8 Mistakes to Avoid in Your Student Design Portfolio

Let me start this off by saying that I do not claim to be an authoritative expert on the subject of graphic design. Sure, I know some things. I’m technically a professional. But I also personally know at least a dozen people more qualified to write this list than I am. And I am going to express a few opinions with which they may disagree. So the following advice is mine, and it comes merely from my looking back at my own time as a graphic design student and the work it produced, with the benefit of a little bit of perspective and time. Hopefully it will be helpful in navigating you through the pitfalls I failed to avoid. (In other words, I can write this, because I’ve personally made just about all of these mistakes myself.)

The need for negative space in a student portfolio

8) Skimping on Cost

It’s obvious when you take shortcuts in design. Nowhere is it more apparent than your student design portfolio, the thing that should represent the absolute premium of all that you have to offer from your time in school.

By the time you’re building your student design portfolio, you know that every aspect of a design communicates on a nonverbal, sometimes even unconscious level. The feel and weight of the paper, the type of ink, the way the pages are held together and the cover itself—all of these things contribute to your overall impression as a designer.

So when you decide to buy a bargain bin book and have the pages printed at the cheapest place you can find, you’re making a decision that communicates your priorities—and coming off like you care more about a few dollars than giving the best possible presentation is not a good impression. How is a potential employer going to trust you with real, paid client work when you clearly cut corners on what is supposed to be the apex of your own work?

Resourcefulness is a valuable quality to any employer, especially in design. Show that you can solve your own problems to make something impressive on a budget, and it will have at least as much of an impact as anything in the book itself.

Now, I understand that not everybody has a lot of income to spend on their book. That’s ok. The point isn’t that you need to prove you spent money; the point is that you need to prove you care. While you shouldn’t skimp on print quality, if you can’t afford a premium book, show your creativity by making one of your own. Or find an innovative way to utilize the one that you can afford. Maybe there’s a tactic to show your work effectively that’s not a book at all. Brainstorm options to stand out on your budget. After all, that’s what your career as a designer will be anyway: working within inflexible parameters to achieve an optimal solution.

Some of the more impressive student design portfolios I’ve seen were hand-assembled by their designers. Another comes to mind that wasn’t even a book at all, but mounted presentation boards stored in a cool little thrift store briefcase. Truth be told, I’ve even shown my portfolio on a borrowed iPad—which I don’t necessarily recommend, but it demonstrates that you do have options.

Resourcefulness is a valuable quality to any employer, especially in design. Show that you can solve your own problems to make something impressive on a budget, and it will have at least as much of an impact as anything in the book itself.

7) Poor Image Resolution

This is such a simple problem that I’m honestly surprised at the frequency with which I see it, but it keeps cropping up again and again. For whatever reason, graphic design students often try to push an image beyond its limits. Maybe it’s because this practice is more common (and slightly less damaging) on the web. But in print, it never works.

Printed images need to be 300dpi or higher, especially in a student design portfolio. That’s just all there is to it. If the image you’ve selected isn’t 300dpi at the size you have it, either shrink it or find a new one.

And by the way: one of the most glorious things about being a graphic design student is that your work is not bound by the same rules and laws that govern professional work. You can legally use virtually any image you can find as part of your design, provided you’re using it for student work and you aren’t taking credit for or profiting directly from it. So get on Google and adjust those image search parameters. Find something great. And big. And if you absolutely must use an image that’s below 300dpi, figure out how to disguise it. Show some Photoshop skills. (Adding subtle grain can be an effective technique.) Not many things mar a design as noticeably and glaringly as visible pixels do.

And of course, it ought to go without saying that you should never stretch or squash an image outside its original ratio.

6) Too Much Content

Generally speaking, an interviewer probably has a pretty good idea of your talent level and style by the time you’re through about five spreads (unless you’ve completely back-loaded your book, which I wouldn’t recommend). After that, if you’re not going to start showing some unique items or throwing some curveballs, you’re just repeating yourself. Less is more in pretty much every way in portfolio design.

Ideally, every one of the pieces in your student design portfolio should show off something—a skill, a style, a type of work, or a thought process—that no other piece does.

While there’s no magic number for the total projects that you should show, I’d say as a general rule of thumb, cap it at 10–12. And probably don’t go below about six unless those six are either expansive brandscapes with multiple pieces each or exceptionally high quality. (But these are just my opinions; if telling your story requires you to break these limits, by all means do.)

Ideally, every one of the pieces in your student design portfolio should show off something—a skill, a style, a type of work, or a thought process—that no other piece does. Don’t include two posters if one will do. Don’t include fifteen projects just because you have that many. And never put a project in your book just because you can’t decide what to cut. Design is decision-making. If you can’t make the decision on what to even include in your book for an interview, what does that say of your ability to make the decisions the job itself will require of you?

5) Not Knowing Your Strengths

You probably did at least a few illustration or art projects in school, and it can be very tempting to use those projects to pad your book—especially if they turned out well. But be cautious, and objective. As a graphic designer, don’t try to be an illustrator unless you can show how your illustration skills can benefit a potential employer or client in at least somewhat realistic projects. That gritty portrait of Brad Pitt in Fight Club may be really cool, but it’s extremely unlikely that any entry-level job in the real world would call for a similar piece of illustration. Show that stuff online, where its audience is, not in your book.

It’s also a good idea to look around at the other similar work out there and ask yourself whether your abilities stack up or offer something unique compared to to the field. Any designer should be able to use Photoshop and the pen tool adequately. If you’re showing illustration, make sure you’re offering something more than that, and in a plausible context.

If you’re applying for a graphic design job, showcase your skills as they relate to graphic design.

Likewise, you may be a killer photographer, but this isn’t a photo book; it’s your portfolio. Use your photography in a way that shows off your skills behind the lens and in the context of a well-designed layout.

And of course wedding invitations are by definition generally very visually appealing, but be sure that if you include some that you made in your book, they demonstrate your own abilities as a graphic designer and not just your skill at Pinterest.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t show extracurricular skills, or that you shouldn’t let your personal style show through. By all means, do! The more tools in your toolbox, the more valuable you are as a potential employee, and your style is one of the things that may set you apart from other candidates. But utilize your photography, illustration and whatever other abilities in a way that clearly demonstrates your versatility and usefulness as a designer—not just your technical prowess in a non-design field.

In short, if you’re applying for a graphic design job, showcase your skills as they relate to graphic design.

4) Not Proofreading

I cannot overemphasize this point: spellcheck is not good enough. Not by a long shot, and for many, many reasons. Yes, you should still use it. But you shouldn’t rely on it to do the whole job for you.

For one thing, spellcheck doesn’t pick up words spelled correctly but in the wrong context. (My favorite example of the inadequacy of spellcheck: it doesn’t know the difference between faces and feces.)

For another, spellcheck might not recognize common punctuation errors, or distinguish between homonyms like “there,” “their” and “they’re.” (I was once at a senior exhibition where a student had used the wrong spelling of the same word three consecutive times, all in huge display type. The design was good, but it was hard to take the student seriously after that.)

For a third, you’ve likely got some words that spellcheck won’t recognize somewhere in your book. (For example: names of typefaces, made up companies, real companies with names that are spelled strangely, and proper nouns, including your own name.)

And for a fourth and final reason to distrust spellcheck: you’ve almost certainly got some text somewhere in your book that’s non-editable. This includes text that’s been converted to outlines, rasterized, or simply hand-drawn—all of which render spellcheck completely and utterly useless.

3) Too Many Standard Typefaces (Especially Helvetica)

Stop, stop! Put down your pitchforks. There’s nothing wrong with Helvetica. It is a great typeface and well-deserving of its revered reputation. Let us all give thanks to our benevolent Swiss gods for Helvetica, our mighty salvation. Now go home, angry designer mob.

I’m not saying Helvetica is a bad typeface. It isn’t at all. But I’d consider it progress if fewer students relied on it so heavily.

Students (and many professionals) are naturally drawn to Helvetica for its myriad positive attributes: neutrality, versatility, high quality and readability. But somewhat ironically, this just exacerbates Helvetica’s one glaring weakness: its ubiquity.

The point of your portfolio is to make you stand out, and it’s hard to stand out as a student using the world’s most generic typeface.

Admittedly, the fact that Helvetica is everywhere is not Helvetica’s fault, and could even be used as an argument for its merit. But no matter how good your work is, it still has to be yours, and Helvetica looks like the work of generations of other designers who were using it way before you or I ever heard of it.

The point of your portfolio is to make you stand out, and it’s hard to stand out as a student using the world’s most generic typeface.

However, don’t make the mistake of thinking that this advice is strictly tied to one specific family or font. Helvetica is only the most notorious example. Too many projects that might otherwise look fresh and outstanding instead may feel homogenous and ordinary when overworked type families are employed. Just like Helvetica, there’s nothing wrong with Futura, Myriad, Bodoni or Gill Sans (ok, maybe there’s something wrong with Gill Sans. If you ask me, anyway). But again, the point of your portfolio is to show how you and your work are different than anyone else and their work—how you personally make a project unique with your own individual touch. And that’s tough to do when all your typefaces are also in every other student portfolio out there.

There’s another reason to avoid common fonts, and that’s the impression that you risk. Design is all about the choices you make. When you employ standard typefaces, you need to be very careful that the decision is to use an old classic because it’s the best fit for the job—and not the decision to avoid searching beyond the easy-to-reach defaults. Choosing standard fonts too frequently or in questionable contexts can easily make you look like you’re just clinging to your comfort zone.

Instead of relying solely on the classics, I strongly encourage students to spend some quality time browsing font websites, especially those that offer bundles and sales, and make peace with the fact that you’re probably going to have to spend some money on typefaces sooner or later. But even without a budget, services like Google Fonts and Adobe Typekit offer you access to a fantastic library of type families at no cost. You should at the very least familiarize yourself with those two services and the wide variety of excellent typefaces they offer. (Typekit has some hiccups when used to transfer projects, but that’s a subject for another post.)

When you employ standard typefaces, you need to be very careful that the decision is to use an old classic because it’s the best fit for the job—and not the decision to avoid searching beyond the easy-to-reach defaults. Choosing standard fonts too frequently or in questionable contexts can easily make you look like you’re just clinging to your comfort zone.

And just to clarify: I’m not saying you should always use wacky, gaudy, bold or even edgy display fonts. I’m just saying, don’t be too ordinary. There are plenty of sans serifs out there more than capable of doing the job just as well as or better than Helvetica. Give your work a little personality.

Of course, it should go without saying that you probably shouldn’t be utilizing the likes of Times, Arial, Calibri, Impact and Brush Script in your book. And if by the point that you’re building your portfolio I still need to tell you to avoid Comic Sans and Papyrus, you might want to either start paying attention in class or asking your school about a refund.

2) Using an Unnecessarily Large Book

The book Flaunt is a fantastic resource for anybody building a portfolio, packed with valuable advice and inspiration. It was in that book that I first read the following adage: the experience level of a designer is inversely proportional to the size of their book.

It seems that students tend to find large portfolios alluring, where pros tend to condense more. I understand the former way of thinking because I was there not that long ago and chose the size of my first book based on the largest project I had at the time. Nobody wants to shrink their beautiful posters down any more than they have to.

But you should anyway, for a few reasons. Remember that you have to lug that book around. Smaller is better in that regard. It also helps if you wind up having your interview at a tiny table in a coffee shop. It doesn’t look very professional to block the aisle with your massive pages. Plus, if your interviewer wants to pick up your book and thumb through it, a large book makes that unnecessarily difficult.

And on a more self-serving note, any minor imperfections in your work are more easily hidden at letter size and below than at tabloid and above.

You ought to be demonstrating that you are not limited by the parameters you’re given, but that you flourish in whatever space is available. That impression is easily lost in a portfolio too big to even fit on your interviewer’s desk.

Logistical reasoning aside, though, there’s another, arguably more important reason to consider a smaller book: designers very rarely get blank canvases. Designers get parameters, budgets and restrictions. We live in a world of letterheads that require logos and contact info, advertisements stuffed full of copy, and tiny screens packed with headers and menus. We are forced to make the most of very little. Therefore, you ought to be demonstrating that you are not limited by the parameters you’re given, but that you flourish in whatever space is available; that you don’t need a lot of space to make your content look good. That impression is easily lost in a portfolio too big to even fit on your interviewer’s desk.

1) Not Using Enough Negative Space

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that your work must be as large as possible. (See previous point.) Or, for that matter, that you need to include multiple angles of every piece you’ve photographed, as well as a view of each and every spread contained within all of the booklets you’ve assembled.

I understand; you want people to be able to see the details. How will anybody else know that every point, pixel and period is in its proper place if you don’t stretch your available space to its limit?

Think of every piece in your book like a movie. Your job is to show the preview. Give enough to get somebody caught up in the world, involved in the story and curious to see more—but not so much they need a soda and popcorn.

Don’t think of your portfolio as a collection of projects; it’s a design project in itself. It should only include what makes you look great. Most interviewers don’t want or need to see every single spread or be able to read every paragraph of body copy (though they will read some—see #4). Decorating a spread just to fill up the space is the visual equivalent of commenting on the weather to fill an awkward silence: it’s meaningless noise.

Think of every piece in your book like a movie. Your job is to show the preview. Give enough to get somebody caught up in the world, aware of the story and curious to see more—but not so much they need a soda and popcorn. Make it the best, most intriguing preview you can, but still just a focused, compact view of the work itself. Don’t make your interviewer sit through anything more than they need to. Your portfolio is a communication piece, and like any other, it should make its point succinctly.

And when you start cutting things, don’t fill their space back up. Negative space lures attention. It focuses the eye. It is poise made visual. It’s courageous. Negative space is a conscious and deliberate decision, and one that is not always easy to make. So not only does it make your design work look good, it makes you look good.

Your portfolio is a communication piece, and like any other, it should make its point succinctly.

Trust me: I’ve seen tons of student graphic design portfolios without enough negative space, but I can’t think of a single one that I thought had too much. Literally not one. Some of the best I’ve seen used well under half of the space on many of their pages.

So at the very least, employ a healthy margin. And at most, cut deliberately and harshly, seeing how little you can actually put on the pages of your portfolio. There is, of course, a point of diminishing returns. But you’ll be surprised how far you’ll go before you hit it.