For many creative jobs, to be considered a suitable candidate, you'll need to present examples of your best work that really showcase your talent and potential
When it comes to careers in the creative industries, your portfolio is often just as important as your CV and performance at interview. First impressions are vital and an eye-catching portfolio that shows off your most impressive work is more likely to have a positive impact.
Portfolios are most commonly used in fields where audio or visual impact is important, such as graphic design, architecture, photography, web design, broadcast media and performing arts - although they're widely used for writing and editing jobs too.
With the coronavirus pandemic having had such a huge impact on education and assessment throughout 2020 and into 2021, this has only served to highlight the value of a portfolio, explains Sarah Simms, head of UK admissions at the University for the Creative Arts (UCA).
'This year, with the cancellations of some exams, portfolios are a great opportunity to make a statement about your work. Don't be afraid to be bold - you want to keep the attention of the viewer and leave them feeling excited about your creative potential.'
What is a portfolio?
A portfolio is a collection of your most impressive work. When you're applying for a job, you'll often be asked to provide your portfolio along with your CV or at the interview stage. It helps employers to decide whether you have the right skills for the role and whether your style matches that of the organisation.
Portfolios can come in many shapes and sizes, whether that's a video, a website, a music playlist, a physical folder containing your best work, or even a mix of different formats - it all depends on the type of job you're looking for. While it's good to be creative with the format, always remember that the portfolio is there to draw attention to the quality of the work included, not to distract from it by being over-complicated.
Whichever way you choose to present it, your portfolio should 'lead the viewer through your creative journey by exhibiting pieces that showcase a variety of skills, processes and influences,' says Sarah.
However, institutions are fully aware that 2020/21 has been a really challenging year for students. At the University for the Creative Arts, Sarah stresses that they're keen for you to include any unfinished work as well as completed pieces.
How to make a portfolio
When you start putting together your portfolio, always keep in mind that you need it to have an instant impact. Margaret Burgin, head of careers at ScreenSkills, says, 'An employer will often have a quick look through several portfolios and divide them into two - those they'll look at again, and those they won't. You want to be in the first group, so first impressions are crucial.'
Select pieces of work that show the full spectrum of your skills in your field, including your competence with relevant digital tools or industry-standard software. The examples you choose can usually come from a variety of experiences. For instance, your portfolio may contain work you've done at university, in a relevant placement or internship, in a part-time job, or even projects you undertook in your free time. For more examples, read our 5 tips for getting media work experience.
All of these are valid as long as they show you at your best - although you should always check job adverts or interview invites to see whether the employer has any particular requests. Sometimes you might be asked to show everything you contributed to a single project from start to finish, while other in other cases you'll need a range of examples.
This means that, just like a CV, you should be willing to adjust your portfolio to match each job you apply for. You might want to make particular pieces of work more or less prominent depending on what the employer is looking for. This doesn't stop you from keeping a 'standard' version of your portfolio online, linked from your social media accounts, so that employers can find you at any time.
Tips for your professional portfolio
- Don't be afraid to show aspects of your work that aren't polished. Nobody is born with perfectly refined skills - using your portfolio to share your progress is just as important as the art itself. Sarah says, 'Feel free to include pieces that are experimental or may not have worked as you expected. Documenting the development of these ideas is a great way to show how you approached a task, providing insight into your creative thought processes.'
- Prioritise quality over quantity. 'Your audience wants to see your passion and commitment to the discipline you work in, so keep in mind the skills and techniques that will be required,' explains Sarah. 'Showcase how you're already applying them to your work.' Margaret adds, 'Think about your portfolio design - don't make it too long. Most recruiters have limited time to look through portfolios. You're presenting the very best of what you can do, not everything that you've done.'
- Get a second opinion before the interview. 'Ask someone you don't know very well to look at your portfolio and get their first impressions,' Margaret advises. 'It's good to know how the work you've put together makes you appear to a total stranger.' If your work contains digital elements, you should also check that these work prior to submitting or presenting your portfolio. As Margaret says, 'Host sites such as YouTube can be unpredictable. If you're using one to display your work, check what the site looks like when it's first opened as a link. Your work might appear on a page with unrelated content, which could change the impression you give.'
- Keep your portfolio up to date. Your portfolio should reflect who you are as an artist in the present day. Submitting an art portfolio that doesn't reflect the role you're applying for, or hasn't been updated in a long time, looks unprofessional. Regularly updating your portfolio will show you're constantly developing your skills, take pride in your work and are committed to working in the industry.
- Don't rely solely on a web-based portfolio. If your portfolio exists on a website - whether it's a gallery of photographs or a YouTube channel - always have physical or digital back-up copies, just in case there are any technical issues with internet connections or broken links when you come to show your work to an employer.
Find out more
- Discover how to get a creative job.
- Explore the courses on offer at UCA.
- Learn more about creative online student portfolios at Createxplore.