Before I decided that I wanted to go to school for graphic design, I was pretty heavily into math and science. During my junior year, I toured colleges and learned that one that I was interested in would require a portfolio for admission.
So, for my senior year I ended up taking six art classes (and no science, and more of a blowoff English class) - 3 the first semester and 3 the second. It was a strange schedule, since I was taking the capstone "Portfolio Prep" course at the same time I was taking the basic prerequisite art class that was required to take just about every other course that my high school offered.
My portfolio ended up allowing me a chance to enroll in the school that required it. It wasn't really a design-heavy portfolio, though. It was really art-heavy. I don't remember all of the details, but I remember that they wanted to see still-lifes, they wanted to see some creativity, they wanted to see that I had worked in a variety of media. But overall, I think they wanted to see that 1) I cared enough to put in the time to get a portfolio together, and 2) that I had enough talent to handle their courses and the classmates I'd have interacted with. They're not going to expect perfection - if that was the case you wouldn't need to go to the school!
What general principles can I pull from my personal experience?
- If you're still in high school, take art classes, or design classes if your school offers them. Take as many as you can.
- Talk to the people who run the program you're interested in to see what their portfolio requirements are. If graphic design is part of the art school, they'll have different requirements than if it's part of the school of communications. They shouldn’t make you guess.
- Get to know basic design principles and try to apply them in your work. These principles are more important to a designer’s success than raw artistic talent, so you’ll want to know what they are and how to use them to create interesting work.
- This will probably depend on the program (which is why it’s good to ask), but a lot of programs won't care how good you are at using Photoshop, any more than a writing competition would care about your skills with a word processor.
- See about other classes at your local community college. I took a drawing class there and learned a lot.
- “Creativity comes within constraints,” which is one of the many reasons why learning this stuff in a class environment is great - someone’s assigning you work and giving you a deadline. But if you can’t get into a class, find a way to get those constraints on you. Find a family member who’s trying to launch that thing, or take a look at freelancing projects out there and, even if you don’t bid on them, try to do the same project, just for yourself.
- Mix up your work. Ten t-shirt designs in a portfolio tell me you can make a t-shirt, but unless you happen to work out a really great career that’s t-shirt only, it won’t be enough. Try making a magazine cover, laying out a book, making a logo (and a business card, a letterhead, and another piece of collateral), etc.
- Still-life drawings are boring and hard, but they matter a lot. High school was about ten years ago now, but I remember a lot of emphasis being placed on it. And the great thing about it is that you can do it anywhere at any time.
Remember, your work doesn’t have to be perfect (unless you’re aiming for a super exclusive program). And your first attempts at art/design will probably be bad - and that's okay, this stuff takes time to learn! But if you can show potential and if you can get good at thinking about “why” you’re doing what you’re doing and communicate that via your work and your interview, you should be off to a great start!
To anyone else: please critique this post. My advice is obviously informed by my situation, and could very well be too narrow to advise to others.