Portfolio adviceWhether you’re a graphic designer or photographer, your portfolio is your best sales tool; so it only makes sense to make your portfolio the very best it can be. In 20+ years of being in the design business, I’ve seen some really great portfolios that left a long-lasting impression, and enough bad ones to pave a freeway with.

There are no set rules to arrive at a successful portfolio, but here are some sure-fire ways to set it on the right path. These tips apply mostly to a Web-based portfolio, but most also apply to a print version as well.

Your portfolio exists to show off your work

Put your work front-and-center. If I have to click more than 2 links to view your work, you’ve probably lost me already. If you got that first part right, don’t kill the momentum by forcing me to bust-out a pair of binoculars to actually see the images.

The number one mistake I see on most portfolio sites is that the designer spends a ton of time creating a fantastical site, loaded with bells and whistles – but images of their work are contained in a preview image the size of a postage stamp; only accessible after navigating a maze of fancy Flash navigation.

It may be obvious to you that the image is of an oversized brochure with beautifully set type and gorgeous imagery, but to me it looks like a CD cover your 5-year old daughter made with finger paint at school yesterday.

Portfolio advice

Postage stamp sized images aren't cool, they're worthless and stupid

I can count to seven

There’s a reason phone numbers are seven digits – that’s how many the average person can “consume” at a time. It’s also a nice number of pieces to have in your portfolio. Any less than that will leave me thinking you’re lazy or a n00b. Any more than that and I’ll surely find something that totally sucks and quickly move on.

Seriously. Limit the number of pieces you show off to your very best.

If you happen to have only one awesome client, consider breaking this rule and showing me an entire campaign for the same client/product, etc. Any idiot can come up with ONE great looking ad. Show me that you can take a great idea and make three of four print ads, a billboard, a poster, a direct-mail piece and a TV commercial out of the same idea and I’ll be impressed.

K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid!)

Don’t build your portfolio site in Flash. The purpose of the portfolio is to show off your work, not be the work itself. I’m sure you have mad Flash skillz, but I really don’t want to battle through it to see your logo design work, know what I mean? Stick with standard HTML to avoid browser issues. Subtle Javascript is fine, but I don’t want to be sea-sick after viewing your portfolio.

Avoid Google Adsense, Text-Link-Ads, and any other form of advertising. I’m not here to make you rich, I’m here to see if you can make ME rich… get it?

Keep the font-count low (two fonts is ideal, three if you can work it in creatively). A rainbow of a color palette doesn’t impress me, even if they all compliment each other; stick with two or three colors at most. And finally, make the navigation simple. SIMPLE!!! I expect the navigation to be at the top (horizontally) or down the left side (vertically). If you make me look elsewhere, I’m surfin’ on over to ESPN.COM to catch-up on the latest scores.

I don’t care about your last visit to Starbucks

Avoid making your portfolio site anything more than a portfolio. If I hire you, you can share your Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Last.fm and Google Buzz address with me during your first department meeting – that way we both have something interesting to do for that hour. This kind of falls under the above K.I.S.S. tip. I’m easily distracted, if you give me a whole lot of things other than your work to look at, I probably will. Then my boss will catch me and I’ll be ticked-off and not hire you because of it.

Tell it like it is

What the heck am I looking at? I look at some images and wonder if it’s a bookmark or a billboard. I’m not a freaking rocket scientist. Tell me what I’m looking at. Who was the client? What were they selling?

Who the heck are you?Portfolio advice

You can’t believe how many times I’ve seen a printed portfolio where the designer or photographer neglected to put their contact info INSIDE the portfolio. Yeah, they left a business card or resume with the receptionist, but she was in a bad mood and threw them away 5-minutes after you walked out the door.

Put your contact info and your resume in the portfolio itself. On your portfolio Web site, make sure you have your contact info at the bottom of every page – I don’t want to go on a safari to find the elusive designer!

To summarize: Don’t be clever

My final bit of advice is to NOT be clever with your portfolio. If you follow the advice above, your work should be front-and-center, not the portfolio itself. Sure, those metal portfolio cases that require a degree in engineering to open are cool, but I’m probably in a hurry and I’ll end up using it as a make-shift plate warmer next month when I get around to looking at it.

I’m not saying you should use those “I just graduated from design school” black portfolio cases; a custom-made portfolio book is almost necessary to stand out, but don’t get ridiculous. A nicely-bound booklet from Kinkos is often times enough. This is your main sales piece, don’t be afraid to spend a little money on it. If you’re relying on a Web portfolio, don’t use one of those el-cheapo HTML templates – build the site yourself or pay someone else to do it.

If you’re not proud of your own work and don’t really need a job, feel free to ignore my advice. But if you want a successful portfolio and you have the work to put in it, be sure you make it simple, make it easy, and make it bigger. Remember, I’m blind and easily distracted.