11 expert tips to improve your portfolio

What would you give to have the likes of Pentagram partner Paula Scher or leading graphic designer Timothy Goodman cast a critical eye over your portfolio, offering pro tips and advice for improvement? That was exactly the situation a number of attendees to three-day creative festival OFFF Barcelona found themselves in last week, as some of the world’s leading designers, illustrators and artists gathered in the Adobe Experience Lounge to review a selection of Adobe Portfolios, live, over Adobe’s Twitch channel.

It wasn’t just physical attendees who could apply for a portfolio review with one of OFFF 2016’s speakers – 10 online visitors, too, saw their folios reviewed live during the event, attracting eyeballs across the globe as viewers tuned into Twitch to learn from the feedback.

But if you missed the Adobe Portfolio reviews during OFFF 2016, fear not. We’ve gathered 11 of our favourite tips from the sessions. Read on for top advice from Scher, Goodman and a host of world-class studios for taking your portfolio – and creative career – to the next level…

"The blue matches the blue; the purple matches the purple." Six & Five’s Andy Resigner and Ezequiel Pini appreciated Asta Ostrovskaja’s carefully considered Behance homepage

“The blue matches the blue; the purple matches the purple.” Six & Five’s Andy Resigner and Ezequiel Pini appreciated Asta Ostrovskaja’s carefully considered Behance homepage

  1. Treat your homepage as part of the design

“Create a visual system,” advised Ezequiel Pini of Six & Five Studio. Co-founder Andy Resigner agreed: “The first thing people see is the thumbnail. Imagine your homepage as a book. Think about how your thumbnails work with each other,” he said, adding that careful use of colour in particular is important.

  1. Thumbnails should act as a trailer

When it comes to thumbnail images, don’t give everything away. According to Resigner and Pini these should act as a trailer for the work, inciting curiosity and encouraging visitors to enter the project for more.

“I click on a project because the thumbnail is telling me something – but not everything,” explained Resigner. “Crop part of the project, but only a part, so you don’t give all the information in one image – otherwise people won’t click on it. Also, think about designing a thumbnail especially.”

  1. Show versatility…

“Versatility is a good quality to have,” pointed out Alaa Mendili, creative director at American agency Digital Kitchen. “Every client has different needs and you can’t apply the same style to everything.”

  1. …But don’t confuse people

While versatility is an attractive quality, it’s important that your portfolio provides a clear hierarchy of information so that visitors understand where your expertise lie and what sort of work you want to do. “If I want to hire you, I want to know what you’re very good at,” reasoned Machineast’s Fizah Rahim.

As she and co-founder Rezaliando explained, visitors won’t spend long on your site, so you have to quickly provide the information they want. This means thinking through every aspect of your portfolio website, making sure that each design element promotes your skills, rather than confusing or distracting viewers from your work (don’t choose a loud background image, for example).


Graphic designer Jérôme Saidani was praised for the project descriptions on his Behance website, but he was also advised to provide more information about himself

  1. Create focus with categories and titles

What happens if you have two equally strong but very different areas of expertise – design and illustration, for example? “Focus on what you want to do,” advised Six &Five’s Andy Resigner. “If you want to do illustration show that, and if you want to do, say, sketching in pencil show that – but on another website, or in another category, because [when you show everything] it makes me think you’re not convinced on what you do.”

Machineast’s Rezaliando agreed: “Categorise projects. Sometimes having too many different things can be confusing. It’s great to have learned so many [types of] software, but you need to give your portfolio a focus. Also, if you don’t title your work, it can be misleading to prospective clients.”

  1. Don’t use all caps for titles

For Six & Five’s Andy Resigner, writing project titles in capital letters is a crime against design. He advised using title or sentence case: “I don’t want to see titles in caps,” he reflected. “Lowercase is more discrete and more beautiful.”

“Portfolio creation is storytelling in itself,” added Adobe’s Rufus Deuchler. “It’s not just putting your work there – it’s giving your work a voice.”

  1. Every project needs a description

According to Machineast’s Fizah Rahim, every project needs a brief description. “I want to know the story, the client, when you did the artwork and what you think about it. If you don’t explain it to me, I won’t know what’s going on.”

Rezaliando agreed: “Put a bit of information at the top of your post, so that viewers know what’s going on. Then they’ll scroll down through the design, and then they’re more likely to click the Like button at the bottom.”

  1. Don’t include too much text

All the creatives agreed that descriptions are important – but the trick is to keep text succinct. “Try to imagine entering someone else’s portfolio,” advised Six and Five’s Andy Resigner. “If there’s a super-long text, you’ll get bored. Try to convince people with images, and not with a lot of text.”

Karl Taylor-Knight 3

Deconstructed Design’s Karl Taylor-Knight’s biggest takeaway from his portfolio review at OFFF 2016 was to provide more information about his thought process

  1. Show the process

Your final result might be stunning, but without showing a glimpse of the creative process it’s impossible for viewers to gauge how a project was created or the effort that went into it. For prospective clients or employers, this can mean the difference between being hired or not.

“Sometimes you see a design and it has a lot of impact, but you want to know more about the process – it’s very interesting. And if your process involved ink or something organic, it has even more power,” pointed out the team at Mexico-based studio, Bienal Comunicación.

Machineast’s Fizah Rahim agreed that showing the process is crucial for providing context. “I can see you’re technically very capable,” she told Karl Taylor-Knight, founder of Deconstructed Design, “but besides seeing beautiful work, I want to see the thought behind it… Try to elaborate a bit so that people get a sense of connection. They’ll see you’ve put a lot of effort in, in terms of texturing, lighting and so on.”

  1. Tell the story with video too

A number of designers – including the Bienal Comunicación team, Digital Kitchen’s Alaa Mendili and Pentagram partner Paula Scher – pointed out the value of video in telling the story behind a project.

Bienal Comunicación explained that GIFs and video can help communicate additional aspects of a project, while Scher highlighted the importance of video for static projects. She suggested flipping through the pages of a magazine, for example, to showcase your ability to create tone and pace, as well as your editorial skills.

  1. Show typography in black and white first

When it comes to typography, Scher advised first showcasing the form in black and white, as pure type specimens. “If you were making, say, a book jacket, or something about mood, then the colour would be very important,” she explained. “But when you really want to see the typography, then it’s a bit in the way. I know this from when I used to design type specimen pages for paper companies – they always wanted you to put it on coloured paper and it always ruined the typography.”

“You want to see the form, first, and then the layers of how you might apply it, or use it in some capacity, because when you design letterforms they’re usually for some purpose. Start with black and white, and then show colour variations, to give people ideas of how you work, and how to work with you.”

Armenian Lettering I, by Barcelona-based visual communicator Angela Bardakjian.

Armenian Lettering I, by Barcelona-based visual communicator Angela Bardakjian.