Portfolio Lessons from Show & Sell

by Matt Budelman


“It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”
–Dr. Carl Sagan

I recently came across this quote, and it struck a chord with me. As much as I was satisfied in my own delusion of having a portfolio that was complete and current, it was definitely not. I think portfolios, like the Universe, are large, cumbersome, ever-expanding, and without them we wouldn’t have a past or future.

The creative portfolio can be a constant source of questioning and frustration. At first, it is an exciting new adventure–designers toil away with X-Acto knives, books on creative packaging, midnight trips to the copy shop, and constant tinkering. We proudly run off to every agency we can with our heads high and optimism in our eyes. A couple years later–after dusting it off for a new interview–we find that all of our hard work seems dated, the styles old, and the printing faded.

Our portfolio is usually the last thing on our minds until we start seeking a new position or our dream job with the corner office window. Often we need a refresher, a boost of motivation and confidence that our universe is in order and ready for any deep-space explorer. I got that motivation after attending AIGA Boston’s recent portfolio workshop, Show & Sell.

Hosted by Kristen Johnson and Eric DiChiara of The Creative Group, the workshop devoted the better part of two hours to refreshing the veterans in the crowd and informing students who may be in the midst of their first portfolio-making experience. I personally loved being there because I took away many tips and tricks that I would otherwise not have considered. Detailed below are some great lessons learned at the workshop and a few from books, lectures, and experience.

The three types of portfolios

The way we communicate has changed drastically in the past few decades, and the contemporary creative needs to come prepared with several ways of showing work. The expectations are to have all three of the following.

  • Hard portfolio (physical)
    This is the norm. No creative should be without one. The physical portfolio should work without a computer or power source, and should be able to be left behind without explanation. It is key to display your creativity in the presentation and packaging, not just in the pieces inside. Also, make sure you have the final products of any print-run, or at a minimum some “mock-ups,” so you can show your knowledge of materials and finishing.
  • Soft portfolio (digital)
    A common format is the PDF document, which should include a resume and samples of your top 8-10 pieces. It should exist as a file you can leave behind or have downloaded from a flash drive or website. Its purpose is to be a teaser, a reminder of your capabilities. It is important to not fill it with everything you have ever done. If people like what they see, they will call you for an interview.
  • Web portfolio (online)
    Too many print-educated creatives stress about the appearance, creative direction, and style of their website, and that’s good. However, it is important that your work be accessible by web immediately. If you are struggling with self-design and development, use some of the free and cheap online resources for displaying work while your superfantastic website is under construction–like Carbonmade, Creative Hotlist, Coroflot, or the Behance Network. It is more important that your work be available now than it is to have the best website. If you are in an elevator with a creative director, you should be able to whip out your phone and show your top three pieces before the doors open. Also, when structuring your website, create a landing page or quick link to your top ten pieces. Hiring managers & creative directors may only have 1-2 minutes to look at your site, in which case your best work better not be hidden under three layers of drop-down menus. Think of your website as a teaser to get an interview. If you want to include all of your work, then make sure it is secondary to your top ten.


Tips for different types of interviewers

Big shot design studio or in-house agency

  • Leave your ego at the door. There will only be room enough for one.
  • Let them do most of the talking. They know what they want to see from people.
  • Don’t use a canned sales pitch. Be honest and sincere.

Small business

  • Show more rather than less. Show a variation of industries and solutions because work at a small business will be varied.
  • Ask as many questions as you feel is appropriate.
  • Really prove that you can get the work done and can act independently if needed.


  • Interviewers want to know you have done what they are looking for, not that you are able to because of other experiences. If they are looking for a Flash developer, they don’t want to see direct mail pieces.
  • Your portfolio needs to be really polished, well presented, and focused.


Hiring managers and interviewers look for the following
  • The appropriate dress for the work environment. A corporation is looking for shirt & tie; a casual design-studio, maybe a collar & jeans.
  • Eight to ten finished pieces. Not twenty; not four.
  • Portfolio pieces that are no more than three years old, unless they are your best work.
  • Creativity in the presentation & packaging of the portfolio, not just the work.
  • An explanation of the business results or the R.O.I. for the client.
  • A “leave behind” piece, a memento, or something by which to remember you.
  • Pieces from a final print run to complement your boards.


What not to do in an interview
  • Do not bring every piece you have ever made, hoping that something will stick. Be selective and know your audience.
  • Don’t bash the work that was done before you re-designed or re-branded. You might be in the room with the same people who designed the first set. Instead, explain how the message or direction of the project changed and how you dealt with communicating that change.
  • Don’t bash other people’s work. It is unprofessional and you want to sound positive, not negative.
  • Don’t criticize, but be honest.


Some questions to consider before your interview
  • What do you think of the organization’s current collateral?
  • What would you have done differently with a portfolio piece if you had more time, money, or negotiating power?
  • Who worked on each project with you, what role did you play, and how did you work with the team or client?
  • What were the results of each piece? The R.O.I.? Did the project create business for the company? Or publicity?


Some final tips and tricks about portfolios
  • Be prepared with three presentations:
    • A thirty-second pitch with one or two pieces.
    • A five-minute pitch with three of your best pieces.
    • A thirty-minute pitch with your 8-10 best pieces. Also, know your top five pieces and have a thirty-second pitch for each, in case time is cut short.
  • Did you do a re-design? Show the original and how you changed the direction or message to meet the current goals of the organization.
  • Use the human resources contact as an intermediary to help you craft a presentation for the hiring manager or creative director. Ask him or her questions about what work they look for, what kinds of work they do, and what kind of tech set-up is available in the interview room.
  • Plan to meet in a room with no computers or wi-fi, just a table and chair, but be prepared with a laptop and flash drive just in case.

By no means is this an end-all post on portfolios–just a sampling of what I learned at Show & Sell. I hope you’ve learned a few valuable tips. Good luck with your portfolio, happy job-hunting, and see you at the next AIGA Boston event!

Matthew Budelman is a Boston-based graphic designer and serves as Event Coordinator on the AIGA Boston board of directors. He can be reached at mattbudelman.com. The Creative Group specializes in placing highly skilled creative, advertising, marketing, web and public relations professionals with a variety of firms. Learn more at creativegroup.com.

By AIGA Boston
Published November 22, 2010