It’s graduation time, with illustrators and designers pouring out of courses around the UK -- each eager to show off their work to win freelance clients or full-time jobs. The key to both is having a portfolio that shows not only what you’ve done, but what your are capable of doing too.

Here we've spoken to four very successful illustrators to garner what they've learned over years of honing their portfolio, and how you can do the same - great advice that even experienced artists should heed to help pep up their current offering.

Before putting together your portfolio, there are a few key questions that creatives need to ask. Should you have a print portfolio as well an online one? Should you have your own site, or use community sites such as Behance? The first divides opinion.

Ben Tallon believes that print portfolios are essential. He’s an illustrator best known for his work on Channel 4’s Skins, but also lectures at the prestigious Central St Martins college of art and design in London.


Ben Tallon believes the secret to a great portfolio is “flow and consistency in quality”, both in print (above) and online (top).

“It’s crucial for clients to see that you’re passionate, you’re for real and also get a good indication of what your work looks like in print,” he says.

Artist and blogger Alex Mathers holds a different view, however. “I’ve found success as an illustrator without ever requiring the use of a print portfolio,” he counters. “I have received a substantial amount of work via the Internet, and it was through having a well-designed online portfolio that enabled clients to see what I could produce.”

Both agree that for your online portfolio, it's not enough to just use a community site, you need to have your own branded presence on the web for clients to take you seriously as a professional.??"Sites like Behance are great for extra exposure," Ben says, "but it's essential to have your own island on the web. It looks professional, it's your official showcase for what you do and it's very rare that clients will take a chance on you when you're buried under a thousand other creatives on a portfolio site."

Best of both worlds
It’s not a case of choosing between the two, though. Your site is your professional appearance, while community sites can be used to add personality. Norman Mayes of street art-influenced design studio Waste notes that they use both to help promote themselves.

“The main site is built to replicate our brand and maintain a consistent stage for us to show our work,” he says. “While the likes of Behance and sites like flickr are used as a sort of online scrapbook that we update every week with both commercial and personal projects.”

Your site doesn’t need to be a masterwork of interactive design. Your work should be at the forefront and your site’s design should be simple to support this. 

“I use the Cargo Collective content management system, which allows me to update my site in minutes without too much knowledge in web design,” says illustrator Simon Wild.

Rather than putting your time into ornate layouts, it’s more important to plan what you want to show and make sure each individual item is displayed in the best possible way.

“Start by gathering all the information you want to include,” says Norman. “We start with getting all the studio work photographed to give it consistency, and putting together all the copy such as work descriptions and studio history. It’s only once we have all that organised that we develop the best format and layout for it.”

Once you have your site up and running, you need to promote it. All of our interviewees agree that the most effective way to promote a site at the moment is through social media sites like Twitter and Facebook – although, notes Alex, "you need to build up a targeted and relevant network before being able to take advantage of the promotional power that these platforms will bring to you."

Putting together an print portfolio that will really sell yourself is about making the most of your work in the limited time your potential client or employer will spend looking at it -- as well using other tricks to make it stand out.

"I was also always told that the first, middle and last pages of the portfolio should be the strongest in order to keep the viewer's interest piqued throughout," says Andrew Groves, who illustrates under the moniker of Imakethings.


A sneak peek at Waste's forthcoming print portfolio.

"A creative format and binding help create a object that is a pleasure to flick through," notes Norman, "and little print details such as embossing and screenprinting show quality and a keen eye for attention to detail."

Whether you stick with a purely online portfolio or produce a print piece as well, all of our interviewees agree that the most important part of it is your work. Without something great to show, even the best designed portfolio will be in vain. But when filled with marks fo creative genius, a good portfolio will propel you head and shoulders above your peers.

Designing a portfolio site: Alex Mather’s six key rules

1) Keep it clean and simple, while incorporating some of your identity, such as a logo. 

2) Make sure your best work is immediately visible.

3) Keep the site constantly updated with new work.

4) Avoid small thumbnails that don’t give much away.

5) Don’t make portfolio navigation more of a challenge than it need be.

6) Nowadays it’s important to make your online portfolio compatible with mobile platforms like the iPhone.