Top Design Portfolio Mistakes

I've spent lots of time reviewing the portfolios of design students and graduates and providing action points for improvement. During this time, I've noticed many common errors that almost always pop up, but I've seen next to no blogs, books, or articles mention them. Additionally, it seems that universities are either not noticing or highlighting them to their students, despite how frequent they are. So, I will be doing just that.

This article will delve into the top 7 mistakes I've seen in design portfolios. Additionally, I've added some rules I think are worth acting upon in the pursuit of a stronger folio.

Note: The following mistakes, recommendations, and rules primarily concern Graphic Design. However, much of the following can also be applied to other design disciplines. 


Emotional Attachment

Unlike the other mistakes in this article, this one is short and personal. If you're emotionally attached to your work and struggle with feedback, this is for you. 

Stop. It. Now.

When you're emotionally attached to your work, instead of letting the work take the hit it needs to get it into shape, you're doing a slow-mo dive to take the blow instead. Not only does this hurt you, it significantly stagnates the potential of your work. This defeats the purpose of asking for feedback and critique so much that you may as well not bother asking.

You're not entering an arena, so there is no reason to fight back. In doing so, you often deter the chance of honest, valuable feedback. People will not tell you the truth if you snap at them for the lightest comments. They will not be comfortable and honest if they feel like they're walking on eggshells. By continuing this emotional attachment, not only are you making others uncomfortable, but you're also starving the potential of both you and your project. You don't need to agree with what is said, but you most certainly need to relax your guard and listen.

Typographic, Grammatical, and Spelling Errors

I'm no wordsmith or grammar extraordinaire myself. Writing takes me a long time, both to get the words on paper and to refine them to a somewhat decent quality. It's not easy, but it is a skill you need a basic grip on, especially since your entire job focuses on communication.

Not only are there a wealth of tools out there that will spell and grammar check your writing for free (Word, Grammarly, your mobile, etc.), but it's guaranteed you know at least a few people who are better with the written word than yourself. Buy them some drinks, swap skills or favours, and have them review your work. They don't need to be a copywriter (though that would be incredibly helpful); they only need to be better than you.

For the most part, as long as you remove the glaringly obvious spelling and grammar mistakes, you'll be fine. You will continue to make mistakes, and I wouldn't be surprised if I made some in this article, but we cannot be perfect. However, that doesn't mean you shouldn't try to bolster this skill as much as possible. This may seem knit-picky, but studios will turn you away if you leave glaringly obvious mistakes in your portfolio. After all, if you cannot manage the small details, how can they trust you with the bigger ones?

On the point of small details, triple-check all of your projects and every box of text within your folio for the most common typographic crimes. I'm talking orphans, widows, text-stretching, '&' or 'and', hyphens/en-dashes/em-dashes, too many typefaces, too similar typefaces, incorrect kerning, extra spaces and so on. It pains me to see how often these crop up yet how easy they are to fix. If you're unfamiliar with the most common typographic crimes, there are plenty of resources, articles, interviews and videos on the topic. If you call yourself a graphic designer, you should not be making these mistakes.

Lack of Explanation/Breakdown

A good design studio is competent in breaking down the reasoning for a project's design and direction choices in easily understandable ways. They make the ideas seem obvious yet interesting, nuanced yet straightforward. Unfortunately, this is often lacking or unbalanced in the folios of students and graduates. 

To achieve the same result as a well-regarded studio, you need to balance the project breakdown between words and visuals. Therefore, I highly encourage you to analyse the portfolios and presentations from studios whose work you aspire to and attempt to apply the language and type of visuals they employ. 

If you struggle greatly with this, do not worry, you're not alone. More or less everyone struggles to write, let alone something half-decent and concise. The best place to start is to ask: Who, how, what, why, when, where? From there, bullet-point your sentences, ideas and thoughts. Then piece together each sentence without editing it to build the general structure. Re-word and combine sentences to improve the flow. And finally, refine the text as a whole. Voila, you've learned a method to make writing way easier!

Thin Project Showcases

As a student or a graduate, the chance that you have a portfolio consisting entirely of thin projects is highly likely. By 'thin projects', I mean singular posters, coffee shop logo designs, label designs — anything that tends to fit on a single page.

So, how do you counter this? Expand it. Here are some examples of what you could do:

Singular Poster Design: Take the poster's concept and turn it into a campaign. Apply it to social media adverts and posts, invent guerilla adverts, Youtube video ads, etc.

Logo design: Build an identity around the concept. Pull together colour palettes; typography; editorial styles; tone-of-voice; stationary; social media; adverts; packaging; and web design. Show your thinking, the reasons for the colours and typefaces, sketches, technical outline drawings, etc. You may need to redo the project entirely, but that's okay.

A single illustration: Expand this one design into an illustration pack of 20 that could be sold to help businesses improve their visual communication. Then show mock-ups of how to use them: Websites, posters, brand communications, and so on.

If you sit down and think about it, even just briefly, you can find ways to expand on your current work. This will show that you can execute a design across a wide variety of formats with clarity and consistency. In short, you better communicate your value as a designer.

That being said, if you have to force it, it may be worth removing from your portfolio. A blatantly forced project expansion is just as bad as a thin one. Ensure the initial concept is strong enough to be stretched; otherwise, any time spent on it may go to waste.

Filler Projects

These are often sections of a portfolio showcasing specific skills. Unless you're going for a particular role — such as an illustrator or logo designer — do not do this.

A page of logos or illustrations does not show much. Agencies want to see how these specific skills fit into the whole. Think of it as a jigsaw puzzle. A singular puzzle piece makes sense only when part of a completed puzzle. Well, that logo, illustration, web page, and packaging label are only one piece of the puzzle. Studios must see it in action, contributing to the rest of the project to gauge its merits.

As a rule, do away with these unless you genuinely have very little to show in your portfolio. Filler projects should be your very last resort. Instead, follow the previous point 'Thin Project Showcases', and add real value to your folio.

Portfolio Design

Not only does the work itself have to be presented well consistently, but so too does the portfolio. Too often have I seen portfolios lacking the same level of care and attention to detail as a project. Ignored grids, overlooked typography, and cluttered presentation void of rhythm. 

A poorly designed folio can be easily avoided even if you're in a rush, which, let's admit it, is pretty much all the time. You don't need a distinct personal visual identity or be the heralded editorial designer of your generation. You only need one decent typeface, one colour (including black and white) and 2-4 template pages. That will trump spending an inordinate number of hours struggling to impress your viewer.

Another point of contention I see often is that of PDF portfolio menus. If done correctly, these can be helpful for viewers traversing your document. However, more often than not, they are poorly designed and end up clunky and bothersome. Play it safe and remove any menus in your PDF folio. I've only ever come across two PDF menus from professional designers that have been worth using.

Continuing on the ease-of-use, ensure you are hyperlinking anything to make your viewer's life easier. Think project links (like videos) and contact details. You want to minimise every expense of time and energy from your viewer; they should not need to highlight, copy and paste everything to look deeper into a project or to contact you.

Finally, zone into the way your portfolio flows. Students and graduates tend not to consider this vital design element as universities don't always teach it. Flow, pace, and balance are all methods of leading the viewer. Though these same methods are applied, we're not storytelling; we are leading. 

Flow: the steps taken, the thoughts and process involved, that lead to the final outcome; in essence, the journey. The flow consists of sketches, workshops, research, experiments, and eventually, your technical drawings, design outputs, and the wrapped-up project. 

Pace: the speed at which you lead the viewer through the journey. The faster you lead the viewer, the higher the information density on a given page. Pacing depends mostly on the complexity or importance of the information on a page, screen or viewpoint. Practice and analysis are required to learn this skill. 

Balance: The type, density, and application of information. For example, large blocks of text often need to be accompanied by imagery to help lessen information overload and provide additional context.


The most common and vastly overused tone-of-voice is the energetic, shy graduate. It's a submissive tone, often talking about "creative juices" and "passion". There is usually a mention of being a "perfectionist" — a term I often see used by people who consistently overlook important details. Probably something about getting into graphic design because they used to like drawing and colouring as a kid, or something of that nature. They always "love" the work done by the person they are writing to, yet rarely expand on what that "love" is — other than some mention of visuals. They are "ambitious and driven", have a "passion for learning", and want to "make a difference", but rarely expand on or specify what that means. If you are feeling a little attacked, this is probably you. But don't get too down about it; it's a fairly easy fix that will position you separately from all the students and graduates talking just like you.

Here are 3 methods, among many, to fix this:

Forgo all these typical buzzwords
How do you know what the buzzwords and typical sayings are? You research, just like you would with any design project. Simply looking at the website, CV or portfolio of others with the same years of experience as you will do the job. 

Be far more specific about what you mention
If you want to make a difference, think about what that might be. Maybe you are in graphic design, not because you've liked book covers since you were a kid, but because you're looking to use design as a vehicle to improve the lives of others. Cool, but don't stop there. What examples do you see in the world that live in your mind when you envision this? Perhaps it is BIG's '8 House' for its attempt to foster a community within the architecture. Much better. Now try to distil that down into something more condensed and powerful. Repeat this process, and your communication will greatly surpass your competition's.

Establish a more equal footing
Sure, you may be fresh to the commercial design world, but that does not mean you have to be void of any sense of confidence. In any other setting, you are equals, so communicate that. I attempted to achieve this in the earliest years of my career by condensing everything I wanted to say as much as possible into things with volume. I didn't rattle on about when I was a kid. I focused on what the agency would actually care about and attempted to communicate that in the shortest time possible. Again: Who, what, why, when, where, how? By saying lots in fewer words, your words carry greater weight. It also makes you a far more attractive candidate, as the agency will not have to hold your hand so much when presenting or executing work.

Final Note

I do hope that the above advice is not only helpful but also rare to find across Google or YouTube. I am constantly tired of seeing the same information regurgitated by an endless plethora of copycat articles, so I hope this article, at the very least, sidesteps any association with them. 

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