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How To Build a Graphic Design Portfolio When You’re Just Starting Out

Your portfolio will be one of the first things a potential clients sees. Make sure you WOW them!

Just as companies won’t hire an employee without first reading their resume, not many high quality clients will be willing to hire a designer if they can’t see any of their previous work.

But here’s a question: How can you build a portfolio if you don’t have any previous work?

Don’t worry, that’s okay! All I had in my portfolio when I was first starting out were just figure drawings and oil painting. Don’t get me wrong, they definitely weren’t bad.. if I do say so myself! But unfortunately I had nothing of any commercial use.

At that time in my career, online tutorials were definitely my best friend. I didn’t go to school specifically for graphic design, I didn’t know how the layers panel worked in photoshop, and don’t even get me started on how to use the pen tool… But the great new is that there are so many amazing tools and resources out there now that can help you strengthen your design skills pretty quickly.

That being said, I definitely do not think someone can “just learn photoshop” and immediately be a designer. There is a certain creative eye that’s required and unfortunately not everyone automatically has that, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Design and creativity is definitely something that to a point, can be learned.

Anyway little tangent over, let’s get back to the tutorials and where you can find them.

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. That means that at no cost to you, Pjs and Paint may earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase.


There is this great website out there called YouTube, have you heard of it?! There are thousands of great video tutorials on YouTube that you can follow for free. I’ve definitely learned a ton from watching these types of videos.


EnvatoTuts+ has tons of both free and paid video courses that can teach you anything from vector illustration to creating cool text effects. I would definitely recommend checking them out.

Personal Websites and Blogs

One of my favorite sites for graphic design tutorials is Spoon Graphics. They feature a variety of written tutorials, videos and free resources to help you get started or improve on your skills. Just do a quick google search for whatever you’re interested in learning and your bound to find a tutorial on it. is such an amazing resource I recently found out about. They have thousands of professional video courses that not only go over techniques and program usage, but even things like the foundations of how to build a brand. I love that they not only can teach you how to improve your design skills, but also how to build your business.

Tutorials are great for learning, but in order to create a portfolio that will get you hired, you’ll need a variety of work samples. Brochures, business cards, website sliders, banners etc.

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Personally, I find it very difficult to sit down and design a brochure without an actual client sending me the copy, photos, or brand manual. If you have the ability to create a piece without any direction, you can definitely do that! You can simply use Lorem Ipsum (filler copy) for any needed content. However, if that is challenging for you, like it was for me, then how can you land a client without a portfolio, so you can start to build one? Here are my top5 suggestions:

1. Work for free.

Ordinarily, I would never recommend working for free, but for those who are just starting out, this is an exception. You can’t really expect someone to pay you if you can’t show them that you know what you’re doing. One idea would be to go to a local business and ask if they would like their business cards redesigned at no cost, or if they are in need of any promotional materials such as flyers. Ask if you can design it for them in exchange for them allowing it to be showcased in your growing portfolio. **This is important to get permission for as not all clients will be okay with work you’ve done for them being shown in your portfolio.

2. Student work.

Did you take any design classes in school or online? You can definitely include that work in your portfolio to get started.

3. Redesign something already done.

See a logo that you know can be done better? Redesign it to show off your skills. Just make sure in your portfolio you clearly label that this was a concept piece and not an actual redesign for the company. I’d probably take this type of work out of your portfolio after you build it up enough with client work.

4. Design for yourself or friends.

Create your own logo or design a business card for your best friend’s new business.. Maybe work on a few concepts to showcase different styles.

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5. Tell people you’re looking to build a portfolio.

As an example, when I was trying to turn my jewelry based Etsy shop into a design shop, I posted on the message boards that I was looking to bulk up my portfolio and was willing to design banners for store owners for free. I got an overwhelming amount of responses from people who needed a banner for their store and jumped on the chance for a free design. If you put it out there that you’re looking to build your portfolio, chances are there will be people that will approach you to work on their designs.

IMPORTANT! Make sure you always get permission to include work in your portfolio. Some information in your design may be confidential, or sometimes clients just don’t want you to include their designs. Always ask just to make sure they’re okay with it.

Next, check out this post on how I made over $200,000 on Upwork as a freelance graphic designer.

With all the freelance job posting websites available, you as a contractor need to work a lot harder to stand out. I’ve had a lot of success with I’ve become a top rated freelancer and to date, have made over $200,000 on the platform. Today I  wanted to share 10 simple things you can do today to improve your own profile, and increase your chances of getting hire more often. Keep reading here.