Written by Creative Lives in Progress
Illustration by Dionne Pajarillaga

A guide to creating your PDF portfolio

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Applications for creative roles will often require you to have a portfolio of sorts; and today, that can take many forms – from social media profiles to printed objects. In this guide, we’ll be focusing on the trusty PDF portfolio – a condensed and curated version you’ll need for job applications. Here’s what to include, how to make the edit, and some all-important details for curating a great PDF portfolio.

What is a portfolio?

A portfolio is a printed or digital document that showcases your best work. Used predominantly when applying for a job or internship, your portfolio is considered to be just as important as your CV and cover letter.

Portfolios can vary across different disciplines. For example, those working in film and animation might opt for an online showreel, whereas photographers might prefer a large-scale, printed portfolio that shows off their images.

While your work should speak for itself, when done well, your portfolio could also be considered a project in itself, or even an extension of your practice.

How is a PDF portfolio different?

Today there are lots of different ways to present your work – from Instagram and Behance, to a personal website – and each has its own role to play. For example, you might use your Instagram account to document process or inspiration, while your website shows a longer selection of finished projects.

For applications, though, a PDF portfolio is usually the standard format. This will be an edited, tailored and well-curated selection of your work that helps a potential employer understand more about you and your suitability for a role. As they are commonly uploaded as digital files, they tend to be no more than 10MB in size.

What goes into a PDF portfolio?

We’ll go into these in more detail below, but generally speaking, this type of PDF portfolio is made up of:

• A cover page
• A selection of projects (normally between five and ten)
• An end page
• Your contact info (including name, email address and social media links)

👋 Cover page

A typical cover page will include your name and location. Sometimes, if you’re submitting a PDF to a specific person or company, it can be a nice touch to opt for a more personal introduction. This could mean opening with a customised greeting like, “Hello Design Studio!”

🗂 Selection of projects

There’s a whole lot of varied advice out there on what projects to include in your PDF portfolio. But ultimately, it all depends on the type of role you’re applying for.

As a general rule, you should only include the work you’re most proud of. Be selective and avoid adding any projects for the sake of it. Aim to keep your selection below 10 projects, and try to balance different approaches and outcomes, making sure the projects you choose fit the brief and role advertised.

If you don’t have loads of experience just yet, remember that employers are most interested in new voices and fresh perspectives; they’ll want to see an eagerness and hunger to learn. So even if you don't have any published or commissioned work just yet, you can include self-initiated projects, rough ideas, drafts or experiments. This shows that you’re interested and keen to learn.

👉 End page

Your final page is a chance to thank the reader for their time. Feel free to add a touch of personality, include a fun GIF, or even a friendly note. You can be the judge of this; work out if a personalised message is something they’d like to see, or whether they’d like it to be a bit more formal.

☎️ Contact information

It’s up to you where you include your contact details, but just make sure they’re easily findable somewhere in your PDF. You don’t need as much info as you’d write in your CV, but it’s good to include:

• Your email address
• Your location, or where you are based
• Links to a website, blog or relevant social media platforms

The last thing you want after sufficiently impressing a potential employer, client or collaborator is for them to give up because they can’t work out how to reach you.

You can also embed hyperlinks in your PDF and export it as an interactive document – just be sure your links are working and correct – there’s nothing worse than realising that your website or social links are broken – or accidentally linking to that tray bake brownie recipe you were looking at over lunch!

Step-by-step: The curation process

It is crucial to personalise your PDF portfolio to the job you’re applying for. This shouldn’t be an entire archive of your output to date, instead you should select only the best examples that are most relevant to your interests and the role.

That being said, it’s not always easy! Remember that while working out what to include in your PDF portfolio can be tricky, being able to curate your own work is not only a great skill to exercise, but is also an attractive quality for potential employers.

✂️ Less is more

It might sound a bit tough, but be brutal when selecting what projects to include. If you’ve worked on a range of briefs at college or university, there will be some you enjoyed more than others. Only include the work that you were genuinely interested in, and that best represents who you are. It can be tempting, but don’t feel like you need to include everything ‘just in case’.

A good way to start making the first selection is to list all of your projects, and then whittle them down to just the ones you’re most proud of.

✅ Keep it relevant

Study the company or organisation you’re applying to, or the person you’re reaching out to. While it’s a good idea to show a variety of projects, it’s important to tailor your portfolio to reflect the skills that prospective employers are looking for.

For example, if you’re applying for a role as a digital designer, show off your digital work! Or if you’re an illustrator reaching out to a magazine, study the types of illustrations they normally publish; if they work with lots of portraits, include examples of this.

🔮 Include work you want to do more of

Your portfolio is not only a reflection of your current practice; it can help you attract the kind of work you want to be commissioned for. For example, if you’ve only got one project with a focus on typography, but you’d like to explore this further in future, include it!

As well as showing off relevant skills and projects, employers are also interested in your passions, and personal or self-initiated projects are a good way to show this.

How long should a PDF portfolio be?

Once you’ve worked out which projects you’d like to include, it’s time to think about how you communicate them on the page. While we can’t give you a definitive number of pages to aim for, there are some considerations that can help you work out what makes sense for you...

📏 Switch up the length of projects

Depending on the projects you choose to include, you’ll want to dedicate more or less pages to certain projects. A response to a fun, one-day brief, for example, might warrant one or two pages. A long-term, research or process-heavy project might be better explained across more.

If you’ve used or developed a new technique that was essential to a project, why not include research insights or tests? This might help communicate your process and proactivity.

For illustrators or image-makers, this can also help a potential commissioner understand how long your work takes to produce – for example, if you use digital or analogue techniques like linocut.

🏃 Pace your projects accordingly

Think about how a viewer experiences your PDF portfolio: How might it feel to go through lots of detailed projects in a row? You want to hold the reader’s attention throughout, so try alternating between longer and shorter projects to help create rhythm and pace.

Think about what might capture someone’s attention first, and what impression you leave them with. A good way to do this is to open and close your PDF portfolio with your very best work. You could gradually build up to a finale, give them an “ah-ha!” moment when they finish on your final piece.

Categorisation, Captions and Credits

📂 Categorisation is essential

It’s important that a prospective employer can easily navigate your PDF portfolio, especially if you work in a multidisciplinary way.

If you’re someone who likes to mix a few genres, styles or disciplines, it’s helpful to clearly label or categorise your projects. For example, you could keep commercial and personal work separately; or distinguish between techniques like digital art and screen-printing.

🧾 Keep captions concise and remember to credit

Your viewer needs to be able to quickly understand your work and the thinking behind it, and this is why captions and credits are super-important. What part did you play and how was it achieved? What’s the big idea?

For this, remember:

  • Use clear project titles, followed up with a short explanation of the work
  • Avoid big chunks of text where a paragraph will do
  • Specify the part you played, along with anyone else who was involved
  • Don’t try to claim everything as your own, especially if it was a group project!

An employer will ultimately prefer to look at your work, rather than have to read lots about it – so include enough information that they understand what they’re seeing, without you being there to explain it. You can always embed hyperlinks if it helps.

How should you design a PDF portfolio?

👔 Choose a format that suits your work

You can format your PDF portfolio in either portrait or landscape, really; it all depends on the images, design and text you want to use. It comes down to what feels right for your work. A programme like Adobe InDesign can be a good starting point here, as it makes images and text easy to adjust and experiment with different layout options.

Ultimately, how you choose to visually communicate your work and personality is up to you, but below are a few universal tips and tricks to take into consideration.

🧹 Avoid cluttering the page too much

Your work needs to be the main event, so make sure your presentation is clear. To do this, you can use any combination of layout options – here are some examples to get you started.

Why not try full-bleed images, or spread out a few on a page or two? Adding ‘page furniture’ such as project titles or page numbers as footers or headers can also help images feel anchored to the page – just make sure there’s not too much unnecessary graphic noise around your work.

📸 Choose your images carefully

Just like the curation process for your projects, be selective about the images you include. Each image should serve a purpose, so avoid including two images that do the same job.

For example, you might not need two shots of the same book from a different angle, unless each image showcases a unique detail.

👾 Check for pixelation!

You’ll want to avoid pixelation on any images, but be aware that big image sizes will often eat up your MB allowance and might be a nightmare to send digitally. Where possible, save images as .jpegs and reduce the quality – not the resolution.

What’s next?

Once you’re happy with your selection, you can export your PDF portfolio and get ready to send it off! We’d also recommend taking your PDF to events like portfolio reviews like our very own or those run by The Dots. This gives you a chance to meet other people, and practice talking people through your portfolio.

Making the selection isn’t always easy, but it will get easier over time. And remember – creating one portfolio doesn’t mean that it’s all over forever! It’s an evolving document that you can keep updating as you grow as a creative.

Written by Creative Lives in Progress
Illustration by Dionne Pajarillaga