How to Build Your Portfolio in 9 Easy Steps


We’ve reviewed the rules of résumé writing and emphasized the importance of job interview etiquette. But what if you want a job that doesn’t follow that application format? Getting a job in the creative industry—specifically as a copywriter or designer in an advertising firm or brand agency—works a little differently.

Creative directors and recruiters don’t care so much about what you say you can do (which is basically what the standard application materials are all about). They’re much more concerned with actual work that you’ve done. And the way to showcase that is through a portfolio, or a “book” as it’s known in the industry.

Guest writer Alex Cherin shares his tips for how to build your portfolio—even if you have zero experience—and get your creative career off the ground.


Let me tell you a quick story about how important a portfolio is to a creative professional. It was the summer after I graduated, and a connection of mine introduced me to one of advertising’s greatest creative moguls—Tracy Wong. This guy has over 300 national and international creative awards to his name and owns his own successful agency in Seattle (Wongdoody).

It blew my mind he was willing to talk to me—a nameless, inexperienced, recent college grad.

The catch was he needed to see my portfolio before I could talk to him. I freaked out.

Three bad ads and a shoe catalog—that was all I had. I didn’t want to waste this once in a lifetime opportunity.

So I ran over to my school, begged a bunch of my friends and random passersby to be part of pictures for some random campaign ideas I had floating around in my head. In five hours, I managed to get every shot I needed; in ten hours, I found a willing designer to sit with me at the library to create every ad in Photoshop. I left at 5am, feeling content and accomplished. I knew I had something for Tracy.

I sent Tracy a link to my portfolio through email. He got back to me in a week. The gist of his feedback was: you’re clearly a beginner and you’ll need a lot work. Invest in ad school.

The portfolio, or book, is the most important asset of a creative. No matter your pedigree, no matter your connections, if your book is no good, you’re not getting hired in advertising. In fact, the book is so important creatives invest 40 grand into Miami Ad School just to get an entry-level job at a big agency. That’s on top of an undergrad degree.

For a polished book, great connections, and a helpful education in advertising, portfolio school is the way to go. Check out Miami Ad School, Chicago Portfolio School, VCU Virginia, and Brainco for starters.

But if you don’t have the money, there’s a longer, albeit much tougher way of getting one. It involves you doing it yourself. The problem here is you don’t have guidance. In order to make a book, you’ll first need to know what a good ad looks like. Get these books: Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This by Luke Sullivan, and How to Put Your Book Together and Get a Job in Advertising by Maxine Paetro. Check out,,, and

Every creative job necessitates a log of work representing your credibility and worth as a creative professional. In advertising, we call this a portfolio, or a book for short. It’s your ticket to any and all opportunities in the industry. Want an internship? Have a book. Want a job? Have a great book.

It doesn’t even matter what you studied in school. The book is what counts. And it’s what employers will check on before they call your references, before they look at your résumé, even before they look at your name. You need a great book just to step into an agency. The tough part is you’ll need one even if you have no experience. And it still needs to be sexy.

Now that I’ve thoroughly imparted how important this thing is, here’s what you need to know to make one.

1. Have at least 10 pieces of work, preferably 20. These are ad campaigns, one-offs, videos, and maybe creative side projects. They should all be well-executed, meaning the underlying concept is smart, the design looks good, and the copy—if there’s copy—is error-free.

2. You want to create a killer sandwich. That’s putting the very best work at the front and end, while the work in the middle is just as good or nearly as good. These pieces are the best work you’ve ever done, so starting out with a great campaign and ending on another one leaves a better first impression than if you started out with one you thought was okay at best.

3. Once you have your work all polished up, make your book look professional. The work has to sell itself, but the book in general has to sell you. That is also why you will need two forms of your portfolio: one for the web, the other in print.

4. Make your online portfolio as professional as possible. That means it should have its own domain name—preferably your name. looks like it belongs to an amateur. After your domain name, the next important thing is making sure your site is navigable. These recruiters and employers go through many books, so the easier yours is to look at, the better your odds of getting hired. Check out these online portfolio hosting sites for hosting your work:,, and

5. Print is not dead—at least not in terms of portfolios. You’re also going to want a print version of your book. It serves as a talking piece during interviews with Creative Directors and recruiters. Get a nice hard-cover binder, or check out how to bind it in an actual book ( Make sure the portfolio can physically carry your work so it doesn’t blemish it.

Aside from the cosmetic part of the book, what about the content? What if you have no published work? Don’t worry. Put in your best spec work—fake ads you do for brands and products. While it has never been published, that’s fine. It still has to look sharp and polished. Here’s where you can show off your good ideas and your potential to make excellent published work. For designers, this is as simple as demonstrating skills with the Adobe Creative Suite. For copywriters, this is tough—you’ll want to find an art director or designer to help you because even your design work has to look as polished as it reads.

6. Remember, this is your best work. Not just something you did over the weekend, or something that was published, but your absolute best work. You have to be proud of it because it represents you when you’re not there. It’s your soap box from which you gain attention, respect, and credibility. So make sure it’s an accurate reflection of your abilities.

7. Even though it’s supposed to show your thinking, let the work speak for itself. Employers looking at your work don’t want to hear or watch your case studies. They want to see good work because they have tons of other books to look through. Keep it short and to the point if you feel your work needs an explanation.

8. Likewise, don’t show all your work. Only your best work. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve done, but how much of it is worthwhile. If you have a lot of work, tailor it. There are different kinds of agencies, companies, and clients out there, all looking for a specific style.

A friend of mine got hired at a social media agency to write tweets for Nike’s Golf account. It’s super specific, but it makes sense. One voice or style doesn’t work for everyone, and some people prefer creatives with a background or history with a specific industry, such as sustainability, outdoor sports, or fashion. Make sure to read the description and have your portfolio reflect the work you’ll be expected to do on the job.

9. Above all, relax. Your portfolio is a career-long endeavor. It will only get better over time. Always keep track of all the good work you do over the years and put it in your book as necessary.

Homework time! Think you’d like to pursue a creative career? Start by checking out the books and websites Alex recommends. Then work on putting your book and website together. Remember that it’s a work in progress and you’ll want to continue to add to it as your skills develop.


2 Responses to “How to Build Your Portfolio in 9 Easy Steps”

  1. GenTwenty’s Guide to College Success: How to Ace More Than Your Finals - AfterCollege

    […] A lot of the advice is useful and immediately applicable, but don’t expect a thorough treatment of any topic—Guide to College Success is all about the quick tips and simple solutions. For example, you can find a list of sites that will help you set up an online portfolio, but there’s not much detailed description of how to actually create the portfolio or what should go inside it. (If you’re looking for that specific advice, consider checking out our post on that very topic.) […]


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