A portfolio is a thoughtfully designed visual selection and presentation of art and/or design. It embodies your ideas, research, innovations, skills, and work process. Like other professionally focused material such as cover letters and résumés, a portfolio is continually in flux, and is intentionally tailored for specific opportunities.
Purpose & Context
When organizing a portfolio, your primary concern should be its purpose. A portfolio is frequently used for securing employment, but more broadly it's an ongoing record of your ideas and their expressions, placed in a deliberate form and sequence. It can be used for a variety of purposes, including self-examination and exhibition opportunities, and in a range of contexts, such as visual lectures or client development. Portfolios are also useful when seeking graduate-school admissions, fellowships, and/or residencies.
As you document your art and/or design, it's important to be cognizant of the variety of potential future purposes and contexts in which the work might be used. This can influence the kinds of images and details that you record of a given work and, ultimately, how the work is presented. For example, a missing detail image of a key element can deflate an important project. Likewise, a portfolio that begins with a prized, nuanced academic analysis of an historic typeface design might prove to be of great interest to a graduate-school admissions panel, an audience of historic preservationists, or a publication focused on typesetting in the 19th century, but is likely to be perceived by a commercial firm as an esoteric project with no immediate practical application. In short, the form and content should match the context.
Form & Content
Portfolios are often approached as a design project, with special attention given to the reason for designing the portfolio. Portfolio formats vary widely. However, for print or so-called "flat" portfolios, which are essentially hardcopy presentations of the work, it's important to choose a flexible format, so that projects may be inserted, extracted, and/or reorganized to correspond closely to the opportunity you're pursuing at the moment. The form and physical material of the portfolio are part of the design, and should be chosen and utilized to reinforce the art and/or design concept and aesthetic. The shape and sequence of the portfolio can also be used to tell the story of how your projects developed.
While developing a unique portfolio can be a complex undertaking, there are guidelines for the process. A useful approach is to consider how you would describe your projects to another person, and make sure that the portfolio follows and supports those narratives. For instance, would including a rough but pivotal conceptual sketch help illuminate the project as it is being discussed and reviewed? If so, be sure to include it. Many people find it difficult to select their own best work, so it's often a good idea to seek assistance from a trusted peer, mentor, faculty member, or career services professional about your portfolio's form and content.
In general, a portfolio is judged by its weakest work, so it's better to include fewer projects and show more details about them than to have a large number of works that is uneven in quality. Also, it's important to begin the portfolio with a strong project and to end with an equally strong one. Avoid the mistake of putting less-developed work at the end of the portfolio: this invariably ends a review of it with a fizzle. If you're using a conventional ready-made portfolio case, be sure not to leave any extra empty sleeves at the end: this gives the impression that the portfolio is incomplete or not thought through. In the context of a job interview, it's wise to bring a relevant sketchbook or independent small-scale drawings to the meeting. If potential employers are interested in the main portfolio, it's not unusual for them to want to see more work, and drawings can tell them a great deal about how you think and visually communicate.
Some parts of portfolios might require text to explain the projects that you undertook (it won't always be the case that you'll be present to describe them, and often they must speak for themselves). This is especially true in architecture. For instance, what was the building's program? What was the site? This provides you with the opportunity to use text, image, and discussion to convey how the project was approached and how it was carried out. It also provides an opening to highlight any innovations that arose in the work process. The visual work should show how you conceptualize and express visual information, and provide a rounded picture of a project's development. It's not unusual to include images in a range of media and forms, such as sketch models and external references, that might help to conjure up how the final project coalesced and how you worked an idea through to completion. It can even be instructive to disclose a point at which you got off track with a project—but take this risk only if the project ended with an exceptionally positive solution as a result of the detour.
Fact & Fiction
If professional work is included along with course assignments in a portfolio, be sure to secure permission from your employer to include it, and be ready to distinguish which parts of the work you authored and which parts were done by others. If a team was involved, this could present a nice opportunity to discuss your experience working as part of a group or studio. It's also important to distinguish which projects are professional and which might appear to be professional but are not, such as an assignment by a professor that references a well-known organization, brand, or client that was developed only for use in a teaching context. Especially in student portfolios, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction, and because it can be awkward for the reviewer to ask for clarification, it's a good idea to be clear about the difference; ambiguity raises questions and can detract from a reasonable evaluation of the actual work. In addition, an assumption either way can backfire: you can either appear to be misrepresenting your authorship and the project, or not get proper credit for an impressive professional design.
For more on this topic, graphic designers should consult the relevant page at the Web site of the American Institute of Graphic Arts Standards of Professional Practice, under "Authorship." Likewise, the American Institute of Architects has a Web page Code of Ethics & Professional Conduct, 2012 that emphasizes honesty, fairness, and integrity.
Digital & Sample
While many employers continue to review print or flat portfolios, especially during in-person interviews, your portfolio should also exist in the digital realm for ease of distribution, flexibility, and as a personal and professional archive. An organized system should be in place for backing up and securing the data. It is increasingly common for employers to request work samples in addition to a cover letter and résumé, but they seldom give much direction about what is meant by "work samples," leaving applicants to their own devices. Typically, they're looking for a PDF of about three to four pages of examples of your work. These samples should not be overly focused on process and project development. Instead, they should be clearly articulated, high-resolution, visually engaging works that reflect a relationship to and/or knowledge of the organization's design philosophy, industry, values, and aesthetics. These samples are intended to capture attention and trigger a request for an interview. And even if the position is for Web design, it is not a good idea simply to send a link that shows your work online. A Web site can sometimes be as complex as a book to review and explore, making it hard for the viewer to focus on what is most important and relevant. Make the significant elements easy to see by creating a well-designed PDF; then, if appropriate, you can also include a link to a Web site within the email message to which it's attached, so that the potential employer can explore your work further. However, if your Web site is incomplete or has weak sections, send only the PDF of work samples. Regardless of the medium or platform of presentation, strive to make a consistently strong positive impression with a clear point of view.
Harold Linton, Portfolio Design (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.; 4th ed., 2012).
Katerina Ruedi Ray, Lesley Lokko, and Igor Marjanovic, The Portfolio: An Architecture Student's Handbook (Oxford: Architectural Press; 1st ed., 2003).
Ram Castillo, What creative directors are really looking for in an online portfolio, AIGA.
Design Speed Dating: Portfolio Reviews & Discussion, Van Alen Institute.
Steff Geissbuhler, Presenting Your Portfolio, AIGA.
Graham Shorr, 4 easy steps to create a beautiful design portfolio, AIGA.