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Creating a Graphic Design PDF Portfolio

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These days, it seems like every designer has a website to showcase their work. While online portfolios certainly are effective, they are expensive to develop, require technical knowledge, and can be extremely time consuming to create and maintain. Additionally, they are not always the best option to showcase print work, and they may display differently from browser to browser and computer to computer.

An excellent alternative is a graphic design PDF portfolio. Many graphic software programs, such as InDesign and Illustrator, have the option of exporting a design as a PDF. This allows the designer to create a custom brochure-style piece showcasing their best work, which can be emailed to prospective clients or employers.

Selecting Work

As with any portfolio, perhaps the most important decision is what design work to include. Think about what types of projects you are looking for. If you have a specific focus, such as book design, select your best work in that area. If you are early in your career and don’t have a focus (or don’t want one), choose your best work across the board. It is ok if you only have design school projects or personal projects to showcase. The work itself, and not necessarily a client or publication name, can impress just as well. However, if you do have some “real-world” design experience you are proud of, include that as part of your portfolio.

Remember that the goal here is not to show everything you have ever done. Stick with a “less is more” philosophy, choosing a small selection of your favorite work. Each piece should serve a purpose, showcasing a particular style, technique or industry.

Content to Include

Before getting into the design, create an outline of what to include in your PDF portfolio. For each piece of design you have chosen, consider adding:

  • Client name and industry
  • A project description
  • Your role in the project, such as designer or art director
  • Where the work appeared
  • Any awards, publications or recognition related to the project

Along with the project features, the portfolio can include:

  • A cover letter, bio, mission statement or other background information
  • Contact information
  • Client or industry list
  • Services offered by the designer or firm

Consider hiring or teaming up with a professional writer to help prepare your content, as it will be the voice of your portfolio. If you need your pieces photographed, also consider a professional. Once you have prepared the content, it is time to move on to the design phase.

The Design

Treat the design like you would any project for a client. Come up with several designs and tweak them until you are happy with the result. Create a consistent layout and style throughout. Using the grid system may be helpful here. Remember that the design of the PDF itself is just as much a showcase of your talent as the work within it.

You can use your favorite graphics software to create the initial design, and turn it into a PDF later. InDesign and Quark are great options for creating a multi-page layout, and Illustrator would work well for graphic and text-heavy freeform layouts. Think of the flow of content…start with a quick overview, and then go into project examples with all of the content you came up with earlier. Try using several images per project, and be sure your contact info is very easy to find.

Creating the PDF

Once your design is complete, you can export it to PDF out of many programs. Be sure to save the original file so you can add and edit projects later. One thing to think about here is file size, as you will be emailing this often. Play around with the compression options in your software until you reach a happy medium between quality and file size. You can also use Adobe Acrobat Professional to piece together several pages of design (in many formats) and to reduce the size of the final PDF.

Using the PDF

Now that you have a portfolio in PDF format, use it! Potential employers and clients will want to see your work and you can email the PDF directly to them, skipping the need for them to visit a website. Since it is a standard supported file format, you don’t need to worry about people not being able to view it. You can also print the PDF and bring it to meetings, especially when you won’t have computer access. As long as you keep it up-to-date with your strongest work, a graphic design PDF portfolio is sure to be a powerful marketing tool for your design business and goals.

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