio to show to prospects, it can be a difficult hurdle to overcome – after all, how can you get people to hire you if they can’t see what you’re capable of?

I feel there are 2 parts to this discussion – the first in being asked by prospects to ‘work for free’ (sometimes cleverly disguised as ‘exposure work’), the second is creating your own projects in order to showcase your work. The second one can be beneficial, the first one almost never is, so we’ll talk about this one first.

Asking for work

It’s likely that even if you’ve been in the game a while, there will be times as a designer when you have a need to prospect for new projects. It’s these ‘cold contacts’ that are most likely to be the businesses who; a) have little knowledge about how outsourcing works, and b) think that by asking for ‘freebies’ as a way of gauging your talent is the proper way to do things.

An inexperienced designer might be tempted to oblige. After all, it might lead to more paid work and it adds valuable content to your portfolio, right?

But hang on – let’s put this in perspective.

Let’s pretend for a minute that you’ve had 2 prospect responses. They both want to hire you, but one of them asks for a quote, while the other one asks if you can do the first element of the project for free ‘to see how it goes’.

Here’s where the ‘what if’ scenarios start to come into your mind. What if the guy who asked for the quote thinks you’re too expensive and decides not to hire you? What if the ‘free’ project is the one that will ultimately lead to the most lucrative work?

I can reassure you here that the first scenario is always the least dangerous. Because if your quote gets returned with concerns over the budget, there are always things you can do – like offer to complete elements of the work in order to meet their budget or payment instalment plans for example.

But the ‘freebie’ guy? Sure, he might hire you down the line for your usual rate – but I’m willing to bet that he’ll haggle and argue at every turn. And if you take on that project for free, which might take you several hours, then you are making yourself unavailable for proper, paid work.

How to respond if you’re asked to work for free

This can be tricky, particularly if you’re desperate for work. That temptation to grab every opportunity for fear of missing out can be strong. But in order to avoid devaluing your abilities, it’s important that you learn to stand your ground – and I’m saying that from a place of experience. By accepting free work, you’re not only doing a disservice to yourself, but you’re also giving the message that design as a profession holds no value.

So what can you say when a prospect utters those words, ‘can you do the first project for free/for exposure/as a test-run?’.

There are a few ways you could choose to handle it – as long as you remember that the answer should always be ‘No’.

The first thing you should do is to take a step back. Don’t rush in with your response from a place of emotion. The prospect isn’t doing this out of spite or malice – they are simply unaware of how the design process works. It’s your job to educate them.

Perhaps this is a prospect that you really DO want to work with. It could be that you’ve followed them for a while, and they’re just the kind of business you want to design for. If that’s the case, then consider responding with a polite note, advising them that although you are not in a position to offer free work, you can point them in the direction of other work you’ve done for similar industries. If you don’t have any examples, then perhaps you can seek out other projects you can do (for pay, of course!) so that you can approach them again in a few months’ time.

Or you can politely decline. Again, let them know that as a creative professional, you are not able to complete the project for free, but perhaps they can consider you again when they are in a position to hire you for your usual fee.

When it’s ok to work for free

What I am a great advocate for is self-initiated projects. I believe these types of projects can be a brilliant way of creating your own portfolio pieces, on your own terms. Whether you are an experienced designer or not, periodically taking time to work on your own projects allows you to explore different techniques and design methods which you might not get the opportunity for with client work.

The benefits are two-fold; you get that extra bit of creative freedom, and you get to escape that rut of always taking on the same type of client project. It gives you the chance to push the boundaries a little bit and inspires you to take different avenues.

I’ve done this myself a few times – with my self-published book ‘Ten Yrs Later’, and for some localised projects such as the creative festival I began working on during 2020. Both of these have worked for me in both a professional and personal scope because it gives me something else to showcase what I can do, and lets me ‘play’ and explore outside of my usual workload.

If you are at the start of your career or feel the need to change your niche, taking a bit of time out to create different pieces for your portfolio is the best way to do it. It can be as simple as choosing an existing or imaginary brand and redesigning it using your own style and techniques.

I hope this article gives you the confidence to realise your own value in what you do. Design, in whatever form it takes, is a valuable asset to your clients and should be treated as such.

Graphic Design / Inspiration / Side Projects

Why side projects can be good for graphic designers

I’ve heard a lot of talk, especially during the current climate, around whether or not graphic designer should consider creating their own side projects. Opinions tend to vary quite widely on the subject – some designers see them as somehow a waste of their time, in that it takes them away from doing paid work, and perhaps sends the message to prospective clients that they’re not so much in demand. Others think that they’re a great way of doing something ‘out of the norm’ and taking it as an opportunity to expand design portfolios, and indeed knowledge within the field of design.

While I can see both views, I think that, done right, they can enhance a design portfolio, and even lead a designer off in a new direction that might not have been possible within ‘the day job’. In fact, I myself published a book showcasing my design journey, and am currently organising some events promoting local designers, both of which were things that have come as a result of my own passion and desire to push myself beyond what I normally do.

I think, as creatives, it’s easy to get bogged down in doing work for others, so in occasionally doing things that come from our own passion can be a welcome release, and a really good way to inspire us. I’ve found that, in doing these side projects, I have so often been inspired to try different techniques and designs for my client work, too.

Above: Spectra Kinetic Sculpture by Accept & Proceed

Looking around at other agencies, there are some examples of side projects that have been so successful, they have enabled the agency to take on completely new projects that they might never have had the opportunity to bid for under normal circumstances, like London agency, Accept & Proceed, who created a kinetic sculpture representing the impact of meteors on the surface of the moon that led to a commissioned project for NASA. Ok, so that might be an extreme example, but you never know…

Above: Grace-FO Display by Accept & Proceed commissioned by NASA/JPL

Of course, there is no harm at all in flexing your creativity and working on a project just for the hell of it, even if it goes nowhere. It can teach you a lot – not just by playing around with different styles and techniques, but also giving you practice in new programmes which might not come up in your usual work. Unlike some industries, the graphic design field is ever-evolving, and it’s good to try out new ways of working now and again. It might give you the opportunity to incorporate a new service for your clients, or even take your agency in a different direction.

And they can be so varied – I’ve seen designers doing online courses teaching others simple design techniques, YouTube channels showcasing everything from ‘a day in the life’ to time-lapses of works in progress, blogs and magazines, photography…the list is endless.

Above: Part of our visual proposal for a community project documenting a day-in-the-life of one of Shrewsbury's iconic buildings.

Do what you love

I know what you’re thinking – if you are busy indulging your passions, doesn’t that pull you away from the money-making projects? And yes, of course that’s true, but if you don’t make time for creating your own stuff, then what’s going to inspire you if all you’re doing is working for clients? As a creative, you need an outlet, somewhere. After all, most of us got into this industry from a place of love for creation and design, and if we fail to keep doing what we love, then there’s a danger that working could become monotonous.

A fresh perspective – for you and your clients

Of course, there’s the added benefit of being able to show your clients a different side to what you do. If you’ve been designing as a job for a while, you tend to end up doing the same kinds of things, but think about this: what if the very client you are designing that website for is also in the market for some photography, or a new identity, a video…if they are not aware that you have a talent for those things, you could be missing out on a whole new set of projects.

All in all, I believe that there can be great things to come out of doing side projects. So why not plan for them? Even if it’s simply a one-off, or a few hours at the weekend? It could be great for both your mental health, and your career.

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