Students tell me that my Graphic Design Portfolio course is like boot camp without the mud. They're right. The process I put them through requires discipline, hard work, and perseverance. It closely resembles the design industry experience and prepares them for their transition into the professional world.

In 16 short weeks, my “designers” assess who they are and what they want from their future. They define their personal brand and create a visual identity. They develop a portfolio, tailoring the projects they created for their classes, professional internships, or day jobs to the type of industry and company where they want to work. They develop a job plan and learn how to look for a job in the design field and their specialty, create job-specific resumes and cover letters, and produce the touchpoints they’ll need to promote themselves. Every semester without fail, my students embrace the process, take a deep breath, and make the leap into the next phase of their lives.

In the field of professional design, your portfolio is the single most important apparatus you have for demonstrating your talents, skills, and body of work. Designed to build your confidence as you enter a highly competitive marketplace, the Stand Out methodology is practical and proven. Informed by my 25 years as a design practitioner and formulated over my 17-plus-year teaching career, this approach is logical, holistic, and it works.

Stand Out’s step-by-step process includes hands-on exercises and user-friendly worksheets to help you sharpen your vision of where you want to go. You will identify the environment where you’re likely to shine most brightly and be recognized for the things you are most passionate about by the people who can truly appreciate what you have to offer. It includes stories of my own experiences, examples from others who have undergone the process, and links to Pinterest boards with work samples from young, talented designers who have made their own journey.  

You don’t have to be a student to benefit from the Stand Out approach. If you’re a professional designer in search of your next job or restarting a design career, the methodology I describe will work for you, too. In addition to straightforward and actionable instruction for design job seekers at any stage in their career, Stand Out provides support materials that can be used by professors who teach a portfolio course.

Making the transition from learner to professional is a formidable undertaking, but it is absolutely necessary. Understanding its importance, my students consistently move toward their destinies with passion and purpose. I like to think I inspire them, but the truth is, they inspire me. As I witness and support their efforts, I am reminded what a privilege it is to mentor and teach the next generation of design leaders. Stand Out is a testament to their talent and commitment, and I hope they will inspire yours.

© 2015 Denise Anderson. All rights reserved. No part of this worksheet may be reproduced, stored, transmitted, or disseminated in any form or by any means without prior written permission from Denise Anderson.


The projects you create in school and those you make up for yourself (your “passion projects”) are dress rehearsals for the professional design world. When I create assignments for my students, I make it a point to replicate the types of projects and processes that are generally required in professional practice. As an educator, I allow room for a broad range of interpretation and encourage students to customize themes according to their interests, skills, and the industry where they want to work.

My objective is simple: identify and assign practice projects that call upon a variety of skills, develop a designer’s abilities, and teach different design-thinking strategies. Whether you are a student building your own portfolio or an instructor in search of projects to assign, this list will guide you to finding and creating projects that will give breadth and depth to a book of work, in addition to providing the experience and skills that a professional practitioner needs.

  • Create projects with a focus on different industries (e.g., entertainment, retail, not-for-profit, and start-ups) to enhance exposure to a variety of fields. One may spur an interest or ignite a passion.
  • Create different project types (e.g., rebranding, branding, advertising, and promotion) as an introduction to the variety of strategic problem-solving approaches to design problems and to diversify the portfolio.
  • Solicit not-for-profit projects to gain professional design experience and assist an organization with its mission. Each semester, I ask my branding students to contribute to a pro bono project; it’s not only great for the students, but keeps my feet wet and in the game.
  • Offer multiple options for each project to avoid a potential employer pegging anyone by the college they attend because they see the same project every year. (Not every student is motivated by every project, so if the project you’re assigning is, for example, a rebranding program for a local business, you can offer an alternative option, or ask students to come up with a rebranding project of their own.)
  • Use or improve an already completed project from an internship, freelance, or job. Practicing with real professional projects is great, but they should be good enough to appear in a portfolio. Always ask permission from the client or an employer to use their project in your personal book of work.

© 2015 Denise Anderson. All rights reserved. No part of this worksheet may be reproduced, stored, transmitted, or disseminated in any form or by any means without prior written permission from Denise Anderson.


When it comes to developing a strategy for your portfolio, don’t think in terms of right and wrong. Instead, reflect on what you can do to create one that is representative and successful. Before you design the layout, consider how the following strategies will make your presentation seamless, fluid, and focused.

Make the layout simple.

The layout you use for individual projects and your overall portfolio must be straightforward, well organized, and all about the work. Keep the bells and whistles (gradients, drop shadows, patterns) to a minimum, because they can interfere with the flow of the layout. Do you tend to ramble on about your project idea and overwhelm your viewer with too much text? Is the composition of your images unbalanced? Has a pattern become a focal point? These are all distractions that can swing your viewer’s attention away from the experience you want them to have.

The experience of viewing a portfolio should be like taking a Sunday drive. You set out on the journey with enthusiasm and optimism and, as long as the scenery is beautiful and the ride is enjoyable, you keep feeling pretty good. But when you hit traffic, bumps in the road, and a detour, disappointment sets in because your hopes for the day have been dashed. The drive is no longer pleasurable; you’re just looking for another road to drive on or a place to pull over. If your viewer (the driver) is distracted by your layout choices or unnecessary graphic elements (bumps in the road), or has to ask why you did something (detour), he will undoubtedly move on to another presentation (alternate road) or pull over (stop looking altogether). Hiring agents review many portfolios before recommending a designer, so yours should be effortless and pleasing to move through.

Plan the sequence of projects.

There is a strategy for sequencing the projects in your portfolio: show your second best project first, and your strongest project last. The logic behind this approach is to begin with an outstanding project, but end with a “knock-out.” The last project is the one that resonates longest with the viewer, so the impression that lingers will be one of a quality book. The projects in the middle need to act as the bridges that connect one piece to the next. If that flow is missing, you may lose the attention of the viewer before they get to your final portfolio project. Don’t place two similar projects together (industry, specialty, like colors) because they can merge into each other and your viewer may think they’re seeing one long project. Go with your gut instinct and determine an order that incorporates your overall brand story and facilitates easy movement from page to page, project to project, and beginning to end.

The sequence of your projects must also make logical sense. For example, if you're applying for a position at a web development company, lead with your website projects. If an employer is looking for someone trained in a particular technology (motion, illustrations, branding), arrange your work by specialty. If you’re applying for a position as an art director for an advertising agency, make your focus about solving problems and not your technical proficiency.

Two years out of school, one of my former students, Michelle Neunert, contacted me for advice. She was beginning a search for another job and wanted to consult with me on what should go into her portfolio. Michelle had some professional work to use, but needed to supplement with student projects. She asked me to recommend a strategy for sequencing her projects. I gave her the same advice I’m giving you: always show your best projects, targeted to the industry you want to work, and wrap it all in your brand. Let your portfolio tell a story about the talented, beautiful you.

Create an engaging experience.

It can be challenging to captivate your audience because every viewer is different and you may be targeting several audiences. Regardless of who’s looking at your book, when your viewer discovers something new, all five of their senses will unite to create a sense memory. The more someone’s senses are affected, the stronger the memory will be. Dramatic use of scale and focus, interesting and varied compositions, and dynamic color palettes can be applied across print and digital portfolio types, and each component provides an experience unique to the viewer.

Your audience’s experience will differ from printed to digital portfolios, but you should aim for creating the same kind of impact. A printed portfolio is a physical object, which offers the advantage of stimulating the sense of touch. You can provide interaction by using different techniques, from creative die cutting and embossed effects to a uniquely constructed carrying case. When your audience has a chance to experience your portfolio with their hands as well as their eyes, your work becomes much more appealing and memorable.

The digital portfolio experience can be just as engaging. Videos and interactive prototyping tools (for app and web design) allow the viewer to participate with your work. Surprising features and unexpected twists, such as buttons that lead down unpredictable paths, can hook your viewer and keep them moving through your portfolio. Everybody talks about the importance of that “first impression,” but when was the last time you considered how important a second impression can be? Nothing beats that moment when you dazzle and delight your audience by surprising them with a brand new element—don’t give them everything all at once. An effective presentation is a multi-layered, multimedia experience. You want your audience to be so engaged in your story that they stay for the whole thing.

© 2015 Denise Anderson. All rights reserved. No part of this worksheet may be reproduced, stored, transmitted, or disseminated in any form or by any means without prior written permission from Denise Anderson.