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I am a relatively recent graphic design graduate. I have been working at a small printing house for about two years, but will soon be interviewing for a different position in another city.

My question is about what to include in my design portfolio. When I was in school, my professors all insisted that work included in a portfolio should be 100% original: my original photography, my original logos, my original layout, my original written content etc. However, at my current office, we rely heavily on client-supplied logos, type content, and photography—and stock photography (shutterstock, etc).

What do other designers include in their portfolios? Has anyone else had this issue and can I reasonable include these more recent projects in my portfolio if I label them appropriately (something like "layout design")?

  • It seems like your question is more "Is it okay to include work from a current/previous employer in my portfolio?" and "Is it okay to include stock photography and client logos in my portfolio?" instead of a big general "What to include in my portfolio?" – Hanna Mar 29 '16 at 17:11
  • @Johannes Those questions are both part of his larger question – Zach Saucier Mar 29 '16 at 17:21
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    Hi Aaron, welcome to GDSE! It would appear you have accidentally created multiple accounts. Stack Exchange only allows one account per user on a site. Please go to our help section and contact SE to have this issue fixed. – Vincent Mar 30 '16 at 13:29
  • @ZachSaucier those are very different questions. The first being a different question altogether and the second being way too broad and not addressing any of the specific issues in this question – Cai Mar 30 '16 at 19:01
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Short answer—Yes, include anything you want to show.

Using stock images and client supplied content or material is generally how things work. I rarely complete a project that doesn't involve content from other sources. This can range from a few stock photos to an entire archive of data. This could be supplied by the client themselves or sourced by myself.

Some clients will give you an open brief and let you do what you like. Some will give you a specific brief, supply you with every image you need and give you some very strict brand guidelines to work within.

As long as you clearly label or explain any work that isn't your own—include it in your portfolio.

For example. You worked on a large project as part of a team, you had a specific role in that team and completed specific parts of the work. Include that project in your portfolio with a paragraph or two explaining the project and specifically what your role and involvement was.

Unless you are including the work specifically as a branding or logo design project, don't worry about using company logos not designed by you. No one will assume you designed the logo unless you specifically say so. Company logos are used daily in countless different designs, most often not by the person who designed the logo.

Stock photography probably isn't an issue either. It depends on the work—if you are including something that is based around and focused solely on one image, mention that it is a stock photo. If you include a stock photo in the layout of a large multi-page document, it probably doesn't matter.

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Every time you face a particular piece of work that you've created, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does this particular piece introduce a new skill or side of me that hasn't already been introduced by some other sample in the portfolio? Learning to see this can take a while. As a photographer, it basically meant that you don't need to exhibit two wedding couple photos that are both shot with similar lighting with the same background and cropping, because even though the people in them change, the technical delivery of that work is identical and repetition doesn't introduce anything new, it only bores the viewer. Customers aren't looking at the content that much, it's the approaches, viewpoints, technique and general feel that they need to see variance in. Most people glance through your work very quickly and thoughtlessly, so your portfolio has to get to the point immediately and avoid repetition that doesn't add anything new. Your portfolio probably isn't the only one they're looking at, so if you make your work too difficult to get the gist of, they lose interest very quickly. Catch their interest, and they will spend more time on looking at your work more closely. Too much material, and they'll be desensitized, not wanting to go through it all, struggling to form any opinions at all. It's easier to say "Please look at this picture of my dog" than "Please look at all of these twelve shoeboxes full of pictures of my dog".
  • Is this what I want to do in life? In a way, an entrepreneur chooses their clients, not vice versa. If you have made album covers in the past and it went well but you didn't particularly love it, then don't include album covers in your portfolio. Some odd and very brave customers might still inquire after them and you'd end up making some, but at least you didn't attract gigs that you don't really want to do by advertising yourself as someone who you don't even want to be. What you advertise is also an image of who you wish to become.
  • Why would I exhibit this particular piece? Is it because you made it, or because it took a lot of time to make, or because it's good? Just because you need filler material is never an excuse for dragging along old pictures that no longer represent your current skill level. Portfolios of people who put up everything that they ever made are not only far too much information to engulf, but they give the impression that the quality of their work varies a lot and these people lack any sense of self criticism to recognize when work is good and when it isn't. Avoid forming emotional bonds with your creations: All the client sees is the outcome, and they seriously don't care if you spent 10 years working on a single piece, if the outcome doesn't impress. Select your best work for the reason that it was good work. Along the process of learning, everyone has made a lot of terrible work which is alright. But it's a professional's job to tell practice pieces apart from exhibit quality work.

If you consider yourself a versatile worker who actually does juggle many tasks pretty well, you can make it easier for customers to pick you by creating separate portfolios for different types of customers. Many of the work in them might overlap, but not all, and it can make a huge difference. Think about the types of customers that you might have. Identify what they're really looking for, and craft a portfolio version that tells them everything that they want to know, and nothing more. If someone wants to buy fonts, you don't want to desensitize their receptive mindset by flashing through website designs which just fills their minds with irrelevant clutter.

Naturally, accumulating the perfect portfolio(s) takes time, and it's alright.

  • This is a good general answer about portfolios—I'm not sure this addresses any of the issues the question is about though. – Cai Mar 31 '16 at 18:02
  • @CAI I think the question is quite broad (or just phrased in such a way, not sure if unintentionally), and the earlier comments mainly focused onto the side of the issue concerning publishing rights and the practical morality, so to speak. To not repeat what others are already addressing there quite successfully, I purposefully responded to a remaining area of the topic. – user158589 Mar 31 '16 at 19:00

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