DIY Portfolios: Showing Your Best to Clients

Portfolios are a great way to show off your best to potential clients and new job prospects. I've been out of work since last November (by choice) and recently finished a small writing contract for a local company. As I finished and was looking over my old writing portfolio, I thought about how outdated and unreflective of me and my work it seemed. There were no pieces from my last company and there were still some selections from college. So, this past weekend I decided it was time to give my portfolio a much needed upgrade and face-lift.

I have both an online (PDF) and offline portfolio that showcases my work. I wanted to show you what I did and what I found this weekend at Office Max that you can use to make a very nice and professional portfolio. If you haven't guessed, I'm rather pleased and excited as to how both turned out and wanted to show off. While I outline the steps to create a graphic design or technical writing portfolio, I'm sure that you can use these methods and steps to pull together a portfolio for any discipline.

Selecting the pieces
First, you need to pull together everything you think you may want to show potential employers. I've tried to keep a printed and electronic version of every graphic design and writing project I've done since college. Break out your work samples folder and start looking through everything you've done. It's easy to get lost in the nostalgia of all the nifty things you've done over the course of your career, so try not to get too lost in the memories.

While sorting everything out, I asked myself 2 key questions:

  • Is this the best piece that represents me NOW?

    You’re going to want to keep your portfolio current to your changing styles and professional habits. While the flyer you did 10 years ago for a non-profit organization looks cool, it may not be the best thing that represents your talents and style these days. Try and look for select pieces that fit in with your current style or show off a particular thing you’ve done well.

  • Would I hire myself based off reading/viewing this sample?

    Put yourself in a potential manager's shoes. If you saw the sample in their portfolio, would you hire them based off the presentation? Be honest with yourself. If you find yourself wanting to go back and edit every sentence or fix crop-pings, then you may want to leave the sample out of the finished product.

Anything that doesn't fit into these 2 questions can be put back into storage. This process can take awhile as you may need to read through some of the bits and pieces to recall why you did them or who they were for. That's okay. Your career is important and first impressions can be everything. So take this time to sort through all your items as you want to make your portfolio the best that it can be. Don't be afraid to ask for help, either. I asked help from other writer friends on what they did and used. With their help we selected 12 key documents out of a pile of 20 that I thought were my best.

Giving it structure
Now that you've gone through all your work samples, it's time to organize the bits you've selected into some structure. Just like a book, you'll want to order the selected bits into a structure that makes sense for you. Do you want to show off your most recent works first? Or do you want to show them your range by going from creative to technical? I chose to structure my portfolio based off the type of documents I've written. Therefore, I've got 12 sections ranging from Business Requirements to QA Specifications to Print Collateral (aka data sheets).

When you've settled on your structure, open up a word processing program. We're going to create a Title Page and some Chapter pages. I used Apple Pages to lay my pages out, so your versions may end up looking different than mine. Create a new file for your Title Page. This is going to be the cover of your Portfolio, so you'll want to try and keep the design to a minimum while trying to make it a bit tantalizing to the eyes as well. On the title page, you'll want to have your name and the title of your portfolio. As you can see in the image, mine is simply called "Jaymi Elford, Writing Portfolio". I also added a catchy image to offset the words and give my portfolio style. Don't forget to save the file when you're done.

Open up a second file for your Chapter pages. These pages will introduce the samples you're using in your portfolio as well as the reasons for their inclusion. Give the section a title and if you want, give a client name for whom the work was done. As you can see in my example, "Internal Guidelines", I've chosen that as the header for the document and given the client's name beneath it. Save the file, but keep this open because we're not done yet. Underneath the title you'll be writing a single paragraph that gives some information on this sample.

Now, use the Problem Action Resolution (PAR) method to write a single paragraph about each selected piece. In your paragraph, describe what problem or task your sample helped resolve; the action you took in creating that document to solve the issue; and what results came from the publication of that document. It sounds complex but it's not. Going back to my example above, my PAR statement for this chapter is:

At (client), we found that internal and external agencies weren't using pop-ups consistently. This created a problem because the different web sites lost their cohesive (client).com branding. I was asked to write a set of guidelines for designing pop-ups on the website that told the designers how to effectively use pop-ups without losing the (client) web branding standards. I did some research and came up with the guidelines in this short document. After it was published, (client).com's brand site designs maintained a consistent branding standard between them all; even though sites were being developed by agencies around the world.

Please note that I've blocked out the name of the company and used client in it's place in the above sample. I do have the actual name in my portfolio. The first couple of sentences state the problem faced. Then I described the solution to the problem and the steps I took to get the work done. Finally, I included a sentence or two about what happened after we released the document to the agencies we work with. To learn more about the PAR method (also known as STAR), you may want to check out the following links:

A quick overview of STAR/PAR
MIT's in-depth look at STAR/PAR

When you're done, save these files and then print it all out. Now we get into the fun part.

Shopping for supplies
Time to go shopping. Head out to your favorite home office store and start perusing the aisles for Binders, Paper Covers, and Dividers. I'm always amazed at the wide variety of report covers and binders that come out and tease my eyes. For this incarnation of my portfolio I wanted to stay away from 3-ring binders. I had an image in my mind of finding some thick report cover case that could hold about 50 pages. With that image in mind, I headed out to OfficeMax to purchase a few items (all of which can be gotten for under $20).

  • Report Cover or 3-Ring Binder
    The report cover or 3-Ring Binder keeps your samples and your portfolio together. You should find that's sturdy enough to take with you to an interview but fits within your budget and style.

    Wilson Jones Smart-View 3-ring report cover (#1128P004). This is the perfect portfolio case to hold 40 pieces of paper. It's light and flexible and has an air of "DIY" to the way the stitches appear on and around the front cover. Not only does it provide a clear space to create your own cover, but there's a spot on the back of the front cover to slide a business card. It includes a pocket in the back that's perfect to stash extra copies of a resume and a list of questions you can ask the interviewers during your interview.

  • Tabbed Indexes
    Tabbed Index sheets come in all sorts of colors and styles. You can get some that you can print directly onto or slip your Chapter pages in. Whichever type you go with, make sure that you get enough for each chapter in your Portfolio. I purchased 3 packages of the below type of tabs to ensure I had enough.

    Avery Clear Pocket Label Index Dividers (#75500). These 5-tabbed paper protector sheets are perfect to create chapter dividers for your portfolio. Just slip your chapter sheets into them and you're all set. The tabs do come with Avery stickers to add text to the tabs if you want. Because my portfolio may change yearly I've decided against using the labels because I don't want to have to purchase new plastic holders over and over again.

  • Normal Sheet Protectors
    An optional purchase for those of you who are on a tight budget. I love sheet protectors and have been using them for years in my portfolio. Not only do they keep your original samples safe from coffee mugs and sticky fingers, they also look shiny and keep pages from falling out of your portfolio. I bought a pack of K&M Division Poly Vue Sheet Protectors years ago and still have lots left over that I've been using for other projects.

Putting it all together
Now that you've got all your samples, sheet protectors and Chapter covers together, it's time to assemble your portfolio. Slip all the samples into your new sheet protectors and the Chapter Covers into the Avery Pocket Clear Label Indexes. Then open up your binder or report cover and carefully slide the pages onto the rings in the following order.

Cover: Like any book or magazine, your Portfolio should have a nice cover to it. Mine has my name and "Writing Portfolio" on it followed by a catchy image. If you've gone with a binder that doesn't have a space for you to design your own cover, that's okay. You can skip the cover.

Resume: I've always added a copy of my current resume to the beginning of my Portfolios. It reminds employers about who I am and my career experience. It also gives them another copy to hang onto in case they've lost their copy. Make sure you include your name, phone number and address on it.

Chapter cover: For each sample piece included, this cover goes before your sample to describe the background as to why the sample was included in your portfolio.

Document Sample: This is where you put your work. Keep it brief. While you may want to include complete samples of your work from start to finish, those reading your portfolio may not have the time it takes to read every page you've included. Be choosy with your samples and try and pick a variety of types that show off your range of experience. Keep each sample to 8 pages. If you want to show that you have worked on long documents, include the table of contents with page numbers. While we want to show off your best, we also want to keep it short and simple. Most writers limit their portfolios to 40 pages total.

And if you've assembled the package like I outlined above, you've got a light and portable portfolio filled with samples to take into your next interview with you! Feel free to post comment or questions or share your experiences with portfolios.

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Awesome...and timely

Great article, innowen!

I'm getting ready to interview for a job at a creative agency next week, and I really needed to update my portfolio.


Terrific article innowen. It

Terrific article innowen. It really builds up a good basic for how to create and use a portfolio. There's more information on this topic on the the Techwriter's website (Techwr-l) on their Portfolios page. The annotated portfolio is also a great idea.

Very Nice


Excellent idea and well executed. Do you have a
link to your online version?



You know... I debated posting the link to it publically, and decided against it. If you would like a version, go ahead and email me and I will send you a copy.


Excellent article!

I must say, your articles are generally top-notch anyway, but this is definitely one to be proud of! Great job!


Go "bound" for even more professionalism

If your portfolio is all on standard letter sheets, another great idea is to take it to Kinkos or Office Depot/Staples and get a binding put on it. I've done this with several reports with full color laser sheets mixed with B&W pages. Office Depot has tab separator pages made just for these type of bindings (no 3-holes), plus fancy cover stock.

I like the look of the plastic spiral binding for the 360 page flipability, but the "Velobind" and tape/glue binding also look nice. They typically charge ~$3-5 per bound copy...

If you're making a bunch or may use such bindings internally, it may pay off to buy the actual equipment ($60-$300 or more)...

I also like the comb bindings for printing large PDFs for my reference shelf, because I can slap a title label on the plastic spine using a standard 3/8" tape labeler.

K&M sheet protectors

I have some sheet protectors from K&M Company, item STM10. I can not find the company or anyone that sells its products. Can you advise me where you made your purchase. Thank you.