Building Your Portfolio

Building your portfolio takes time and effort. It’s especially hard when you’re starting out, since you have yet to land your first client and don’t have any previous work to show. Even so, there are a few ways you can create an outstanding portfolio that will impress future clients. Who knows — you might even make some money in the process.


As a freelance graphic designer, your portfolio is key to getting hired — which means you need a good amount of projects to showcase your skills and experience to clients. However, self-initiated work is often substandard, and doesn’t translate well into real world situations.

At the same time, while you need a portfolio to attract clients, you can’t build one without any working designs. Fortunately, there are a few ways to work around the issue. One is to jump right in and deal with real world clients. For that, you might want to consider working for free. Although the idea sounds counterintuitive, doing so will allow you to accumulate professional experience right from the get-go.

Before that, make sure you don’t use your actual brand name so it doesn’t get associated with free services. Since you’re doing this temporarily, a generic name that’s somewhat memorable will suffice. Once that’s done, let’s explore the different ways to build your portfolio.


Reddit is a social networking service with online communities based around subreddits, with /r/freedesign being a great place to get your feet wet. It’s a subreddit created for clients seeking free graphic design services and designers looking to expand their portfolios. Logo design is particularly sought after, though there are requests for everything, from web to poster designs.

Requesters have to fill up a design brief with as much information as possible before posting a request, and for good reason — a thorough and articulate design brief is critical to the design process. After all, design is about problem solving, and you can’t solve a problem without fully understanding what the problem is. A design brief helps you understand what the client needs, allowing you to create solid, manageable goals for the project.

/r/freedesign connects you to clients from all walks of life. As such, you will find requests that differ greatly in scope. Taking them on gives you the chance to push your creativity and create designs that are rich in variety. A diverse portfolio highlights your adaptability — something clients often look for when hiring a graphic designer. Having experience in different types of projects will help you reach out to a wider audience as well.

Like you, I started out by providing free services on /r/freedesign. One of the clients actually liked my logo design so much, he paid me $150 after the job was done. It was my first paycheck, and really taught me the value of quality work.



99designs is the world’s largest marketplace for graphic design. There, clients hold contests in different design categories, with designers submitting their best entries. A cash payment is then awarded to the selected designer.

Similar to /r/freedesign, you will find many different clients — and thousands of contests — on 99designs. A design brief is required for every contest so you can better tailor your submission to client specifications.

While money isn’t a priority for now, by focusing on creating quality designs, you may actually have a good chance of winning some contests. In addition, joining a contest gives you the chance to check out submissions from other designers. It’s definitely interesting to see how they process the same information and produce vastly different results.



Fiverr is an online marketplace offering services for $5 and up, hence its name. Normally, the idea of creating quality designs for just five bucks is absurd. However, since your purpose now is to build your portfolio, think of the earnings as a bonus.

In fact, Fiverr can be a viable income source for a freelance graphic designer. With Gig Packages, you can actually increase your offering beyond $5 by bundling your services with upgrades and extras. Building a good reputation also allows you to ‘level up’ and gain access to more features and better promotions.

Nonprofit organizations

Since you’re providing free services, consider filling two needs with one deed by contributing your skills to a charitable cause. It’s a good idea to find a nonprofit organization you believe in so you will be motivated to put in your best effort.

However, don’t forget that free doesn’t mean unprofessional. By providing quality work regardless of price, you develop enduring designer-client relationships that will benefit both parties in the long run.


Showcasing the right projects

After you have a good number of projects under your belt, it’s time to start the selection process. The question is: which projects should you include in your portfolio?

The answer depends on how you want to portray yourself as a graphic designer. On one hand, showing many different kinds of projects in your portfolio tells a prospective client that you have a broad skillset and can adapt to different expectations. However, diversity isn’t always great if you’re looking to target a niche market.

In the end, always go for quality not quantity. Clients usually have short attention spans, so every project has to be good enough to catch their attention in some way. For best results, choose projects that convey your personal inspirations so your portfolio is unique and instantly recognizable.

Present your design process

A design is just the tip of the iceberg — there is a lot of work involved during the design process that the client doesn’t get to see. Working on a project usually means performing research, coming up with concepts, getting feedback from the client, and executing design.

As such, you should offer insight into the projects in your portfolio. Doing so inspires confidence since clients will have a better understanding of how you work as a graphic designer. Such insight can be in the form of notes and annotations, or case studies if you want to provide more details.

Mock up your designs

For your portfolio to have more visual impact, consider taking advantage of mockups. To attract clients, presenting your work is usually just as important as the work itself. Mockups allow you to showcase your projects in context, making them visually engaging and bringing them to life.

The best part — you can mock up almost everything with just the click of a mouse. You will find many resources available on sites such as GraphicBurger and Pixeden. Unfortunately, most mockup templates require you to have Photoshop, so you’re at a disadvantage without an Adobe subscription.

If you want to secure the right clients, take the time and effort to build a great portfolio. But don’t think you’ve done — now you have to set up and create your portfolio site.

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