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Portfolio tips pubAs an undergraduate design student juggling homework, classes, a part-time job (or two), a family and—if there’s ever time left—a social life, you might be tempted to move building your design portfolio to the backburner.

Maybe you’re thinking: “Once I graduate, I’ll have more time for this.” Or perhaps: “My portfolio will just come together … it will be a culmination of all my homework and projects throughout college!”

Think again! The graphic design industry is competitive right now, and employers are looking for polished, well-rounded designers to fill their branding, brochure-building and logo-creating needs.

While some homework-based design projects may impress interviewers, a portfolio filled with a wide array of professional examples will make a much greater impression on a potential employer.

But how does a graphic design student build a professional-looking portfolio that will distinguish him or herself among the competition? You’ve come to the right place.

Below are five graphic design portfolio tips recommended by professional designers working in the field right now.

TIP 1: Volunteer in a design-related capacity

“Define the terms of your volunteer efforts from the get-go,” says Julie Rustad, creative director at Tuscon-based 24-7 Creative Solutions. “[Offer something like this:] ‘I will redesign your menu, and in return, I’d like to use it in my portfolio,’” she says. “If the client is happy with how it turns out, this could lead to future freelance work that you will get paid for. A win-win!”

Many a company is currently in need of design solutions for little or no cost. Whether it’s volunteering to reconstruct an organization’s logo, creating a design campaign for a non-profit’s future marketing plan or crafting the look and feel of a company’s web page, volunteer projects will make it easy for you to demonstrate both ability and experience to future employers.

This type of experience will help you experience firsthand the pressures of creating real designs that meet real deadlines. It will also provide great samples for your portfolio and showcase your skills for future clients.

TIP 2: Apply for design internships and jobs—even before graduating!

“Apply for design internships and jobs that you really want, even if you don't feel completely qualified for them,” says Jessica Greenwalt, founder of the San Francisco-based design firm Pixelkeet. “By the time I graduated, I had worked on design and layout for two local newspapers, was director of design for our school's paper, managed the marketing department of our school's print company and worked as a graphic designer for Mad Catz. The portfolio I had from all this experience put me miles ahead of my peers graduating at the same time as I did.”

Amanda Barry, director of corporate marketing at New York City-based Blue Fountain Media, recommends checking out oDesk Corporation and Idealist if you’re looking for a place to start. Both sites provide recent postings for designers looking for freelance work.

Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and apply for a whole host of closely related positions before you graduate. You never know what fantastic opportunity you might end up with.

TIP 3: Keep a blog or website to showcase your work

“Keeping an active blog or website as an undergrad design student is not simply a good practice but a necessary one,” says Matthew Ulstad, a graphic designer at Minneapolis-based Solve. “Learning to showcase, speak to and dialogue about your work in the digital space is as important as anything else you will learn in the design classroom … and it will teach you things about professional presentation on the web that can only be learned through trial and error.”

Collecting and showcasing your work in a place where a potential employer may stumble across it is a wonderful way to begin a portfolio. Most graphic design portfolios eventually end up online so getting an early start only means a more robust display of your collection.

One of the best parts of creating your own blog or website is that you can link it to many places on the Internet. Connecting the URL of your page to your LinkedIn profile, your social media platforms and your email signature may help your portfolio get a lot of organic views.

TIP 4: Practice presenting your portfolio

“One of the keys to having a stellar portfolio is having great presenting skills to go along with it,” says Drew Elrick, a graphic designer at University of Northwestern – St. Paul. “Practice presenting your portfolio to as many people as you can in order to get feedback on how you can improve the pieces themselves and your presentation skills. You'll be selling yourself in interviews, so get as much practice as possible.”

Worried about finding the right people to present to? Elrick explains: “American Institute of Graphic Arts Minnesota puts on a fantastic portfolio review event called Portfolio 1-on-1, which gives students the opportunity to have their books reviewed by industry professionals.”

AIGA is also a great professional organization for designers of all stages to join.

TIP 5: Maintain a network of friends with complementing disciplines

“As a designer, you’ll be called upon for input and solutions in areas you would never expect,” Elrick explains. “Being connected to specialists in a broad range of disciplines exposes you to their worlds, which may prove beneficial when the time is right. Alternately, if you decide to pursue freelance design, you may need to subcontract a writer or marketer to help you complete a project for a client.”

Not only do you want to keep a healthy assortment of graphic designers at your fingertips, but it’s good to connect with people of complementing disciplines as well.

Whether you’re meeting people at a networking event or following industry players on Twitter, making connections with people in fields such as web development, animation, marketing or communications may lead to a job in the future.

It’s worth it in the end

While it may seem overwhelming to think about creating a portfolio while managing school, a family, bills and a dead-end job, remember your end goal. There’s no need to create all of this once, but taking small steps each week can help propel you towards the portfolio you need to succeed.

Challenge yourself to produce enough real-world projects to avoid using any school projects in your portfolio. The more you develop your sampling of design work before graduation, the more you will ensure that your graphic design portfolio will impress the experts and that you will land that dream job as soon as possible after graduation.

Callie Malvik

Callie is the Content Manager at Collegis Education, overseeing blog content on behalf of Rasmussen College. She is passionate about creating quality resources that empower others to improve their lives through education.

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