Creating an Eye-Popping Portfolio as Your Most Important Self-Promo Tool

In a recent issue of IFD, Ilise Benun discussed the importance of having a professional-looking website for your business. But that's just one tool you'll need to sell your services. Another crucial tool is a print portfolio that you can send to prospects who request more information about you.

We interviewed design master Lori Haller to find out how to create a real “eye-popper.”

IFD: So much is being done on the Web today … so why is it necessary to have a print portfolio as well as a website?

Lori: Samples on your website are always helpful, especially when you're just getting started. People tend to check a designer's website initially to get a feel for what they do, their level of expertise, that sort of thing.

The potential clients who call me for samples prefer live samples, hands down. It may seem old-fashioned, but people still love to touch and feel things, turn the pages, pass the samples to co-workers.

The other bonus of live samples is that when a prospect calls about them, you have the opportunity to talk to them, put a friendly voice to the name, make a good impression, and explain how you can help them.

IFD: A lot of designers create portfolios that have to be sent back and forth through the mail. Are there ways to create an impressive portfolio that clients can keep … so you stay top-of-mind when a project comes up?

Lori: Yes. Make color printouts of projects that prospects can keep, and put them in some sort of folder. You can be as simple or elaborate as you want with the folder. There are many to choose from at office supply stores like Office Depot or Staples.

You can even send your samples in a manila folder with your business card stapled to the outside. That way, after your prospects review your samples, the folder can go directly into their file cabinet, saving them time.

Include a handwritten note thanking them for their interest, and inviting them to pass the samples around to their team members.

Here's another approach: Use an inexpensive 8-1/2” x 11” portfolio booklet that has 20 to 30 clear sleeves, and fill them with samples pertaining to the client's requests. Include designs and formats they didn't ask for, too, so they can see your versatility. To draw attention to them, put a handwritten sticky note on the sleeves of those formats that says something like “I also enjoy doing renewal series.”

IFD: What else should be in a designer's portfolio?

Lori: Include a bio, contact information, list of services, partial client list, and an explanation of the projects you do best. If you don't have a substantial list of clients, just leave that page out.

IFD: What's the most effective way to lay out a portfolio?

Lori: Most people have only about 10 minutes to review your work, so make it quick and easy to go through. Put like formats together. Put your best designs up front, those that are relevant but a little weaker in the middle, and one or two strong pieces at the end. That way, the first and last impressions you leave will be the strongest.

Use interesting colored folders or envelopes. When they're sitting on a desk piled high with white papers, the colors will pop. Make your cover letter interesting. Include a quote, an article, or a statement providing an “angle” for the cover letter so it doesn't read like a mundane business memo.

And keep in mind that creative directors are more interested in your ideas than in awesome samples. If you don't have a lot of samples to show, come up with your own ideas. Include made-up sketches and logos for pretend businesses. Rework something that came in the mail, showing before and after examples. Cut out a magazine or newspaper ad and give it a fresh new look with a snappy photo or better font treatments.

Prospective clients want to see how you think – how you use typefaces, color, organization, and clarity. And you can show all of these things in a simple manila folder for very little cost!

The main thing to remember is that Web samples and physical portfolios are tools. Use both of them to promote yourself. And make sure both are of the highest quality so you show yourself at your best.

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Published: May 4, 2006

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