Presenting Your Portfolio

By Steff Geissbuhler

My Own First Time

So there I was, standing in the large lobby of the Marketing and Promotion Department of J.R.Geigy (now Novartis) Pharmaceutical Corporation in Basel, Switzerland, awaiting the arrival of Max Schmid, the head of the then-famous design department. The receptionist asked me to wait for Mr. Schmid who would come down by elevator to pick me up.

I was very nervous, clutching the handles of my homemade, oversized portfolio-made out of large DIN 01 boards and glued canvas spine, corners and handles, containing all my original drawings, posters, photographs, booklets and other school work. It was my first personal interview after receiving my diploma from the Basel School of Design.

The elevator doors opened, Max Schmid came towards me and I started to walk towards him when suddenly the bottom of my portfolio came unglued and everything fell to the ground, sailing slowly-for what seemed forever-in all directions along the polished surface. My large drawings and boards took off across the floor like curling stones, going and going. I turned bright red and bent down to gather everything in a hurry. But Max stopped me. He suggested that we should just walk through the work and discuss the pieces where they had landed. Letting the chips fall where they may, or the Swiss equivalent to that.

As other people arrived in the lobby, some commented on my work, while Max and I walked through my accidental exhibit. Max had turned my most embarrassing moment into a humorous and interesting display, making it clear with his spontaneous reaction that it was the work and me he was interested in, not just the packaging. As a bonus I also got the job.

I had to start somewhere, just like you. This experience also serves as an introduction to what I’m looking for in a portfolio.

Get Your Book Through the Door


Send a letter and a well-designed résumé in advance. Your résumé is a simple typographic design problem, displaying vital information about who you are, where you’ve been and what you’ve done in an organized and structured fashion. Follow up with a phone call and make an appointment. Call the day before to confirm that you still have an interview or a drop off, who to see and when.

Brush up on the firm’s work. It helps to know something about the studio and what they do and have done before you can expect them to be interested in your work.

What is a portfolio?

A portable proof of your design education and a document of your work. A display of exercises, talent, thinking and solutions to visual communication problems. The physical form of the portfolio is completely up to you. It should, however, not be too precious or complicated. Nor should it require delivery by freight elevator. It is a communication tool, not a self-centered reflection of your personality.


A portfolio is a design problem. It contains an assortment of given visual and verbal material. As with all publications, what you put next to one element either plays up that individual piece or fights it for attention. An interesting layout of spreads and pages, color, form and/or thematic relationships, dramatic scale changes, humor, elements of surprise, details and whole pieces, sequencing and rhythm, are all tools to entertain the eye. It is a show piece in the best sense, and I haven’t even talked about the individual work itself.


A well-structured portfolio has a beginning, a middle and an end. It should be a well-designed book that shows off your work in the best possible light. Samples should be clean and removable. The sequence doesn't have to be chronological, but I wouldn’t put early school work at the end. Don’t forget that the final image leaves a more lasting impression than the first.


Show your sketches separately. This will assist those of us who think of your sketching process as one of the most important and telling parts of your presentation.


It helps to label your work with very short descriptions, in case you have to drop off your portfolio and don’t have a chance to narrate in person. Keep in mind that a first portfolio review gives me only a first impression of you and your work. If I’m interested, you will be called back and you and your work will be scrutinized in more detail.

Please forgive me for not reading your books, thesis project, poetry or research papers. I’m getting an overall impression and can usually judge from what I’m looking at. If it doesn’t communicate visually, you probably chose the wrong profession.

CDs and Websites

Your digital portfolio should be designed just like the regular portfolio with the same attributes described above. It should be easy to open, navigate and review. I have quite a collection of portfolio CDs which are now coasters, because they couldn't be opened. Whatever you do, don’t make us work at it. Make it easy to get to your information.

Don’t think for a minute that I pay more attention to your email than to a letter or phone call. It is much easier to ignore or delete your email than it is to print it out and keep it on record.

Present in Person

I personally prefer, whenever possible, to see you in person, because it’s not the work I’m buying—it’s you I’m interested in. I want to hear and see you present your work. Your intelligence, enthusiasm, energy and passion are more important to me than your whole portfolio. Besides, I’m always as little suspicious of the involvement and influence in your work by faculty and fellow students.

If I’m criticizing your work, it is always meant to be constructive. It also shows me whether you can take criticism. This is an important factor in evaluating your potential to learn. Actually, my criticism is often directed at the faculty who taught you.

Dress presentably. Speak up and narrate your work. Don’t just sit there and wait for questions or comments. Be self critical. It is one of the most useful traits to be able to evaluate your own work in as an objective way as humanly possible. Tell me what you think is good and what is not so good. I want to know whether you know the difference.

Most of all I want to see and hear that you love and live this profession with a passion.