Everyone hates building their portfolio. It’s way too easy to descend into comparing your work to all your heroes, obsessing over unnecessary details and starting to doubt yourself. Don’t fall into that trap. Treat it like a strict brief with clear objectives.
Generally speaking, there are two types of things you’ll get to work on as a designer. The first is stuff that already gets designed a lot: cars, record sleeves, logos, lynx cans and whatever. These are probably the things you got taught to design in school. Designers have been working in those industries for a long time, so everyone involved in making them knows why good design is important. Sure, not everyone is going to agree on what good design actually looks like, but everyone wants it.
The second types of things are the stuff that probably hasn’t ever had a designer near it. Things like phone contracts, plumbing fittings and probably every website you had to deal with in university. Often these things are important and make a real difference to the people who use them, but nobody working on them thought they had the time or money to get a designer involved. For these projects you’re going to have to convince the people involved that design is worth bothering with, that it can help them with the things they care about.
So a really good design portfolio does two things:
1. Shows off your skills and taste.
2. Demonstrates you understand and can explain how your actions made the thing you were designing better than it was before.
Most portfolios seem to commit 100% to either one extreme or the other. Beautiful catalogues of faultlessly retouched renderings, or dry and super detailed stories of processes and documentation. But everyone I know who hires designers is looking for portfolios that combine both.