Putting together a creative portfolio

Emma Knowles, Editor
November, 2018

Unlike a traditional cover letter, a creative portfolio gives you the opportunity to express your personality, skills and talent - here's what to consider when putting yours together

Jobs in creative arts are fast-paced, exciting and increasingly popular - in recent years the creative industries have contributed nearly £92billion to the UK economy, and in 2017 the sector created 80,000 jobs (Cebr, November 2017).

That being said, the creative industries are incredibly competitive, and you'll need to make a memorable first impression with employers, admissions tutors and clients. Discover the different types of creative art portfolio you could produce and get advice from the experts on what to include.

What is a portfolio?

To secure a creative job, or a place on a creative course, you'll need to demonstrate flair and an aptitude for certain art mediums, software or styles. When you're called for interview, you'll be asked to bring a collection of your work as evidence of your skills and talents to accompany your CV. This collection of work is called a portfolio.

Through the projects you choose to include, your creative portfolio should demonstrate your progression, improvement and range as an artist. Sarah Simms, head of admissions at the University for Creative Arts (UCA), explains the purpose of a creative portfolio. 'It should lead the viewer through your creative journey by exhibiting pieces that showcase a variety of skills, materials, techniques and influences,' she says.

Types of portfolio

The creative industries provide candidates with the opportunity to create art portfolios in all shapes and sizes.

'It’s important to think of your portfolio as a statement about your work,' says Sarah. 'Don't be afraid to be bold and appeal to a viewer, keeping their attention and leaving them feeling excited about your creative potential.'

Margaret Burgin, careers associate at ScreenSkills, adds: '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.'

With this in mind, the traditional black folder approach to building a creative portfolio may not be the most effective. A creative portfolio can be presented in a range of formats - through sketchbooks, a website or online journals, to name a few.

Consider taking advantage of the medium you work in to produce your portfolio. As well as showcasing your skills and past projects, you'll demonstrate a creative approach to problem solving.

For instance, Swedish art director Christian Söderholm created The Spotify Portfolio, where he displays each of his projects as albums, and audio presentations of his work are listed as songs. Robbie Leonardo, a freelance multidisciplinary designer, showcases his talents in his video game inspired Interactive Resume.  

A digital element is highly recommended for any creative portfolio, even if you don't directly work with technology - if you're a ceramics designer or jewellery designer, for example. You could create an online portfolio by building a website or running a blog - in doing so your work becomes more easily accessible, can be shared further afield and by arranging your work in an eye-catching, engaging way, provides another opportunity for you to demonstrate an eye for detail and composition. Even just storing evidence of your work digitally could work to your advantage.

In digital roles, such as animator, graphic designer and photographer, including evidence of your competency in relevant software is crucial. An online portfolio is perfect for these industries.

Portfolio tips

Sarah and Margaret offer their insights into what makes a great creative art portfolio, and what you should - and shouldn't - include.

  • Don't be afraid to show aspects of your work that aren't polished. Nobody is born with refined skills, and exceptional talent doesn't happen overnight - sharing your progress in a portfolio 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. Showcase how you're already applying them to your work,' explain Sarah. Margaret adds, 'Think about your portfolio design - don't make it too long. Most recruiters in the creative industries 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.

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