Four Tips for Creating a Graphic Design Portfolio: An Open Letter to Graphic Design Students from FIDM Grad Sara Berkes

Above: Graphic design portfolio by FIDM Grad Sara Berkes. Click the “Next” arrows to scroll.

As a student at FIDM/Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, putting together your final graphic design portfolio is a 10-week labor of love, hard work, and definitely a few tears (or an 11-week labor in my lucky case). You’ll want to pull your hair out hearing “it’s just not there yet” for the thousandth time. You’ll have moments of insanity where the thought of scrapping everything and starting again will actually seem like a good idea (which thankfully your friends will talk you out of). You’ll go from loving a project to hating it back to loving it over the course of a few hours. You’ll arrive at the end tired, excited and probably a little crazy from lack of sleep, but hopefully with something you’re incredibly proud of—something that will earn you a presentation full of smiles and nods and “great”s. Then, it will all have been worth it: you’ll walk out of FIDM feeling like you earned it, and like you’re ready to take on whatever comes your way.

Then, it will all have been worth it: you’ll walk out of FIDM feeling like you earned it, and like you’re ready to take on whatever comes your way.

Skateboard design concept by FIDM Graphic Design Grad Sara Berkes.

Skateboard design concept by FIDM Graphic Design Grad Sara Berkes.

I entered FIDM with an English degree and a rudimentary understanding of design. Over the course of 15 months (I was a Professional Designation Student so my program was accelerated), I learned that I really knew nothing, and that design school was much harder than I thought it was going to be. I spent more hours doing homework than I ever did in my previous four years of university. I learned that group critique is invaluable, but also a little bit brutal, especially on the days you know going into it that you didn’t do your absolute best job. Every class at FIDM, from the beginning to the very end, leads up to Portfolio. If you have a few good projects under your belt, you may enter that class like I did, naively thinking that I wouldn’t have to redo that many projects. I was wrong. I spent most of the quarter—as FIDM Graphic Design Portfolio Instructor Kevin Reagan aptly puts it— “doing FIDM in 11 weeks.”

All it takes is a quick analysis of previous FIDM Graphic Design portfolios to notice some similarities—most FIDM Graphic Design Students incorporate projects from our core classes in our portfolios. These consist of a CD packaging re-design concept that also includes an advertising campaign and product application; branding concepts for one or more imagined companies and the subsequent branding of that company; Publication Design, the creation of three covers and six spreads for three different issues of the same fictional magazine; Logo designs, where you present three logos (either designed from scratch or existing logos that have been reinterpreted) and three applications of those logos on one board; and Graphics and Licensing, the creation of characters and the licensing of those characters and complementary patterns and icons through product application. Some ambitious students even manage to throw in extra projects, like posters or packaging designs.

Publication design concept for "Socal Magazine" by FIDM Graphic Design Grad Sara Berkes.Publication design concept for "Socal Magazine" by FIDM Graphic Design Grad Sara Berkes.

Publication design concept for “Socal Magazine” by FIDM Graphic Design Grad Sara Berkes.

The magic of having most students tackle the same general projects is seeing the variety of ways that these projects are interpreted to suit the style of the designer. For example, if you look at the Applied Branding projects of myself and two of my close friends and fellow classmates Korey Leach and Katie Brooks, you see three completely different projects, with completely different applications and completely different styles. These projects actually represent each of us pretty well. Korey, with her dark and edgy (and soon to be real) clothing company Kruel; Katie with her cute, feminine and still sophisticated bon bon company C’est Si Bon Bon; and myself with my traditional-meets-modern men’s sewing and knitting company, The Rugged Seam. We were all in the same class (taught by the fantastic Ria Lewerke), given the same open guidelines, and we all came up with something that represented each of our design styles and selves perfectly.

Branding Design Concept: Kruel Apparel Company

By FIDM Graphic Design Grad Korey Leach

FIDM Graphic Design portfolio by Korey Leach: branding project for Kruel apparel company.

FIDM Graphic Design portfolio by Korey Leach: branding project for Kruel apparel company.

FIDM Graphic Design portfolio by Korey Leach: branding design concept for Kruel apparel company.

FIDM Graphic Design portfolio by Korey Leach: branding design concept for Kruel apparel company.

Branding Design Concept: C’est Si Bon Bon Ice Cream Bon Bon Shop

By FIDM Graphic Design Grad Katie Brooks

FIDM Graphic Design portfolio by Katie Brooks: branding concept for bon bon baked goods brand "C'est Si Bon Bon"

FIDM Graphic Design portfolio by Katie Brooks: branding concept for ice cream bon bon brand “C’est Si Bon Bon”

FIDM Graphic Design portfolio by Katie Brooks: branding concept for bon bon baked goods brand "C'est Si Bon Bon"

FIDM Graphic Design portfolio by Katie Brooks: branding concept for ice cream bon bon brand “C’est Si Bon Bon”

My Branding Design Concept: The Rugged Seam

FIDM Graphic Design portfolio by Sara Berkes: branding design concept for "The Rugged Seam"

FIDM Graphic Design portfolio by Sara Berkes: branding design concept for men’s sewing and knitting brand “The Rugged Seam”

FIDM Graphic Design portfolio by Sara Berkes: branding design concept for "The Rugged Seam"

FIDM Graphic Design portfolio by Sara Berkes: branding design concept for men’s sewing and knitting brand “The Rugged Seam”

Four Tips for Creating a Graphic Design Portfolio

Beyond what can be observed from browsing other portfolios, I’d like to impart a little wisdom from my own experience. What follows are my four tips for creating a successful graphic design portfolio upon graduation from design school:

1. Stay true to your personal design style

When you’re looking around at all the unique and different design styles of your classmates and friends, it can be tough to resist the temptation to try something new. Experimentation is always great, and helps you become more versatile as a designer, but when you stand up in front of those judges (or future employers) and present your portfolio, you’ll feel much more confident if it accurately represents who you are and how you like to design.

2. Ask for advice

It can be hard to ask others for their opinions. Design is very subjective, and developing a thick skin takes a long time. That being said, it’s nearly impossible to create a fantastic portfolio if you’re designing inside a bubble. What does that mean? That means that you have to open yourself up to criticism, swallow your pride, and ask for advice. It can be hard when your friend or instructor or mother says they just don’t think it’s working, but it (hopefully) will motivate you to look for even more solutions. It’s when we’re at the limits of our abilities, thinking we absolutely can’t come up with any more ideas, that the really great ones happen.

3. Pay attention to the details

You can have the greatest portfolio in the world, but if the color is off, the edges are wonky, and your presentation board’s corner looks like it got in a fight with your dog’s mouth, you won’t impress anyone. Make sure to leave a lot of time to print so you can keep adjusting the colors until they’re right, mount your boards perfectly, and use that suitcase to protect your work at school, at home, and especially on presentation day. There’s no excuse for things not looking as perfect as possible.

4. Give yourself some good karma

Everyone needs help from time to time. Whether it’s a fancy trick in Photoshop, advice on choosing magazine cover photos, or a friend really needing some last minute help printing and mounting a project, if you have the time and can help, you should. I’m not saying you should do anyone’s project for them (never, ever do anyone’s project for them) but when you help someone out, you learn more yourself. So when you see someone crying over by the printer because they can’t figure out the booklet printing function and you happen to have printed 20 booklets over the course of your studies, offer your knowledge. When you’re the class whiz in Photoshop and you see someone struggling with blending modes, offer a tip. Competition helps us all become better designers, but even more than that, I’d say community does. I’ve never regretted helping someone out, and I doubt you will either.

I still find it incredible how much I grew as a designer over the course of 15 months, and especially how much that growth accelerated in my final quarter at FIDM. I went into Portfolio with a couple of projects that I considered to be good, and a hesitation to push myself beyond what I believed I could do as a designer. I came out with a solid portfolio that I feel represents the best of my abilities. I’m still not satisfied with my personal branding, I still see the things I can improve on each page, but I take that as a positive thing. Even though I’m done my time learning at FIDM, I’ve only begun learning in the world of design, and as my teachers have taught me, there are always things that can be improved. Design is never really done. It’s always evolving, companies are always re-branding, designers are always developing new skills, and styles are always changing. This evolution of design is what keeps us relevant, keeps us working, and keeps us learning. I’m excited for what comes next.

 

Learn More…

Would you like to learn more about earning a degree in Graphic Design or a degree in Digital Media from FIDM/Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising? Click the link below…

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Author: Sara Berkes

Sara Berkes is a graphic designer, writer and maker based in Ottawa, ON, Canada. She has a combined BA in English and Creative Writing from the University of King's College and an AA in Graphic Design, which she earned from FIDM in December 2013 along with the 2013 / 2014 Graphic Design Award. When not designing or blogging at Sara Berkes Creative or writing for the FIDM Digital Arts Blog, Sara can probably be found sewing, knitting, or hiding from Winter. You can find out more about her and her work at www.saraberkescreative.com

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