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  • Writer's pictureAshley | BFA, Graphic Designer

What a Graphic Designer's Portfolio Says About Them (Part 2)

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

What does a designer's portfolio tell you? And how can you know from a portfolio if a designer is the right fit for you? This is part 2 in the 4-part series How to Confidently Pick the Right Graphic Designer.

It can feel overwhelming to pick a graphic designer to help with your design needs. It seems like everyone is a graphic designer now, but when you need a pro you can rely on and trust, how can you confidently pick one with the right skillset and experience?


As an experienced graphic designer myself, I’m here to give you some clarity!


With a lack of professional or regulatory oversight of the design industry (meaning, literally anyone can call themselves a "professional graphic designer"), it can be hard for someone with no creative training to distinguish between the legitimate pros and the amateurs. My previous post discussed different types of design education, but this post is about the visuals and how to turn something as subjective as a portfolio into an objective set of criteria. Because ultimately, when other factors have been considered (like price, availability, and turnaround time) the designer you choose will be selected based on whose portfolio you like best.


So with that introduction, buckle up, grab some snacks, keep a notebook handy, and save this post to come back to. Here's my second tip to help you determine if a designer is right for you:


Tip #2: Analyze their portfolio


First things first, why does a portfolio matter? A portfolio allows you to crosscheck what a designer says about him- or herself with what they can actually produce. In addition to visually verifying skill and talent, a portfolio allows you to see what a designer specializes in, determine if you like their aesthetic, and makes it more likely that you'll hire the right fit for your design needs.


When my mom was getting married she hired a photographer who showed off a portfolio with beautiful images and came with a recommendation from a mutual friend. But when my mom received her photos after the big day she was heartbroken to discover they looked cheap and awful. After confronting the photographer, the photographer admitted she had no experience and tried to pass off other people's work as her own. She justified herself by explaining that she didn't have her own portfolio yet and had compiled images she liked as inspiration—something she conveniently left out during their initial meeting. On the surface it seemed like a safe choice—the "photographer" had a beautiful portfolio and was recommended—but perhaps this whole kerfuffle could have been avoided had my mom known what to ask, how to analyze a portfolio, and what red flags to watch out for.


Hopefully this series can teach you how to vet designers so that you can confidently hire a professional and avoid disasters (unlike like my mom). While you might not care who makes your Christmas cards, it's essential to thoroughly vet a graphic designer you 1) want to work with over the longterm, 2) one who will create projects with a long life span (like a logo or website), or 3) one who is designing something that's expensive to produce or change (like packaging, event signage, or your visual brand identity).


Last thing before we get into the meat—all of the design examples in this post (both good and bad) are my own work, which means I'm bashing and complimenting myself, no one's feelings were hurt, and no one's ego was stroked. As embarrassing as some of these are, they're all projects I worked hard on and was proud of... at some point! Showing some of my early work also proves how much of a difference my BFA made in my design abilities (yet another plug for my last blog post).


Okay, now here we go...


Before you can analyze anything, does the designer actually have a portfolio?

Any legitimate graphic designer will have a portfolio that is readily and easily accessible because 1) a portfolio is necessary to get hired, 2) an online portfolio is now expected as the norm, and 3) it's a major hassle to email custom compilations of one's portfolio to individuals. Surprisingly, I've come across many amateur designers without portfolios altogether, or who expect potential clients to provide their email, make an account, or request access to view their projects—which is inconvenient and less-than-ideal for all parties. So to save yourself the hassle, decide now to only consider a designer with an online portfolio, who doesn't overcomplicate things, and who is confident enough in their design skills to publicly display their work.


So once you've found a designer who has a portfolio to review, here's how to analyze it, what to look for, and what it all means.


Step one is to do an overview of the portfolio as a whole:


First, scan through the portfolio to get a sense of it in its entirety. Don't click on any of the projects or read about them just yet. While you scan through, ask yourself these questions:



Are all of the projects of consistent quality?

A portfolio is not a record of every project a designer has worked on, but a selection of work he or she feels accurately represents their skill. Regardless of the quantity of work, number of degrees, or years of experience, quality always tops quantity. Don't assume that a portfolio packed to the brim with projects means a designer is experienced and therefore right for you. Instead, the most important factor to consider when reviewing a portfolio is high quality design that is consistent from project to project.


Now how exactly do you judge whether a design is low or high quality, and determine whether or not a portfolio is consistent when each project looks different? Let's go over a few criteria to consider and then practice reviewing 3 example portfolios.


To gauge the quality of a design ask these questions:

  • Does the work look like it was created by a kid, experienced designer, or someone in-between?

  • If you could buy design services at any store, which quality of store would you expect to find this portfolio? The Dollar Store? Target? Tesla?

  • Do the images themselves look professional, clear, and provide enough context to understand what the project is?

To gauge the consistency ask these questions:

  • Does the work look like it was all designed by the same person?

  • Do all the projects look like the same amount of effort and detail were applied?


To put this new knowledge to the test, take a look at this example portfolio from Designer A. How would you rate the quality? What about the consistency? Once you've had a chance to analyze it yourself scroll down to read my analysis. (Click on any image to expand it for a closer view.)


My critique of Designer A: This designer creates low quality work, and each piece is consistently bad. The work is chaotic, unrefined, and messy. There is no obvious focal point within a design and legibility is a big issue. I'd assume this is all student work or fake projects shown in an attempt to make it look like this designer has more experience or a more impressive body of work. Judging by the quality, execution, and presentation, Designer A clearly has very little (if any) professional design training. The projects are all concepts (vs. finished work), digital mockups with little context to communicate what they are (vs. photographs of actual printed work in use), and feature poor quality images and filler text. What in the heck is that blue nature image supposed to be? (I literally made it and I don't even know...) And would you have guessed the last image is supposed to be a magazine spread?


(As a side note—this is all unfortunate work I made as a teenager in my very first college art classes, thankfully before I was accepted into the BFA program.)


 

Here's another portfolio, this time from Designer B. Is the quality low, medium, or high? And is the quality consistent from project to project?


My critique of Designer B: The quality of this portfolio is very inconsistent, even within single projects. For example, the Mr. Monocle figurine itself demonstrates excellent craftsmanship, but the box design is dated, boring, and the execution is subpar (there's literally a piece of tape holding the gaping box together). With the exception of The Nutcracker invitation (which is gorgeous and refined) and the Mr. Monocle figurine, all of these portfolio pieces are medium to low quality. Like Designer A, these mostly-digital mockups are missing context to explain what they are (did you know the CSS Zen Garden was a web page?). My assumption about this designer would be that the lowest quality work featured is representative of their true abilities; the fact that it is in here shows me that they consider this as good, portfolio-worthy design. Also including the one-off well-designed invitation tells me the same person is not responsible for the entire portfolio because of this discrepancy in quality. The invitation could have been a collaborative project in which Designer B had a very minor design role, or one in which a pre-made design was purchased from a stock imagery site and slightly modified.


(Side note—this is a combination of early design work, projects from my BFA program, and one professional project made a few years ago.)


 

And lastly, this is Designer C's portfolio. How would you rate the overall quality and the consistency?


My critique of Designer C: The quality of work here is high and it is consistent from piece to piece. The majority of projects were photographed nicely and contain enough information to explain generally what the project is. Those that were not photographed still have a professional presentation. For example, compare the Giving Back t-shirt to the shirt in Designer A's portfolio. Both are actually digital mockups, but Designer C's t-shirt looks realistic and higher quality. It typically takes many years of design experience to achieve a portfolio like this, so regardless of the quantity of projects displayed, I would assume this designer was experienced, talented, and knowledgable.


(Side note—all of this work was created after graduation, can be found in my actual portfolio, and is representative of my current design abilities.)

Does this designer's specialty serve my needs?

This question is to help you determine whether or not the kind of design work you're looking for is represented in a designer's portfolio. You'll come across two main categories of designers: general designers who have experience creating many types of projects, and specialist designers who focus on a narrow design niche such as web design. Neither is better or worse than the other, but your needs will determine who you should hire.


Most designers are general designers and their portfolios feature a variety of project types: logos, websites, t-shirts, business cards, packaging, signage, etc. Portfolios like this can give you confidence that the designer has at least some experience in multiple niches. This type of portfolio make-up is great to see if you want someone who can design and apply your brand across the board. It's also preferable if you want to stick with one designer for all your design needs over time, rather than finding someone new for each project.


Specialist designers' portfolios feature exclusively or primarily one type of project, like web, UX/UI, or logo design. A portfolio like this can give you confidence that the designer knows the ins and outs of that particular design niche and will deliver solid work that's up to date with current standards and technology. This type of portfolio make-up is ideal for those who are in the market for one specific type of design, and for whom technology, features, attention to detail, and quality is of utmost importance. For example, I can certainly design a solid, custom website and I've designed many of them in my career. But if you want one from the ground up with a one-of-a-kind interface, totally unique functionality, fully custom front end and back end, multiple breakpoints, special effects, and dozens of pages, a dedicated web or UX/UI designer would give you a better end product than I could.


Does this designer's style work for me?

The initial portfolio overview is great to suss out a designer's style. Does every project in a designer's portfolio look predictably similar (as if their portfolio is one giant project) and their style is obvious and distinct? Or is there more flexibility and variety represented without one distinguishable style? Again, neither of these are right or wrong, but your needs will determine which is the right fit for you.


Most people, especially business owners, want to be unique. They're in search of design that is their own, aligns with their unique goals and personal preferences, and makes them stand out from the crowd. If that's you, make sure the designer you hire has multiple well-executed design styles displayed in their portfolio. A designer who has successfully explored multiple styles demonstrates flexibility, creativity, and an ability to keep their personal design preferences more neutral. Even if the designer hasn't yet explored the exact style you want, seeing a variety should give you confidence they can come up with something that fits your vision.


Some designers (and artists in general) have a very distinct style, and clients hire them specifically for that style of work. This could be something like monoline illustrations, highly conceptual art, signature/hand drawn logos, moody photography, etc. Absolutely hire a designer like this if their signature style is exactly what you want. But don't go and ask them to try something new. (As a side note—One of my favorite designers with a very distinct style is Noma Bar. I won't display his work for copyright reasons, but you can view some of his incredible designs here.)


Who are this designer's clients?

In general, a designer's clientele isn't that important. But seeing a familiar brand or individual (whether big or small) represented in a designer's portfolio gives an instant dose of credibility, trustworthiness, and almost feels like a personal recommendation. When a designer has attracted a recognizable, established company, you might assume he or she has been around long enough to be sought out, has a strong enough reputation to garner trust, and provides a professional result that businesses are willing to pay for. And it's even more good news when you see multiple projects for the same client over time; the client was clearly happy enough to come back for more.


On the other hand, a designer's clientele could be a red flag if a designer claims to be experienced and a majority of their projects are personal (i.e., the designer is his or her own client), or most of their clients are obviously family members or close friends instead of a variety of businesses, professionals, and individuals.

Now we're ready for step 2, which is to review the project details:

I know that was a lot to get through. Save this post if you need to come back to it later, but if you're ready to move on from the initial portfolio overview, go grab a drink, take a bathroom break, stretch your back, and then let's go! (I'm ready whenever you are.)


Assuming the portfolio you're analyzing has passed the general overview with flying colors (and you're more convinced this designer is right for you), it's time to review some individual pieces and get into the details! At this point in your analysis you'll click on and read more about the projects that catch your eye. Most of the time you'll find more information about a project, like additional pictures, written descriptions, and project dates when you click into the project. So here are the questions you should ask as you dive in:


How far back do their projects date?

If a designer claims to have been working for 20 years you should see projects dating back at the very least half as far. Oftentimes design work done in the early stages of a designer's career isn’t necessarily portfolio worthy, but seeing evidence of longevity shows talent over time and builds credibility. It's also important to see more recent work from the last 1–2 years to verify that he or she is current in the industry. The last thing you want is to hire a designer who was amazing 20 years ago, but is rusty and hasn't even heard of Adobe Creative Cloud.


I once knew a designer who claimed to have 40 years of design experience, which was great... until I learned he was actually in his early 40s and apparently considered toddlerhood as the start of his career. That instantly tanked his credibility for me, and as you can probably guess, there were many other things I discovered he wasn't honest about.


How many projects are real-world client work?

A portfolio may consist of actual client work, personal projects, student projects, fake projects created for the sake of the portfolio, and even unused concepts that clients rejected. It's important to hire a designer that showcases real client work for several reasons: 1) it shows the quality of work they can create in a collaborative setting with multiple opinions rather than the quality of work they can create in isolation, 2) it shows how well they work within constraints (of budget, time, material, space, regulations, etc.), and 3) it shows that people have actually hired and likely paid them for design.


So how might you tell if a project is real-world vs. one of the other types? Well, here are a few obvious signs to look for:

  1. A project is obviously real if you can find it outside of the designer's portfolio (like a website that is live or a logo used on packaging).

  2. A project is clearly fake if it uses any "lorem ipsum" (placeholder) text, features clearly watermarked or low quality images, or looks/feels incomplete. For example, a book cover needs an author, food packaging needs nutrition facts, and an ad needs contact information and a call to action. So if obvious elements are missing, the project likely never made it to the real world.

  3. A project may not be real-world if the portfolio images of a physical item were digitally mocked up instead of photographed. Projects that are digital in nature (like websites and videos) should be displayed digitally, but pieces that are physically built or printed out (like signs, books, and packaging) usually look better when photographed.


Using the above criteria, can you tell which of these are real-world projects? (And to reiterate, all of these examples are my own work, and you can click on any image to enlarge it.)


Some of these may look convincing, but only 4 of them are real-world examples. Here are some of the clues you may have noticed:

  • Scarf packaging: Could you even tell this was packaging for a scarf? It's missing many things you'd expect to see on a label, such as a product description or name. This was a student project.

  • Aqua Globe ad: The images are low quality; it's unclear what's going on; there's no logo, call to action, or contact info; and it's a mockup instead of a photo (compare to the magazine ad above). This was a fake project.

  • Fold-out mailer: There's a lot of information, a logo, call to action, and a phone number. If you're a Utah local you may have recognized this bank. This was a real project.

  • Tube packaging: Did you know this was packaging for a toy? It's missing too much important information to be real and was a student project. (It was also a second attempt at Mr. Monocle's packaging.)

  • Magazine ad: The right hand column ad has everything it needs: a logo, contact info, and a clear message. Once again, Utahns may recognize Hale Center Theater Orem. This was a real project.

  • Book covers: As cool as these are, they're missing the author's name on front (which would make it obvious these are books). This was a student project.

  • Evexia Science packaging: This bottle convincingly has a lot of info on front and more on back. That's because this was a real project. If you search for Evexia Science (or visit evexiascience.com) you'll see that this is currently in use.

  • Website: This is a mockup like the Aqua Globe ad, but this use of a digital mockup of a digital project is appropriate and the computer screen provides context. Once again, if you look up the theater (or just visit haletheater.org) you'll see that this design is currently in use and therefore real.

Did you pick up on all of those clues? How many did you get right?


Do they mention what their role was in each project and give credit where credit is due?

Design can be very collaborative, so it's common for a designer to only contribute to a project in a few ways. A creative director may come up with a basic concept that a designer fleshes out, a freelance illustrator or photographer may have been contracted with to provide imagery, or one designer may finish what another started. Regardless of their contribution, it's a good sign if the designer is upfront about what parts of the project they were responsible for and to give credit to others involved in the project.


Do they talk about their projects intelligently?

Sometimes designers will show projects in their portfolio that aren't really theirs. Maybe they slightly modified some stock imagery that they're trying to pass off as their own, they were the slacker in a group project, or they played a very minor role in the project. A dead giveaway would be in the way they describe the project; specifically, using very short, vague descriptions, or jargony phrases that don't communicate much would all be red flags.


If a designer can clearly write about their project in a way that grants you a peek into their mind or shows you their design process it's probably because they were heavily involved in the project. A description that accomplishes this may include the project objectives, the challenges they faced, the goals, the significance of the colors or shapes they used, what inspired the look, how it was executed, who the client is, when it was created, etc.


Moving forward with confidence

It's surprising how much you can learn about a graphic designer simply from their portfolio. While you can be pretty sure a designer is a good fit for you if they have the right education and a solid portfolio, their experience is also very important and provides a 3rd criterion to crosscheck against. And that's exactly what we'll cover in the next post. Stay tuned!

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