Setting up a PDF folio

We often get asked the same questions over and over again at conferences or workshops or our bootcamps. So we decided for 2020 onwards we would put together our ultimate guides for your career.

1. Combine your resume & folio

Personally, I think it’s a really good idea to combine your resume with your PDF portfolio. If you’re sending it by email to your favourite studio, making it easy to find that info when they’re hiring is the difference between being considered and not even being in the running. When we originally ran our Awards, anytime people submitted their resume and PDF folio separately it was an absolute nightmare! FA5_jess_resume.PDF and J_Daly_FOLIO.pdf are very hard to match up when you have 1000 entries. I think a studio would have similar problems when saving your portfolio. Make it easy for them and combine the resume and portfolio into one file.

2. Make it landscape

Because of this, I think your resume & portfolio should be landscape. It makes sense that most studios who will be looking at it will be sitting at their desk, working on a desktop computer. Use the whole size of the screen to show off your work.

3. Use a grid

As with the resume hacks, please use a grid. As a Graphic Designer and someone who’s job it is to organise type on a page, this is a no brainer. I’m always amazed at the number of people applying for graphic design jobs without a grid on their PDF folio. The grid doesn’t have to be complicated; a simple four-column grid that you can take across to your resume page as well is an easy way to tie your resume and portfolio together.

4. Put images front and centre

When setting up your grid, draw a massive grey box on the page for where your images will sit. It should take up 80%– 90% of the page. As a graphic designer, you’re a visual genius and you need that space to show off your brilliant work. The typography and page navigation should be very secondary to the images. It makes me sad looking at folios with tiny images – you can’t see the type detailing, beautiful hierarchy, the hand made mock-ups. Don’t forget PDF’s compress images too, so you will lose further details that way. Make it easy for people to fall in love with your work – impressive big images are great!

5. Limit your images

4–6 images is a good amount to show off each project. You don’t want 15 images that are showing the same thing, you’re folio will be too long and convoluted. I would have one hero image, and the rest slightly smaller. For example, if it’s tea packaging, the hero image might be the front of the box. Do another mockup with three boxes with different flavours, one with a cup of tea from above where you design the tag, another one with the pile of tea leaves and a branded coaster, and then maybe flat graphics of a pattern, and one of the brand. You’re trying to use the images to tell the story of your new design and all the roll out my images should be different enough to tell that story. Be strict with yourself and cull images that are too similar. Pick the strongest one and move forward – it’s better to have less than more.

6. Keep it simple

Your folio design should be minimal so that the description text and your branding is not conflicting with your work. The best backgrounds for the page are white, black or grey. Imagine a fluro pink page and your project is a muted green and orange. The pink and green and orange are going to clash badly and what would have been a beautiful design project now looks like a bit of a car crash!! Putting the same design on a crisp white background and keeping it simple will show off your work to its best ability. Same with typography – don’t use display fonts to describe your work, you need something simple that will be invisible in the background.

7. Give context

When it comes to descriptions of your work, pretend that the person reading your PDF is not with you. Include: the title of the project, the context in which it was designed (a university project, a personal project, a client brief etc) and when it was designed (month/year is fine). The content is important because it sets the scene for your design restrictions – if the design solution is quite commercial but it was a client brief, it makes sense because it was a real-world project. If it’s a self-initiated, you can push the boundaries more and flex those design muscles. Same with the date – was it designed in the ’90s or was it designed in 2018 ironically to look like it was designed in the ’90s? It’s good to include captions if you need to explain what things are, or even better mock them up so it’s clear. For example, a billboard shown as a flat graphic might look like a flyer. If you’re an experienced designer, you will design the billboard to have quite chunky type to be seen from a distance, whereas a flyer the type would be smaller and crafted so it’s important to explain the context of your design. The main description of the project should include the problem you are solving and how you came to your solution. Don’t waffle on and try not to include personal preferences. Eg I like orange. Instead, say traditionally purple is overused within the chocolate market so I choose to use orange to stand out. Writing in the third person is also a nice way to distance your personal opinion from the solution of the project.

8. Your email is your cover letter

I always get asked about cover letters. Cover letters are more of a corporate invention and not used as much in the design industry. If you’re applying for a small studio role, it’s a lot more casual approach. It might just be the owner, a midweight and the studio dog so you can keep it pretty chill. The email becomes your cover letter – just reaching out saying something nice about the studio, telling them you exist and what you like (keep this to two sentences, not 6 paragraphs!) and attach your folio. It’s also worth linking your website because some studios bookmark websites, and some will archive your PDF for later so it’s good to have both bases covered.

9. Tailor your folio for each job application

It is important to consider the types of projects you are including and tailor your work to the job you are applying for. I have my work page templated in Indesign, with the image grid and the description template. I then layout each project I’ve done so my folio is maybe 25 projects long. Then when it comes to applying for a job – let’s say a packaging role – I can go through the design file and write down all the pages with packaging work on it; 3, 4, 9, 17 and 21, and export just those pages with my resume. It takes 2 seconds and you don’t have to redo anything each time you apply for a different job.

10. Keep it short & sweet

I always get asked how many projects should you include. If it’s a short PDF portfolio teaser that you can send that to studios, I would say a maximum of 5 projects. This means you’re showing off your best work, but you’re still holding other projects back for the actual interview. In the main interview, I would show 8 – 12 projects. To be honest, the studio has already decided within the first few if they like you or not, so showing 40 projects will not win them over! Keep it short and sweet and showing off your best work is the best way forward. Don’t forget you’re only as good as your worst project, so the least amount of projects you have, the higher your average will be!

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