How to Structure Your Portfolio

Man of Her Dreams shop set
Man of Her Dreams (1996) Antique shop set.

Design Portfolio Best Practices Part Two

Designers and creatives seeking work will have three parts to their interview presentation: résumé, references and portfolio. I’m assuming that your résumé, cover letter and excellent phone skills got you in the door. Now you are sitting on one side of a conference table or desk showing someone your body of work.

A lot of portfolios, including mine for a long time, tend to be a mish mash of projects and ideas. I put things in the order of my favorites, or started with the project for which I had the most pages of awesome stuff.

I’m betting that, like me, most people include too many images because it’s hard to choose. You want to make sure that you show your best work, and you want to show range, and possibly growth over time. What if the one image you leave out, is the one image that would grab the Director’s attention, and you miss out on the gig?

  • My experience with interviewing and showing my work, is that most of the time less is better.

Directors, Producers and UPM’s are busy people. The Department Heads are busy too. More often than not, the person interviewing me did not really want to take the time to look at my portfolio, and were only being polite to give it a glance because I had lugged the thing into the office.

When they were interested in seeing it, I could tell that a few pages sufficed for them to get the general idea of my abilities. For example it only takes two or three photos of costumes I built, for the interviewer to know that I am a qualified seamstress with pattern making experience. People’s eyes would glaze over after a while.

Guys and Dolls Take Back Your Mink number
Guys and Dolls, Arena Theater, Texas City. “Take Back Your Mink” number

The Bad News

…but it’s really good news.

  • Just as you need more than one résumé tailored to different job applications, you need more than one portfolio.

Or to put it more pragmatically,  consider the ability to reorganize your portfolio simply and easily, to tailor it to each job interview, when you are purchasing the book. For example a ring binder will always be easier than a bound book, even with slide out pages.


If you are looking for a job in the Wardrobe of a film or theater production, your practical needlecraft skills will be more important than your scenic painting, drafting or illustration abilities.

If you are hoping to work as an Art Department PA or Production Runner – well you most likely won’t need to show any of your portfolio of set designs from college. But if you are looking for a job as a Scenic Painting intern or construction apprentice, that is the time to bring that work, and minimize the costumes and lighting diagrams.

The Function of the Portfolio

People starting out believe that the purpose of showing their portfolio is to display their accomplishments and show off their abilities.

It is not.

  • The true purpose of a portfolio for someone starting their creative career is to prove the claims listed on their résumé.

This is especially important when your newbie résumé is mostly student films or low budget shorts or community theater. The people interviewing you will likely not have seen the productions themselves.

For this reason, when I am doing a portfolio review, I recommend consistency between the résumé and the portfolio.

  • Use the order of your credits to guide the order of the portfolio projects.

When the project order on your résumé is mirrored by the project order in your portfolio, there is a kind of elegance to your presentation that the interviewer may not notice consciously, but will appreciate. It adds to the impression that you are organized, efficient and will be an asset to their team.

And of course, since your résumé is already beautifully ordered by type of project, and tailored to the interview at hand, your portfolio can’t fail to be organized and clear.

Just don’t make it too long! You should have many more images than you use. Those left out of your book (well maybe not ALL of them), can be included in your online portfolio, or used to illustrate blog posts. In the fullness of time, when success means people are interested in your early work, then you will have a trove of less familiar images to show them (if you still want to.)

There is a little work involved here.

  • This organizing paradigm means that you should be updating your portfolio every time you update your résumé. Yes, yes you should.

There is nothing worse than trotting out a dreary old portfolio, with old images from long ago projects, only to realize that the interviewer saw them last time! Also awful is the crashing realization part way through that most of the projects in the portfolio have already dropped off the bottom of your credits list.

So yes, refresh your portfolio with current images from your most recent work.

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If you would like help with your portfolio, contact me.