In this article I want to share some tips and tricks that pushed my Graphic Design
A-Level grade from a 6/7 (B) to a 9 (A*). These are tips and tricks that I wish I
had known before starting my project as they would have saved me many weeks of extra work and stress as I went through and edited
every page again. At the time of writing this Article,
I'm 19 years old and I've just finished my first year of University in Cardiff. The majority of the article was written over a year ago
but I'm lazy so I finally got around to publishing it. I hope you enjoy and find it useful.
It is important to mention that half of my project was done during the COVID-19 pandemic. I would also like to mention that everything that you're about to read is my own opinion and that my project greatly focused on 3D CAD (Computer aided design) with the vast majority of the project being completed on the computer.
Using text in your portfolio
This section is not about writing long paragraphs about whatever you're researching / analysing but rather some tips and tricks that I used to create neat, impressive and professional portfolio pages.
The font style that you decide to use on the first page will most likely be the same as the font style that you will use on the last page of your portfolio.
This means that deciding on an appropriate, legible and flexible font style will be one of the most important decisions that you will need to make.
Deciding which font to use for your paragraphs is quite tricky, however, I have a couple of suggestions that should make it a little easier to decide.
#1 If your school/college has strict font installation policies, avoid using fonts that need to be installed from the internet.
The school I attended had some really strict rules on installing content to computers while on the school's network. This is why, if your school/college has strict installation policies, you should check to see if you can download and install fonts before considering using any fonts that need to be downloaded.
#2 Avoid using stylish fonts
By stylish fonts I mean fonts that can be considered visually pleasing when used with individual words but are difficult to read when used in paragraphs of text. Below, I have demonstrated the difference between using stylish fonts rather than easy-to-read fonts.
When I started my project, I was using whatever font size would fit my situation best. If I had lots of
whitespace I would sometimes even use size 20px
on my paragraph text. If I needed to fit lots of text, I would use size 12px and under to try and fit it
all in. This removed any consistency from the
portfolio and ended up making the whole portfolio look like a mess with every page having its own font
In the last month of my project, I realised this critical mistake and decided to act on it by forcing every page to use font size 14px for paragraphs. This meant having to add even more content to many of my paragraphs and moving images around to make them fit well with the text. This small change made a massive difference since the whole project looked so much more professional.
Aligning your text
When I first started working on my portfolio, I mostly used center aligned text as it was easily adaptable to any position on the page. I remember browsing through a design page on Instagram and found this short slideshow that they had posted explaining how aligning text can affect UI/UX on mobile applications. I had a look through my portfolio and realised how ugly my pages looked in their current state. Below, I have created another comparison so that you can see the difference that using left-aligned text makes. I've only compared center-aligned text and left-aligned text since right-aligned text is a sin and should be abolished in my opinion.
Let your page flow
Thinking of where to place your text and images can be quite an annoying but it is a critical part of creating a new page for your portfolio. I found that placing my text in a way that allows the reader to follow the text along the page while also looking at the photos worked best. In the English language, we read from left to right. This means that you will want to place your text and images in a way that flows from the left to the right. To illustrate my point, I have created two pages. One page uses what I would call "blocked" positioning while the other uses what I refer to as "flow" positioning. positioning.
I'm well aware that the heatmap looks extremely confusing so I've written this little paragraph in to
help explain it:
The idea is to show how the reader's eyes will glide over the page for a "blocked" layout vs a "flow" layout. The gradient from green -> blue -> purple -> red shows the flow of the reader's eyes from start to finish and the faint black line shows the path their eyes might follow.
You can see that when using the "blocked" layout, the reader's eyes will automatically snap to the text before the images. Obviously, this heatmap is not entirely accurate since it's very likely that the reader will look at the text then look over to the right to see the image, however, the point I'm trying to get across is that you should try and position your text and images in the order that you want the reader to see them in.
With the "flow" layout, you're almost trying to turn your work into a conversation between yourself and the reader. You're saying "Here's the initial model I made." followed by the paragraph in which you explain to the reader what they just saw. By showing the reader an image first, you're getting their brain more interested in the images on display rather than the visually dull paragraphs explaining how you created whatever work you're showcasing. This is just a small layout tip that I think makes a world of difference.
Using images in your portfolio
Size does matter
When using images alongside text, it is generally better to have a smaller image with more text rather than a HUGE image with a tiny squished pargraph next to it. You can move the slider from the right to the left to see the before and after of using appropriate image sizes:
Similarly to the flow of text, images should be placed in the order that you want the reader to look at them in. If, for example, you're showing the process of turning a sketch into a painting, you should place a photo of your sketch first, followed by a sketch on the canvas, then take a photo of your canvas after 10 minutes of painting, then another after, say, 30 minutes until you reach your final piece. This allows you to show your progression in a structured and visually interesting way.
Every time you want to refer to a photo, I highly suggest using figures. You can create a small asset with "Fig 1", "Fig 2" etc. for you to drag into your photo editing software whenever you need to refer to an image. Using language like "The image on the right" is generally frowned upon unless the image does not get referred to in later paragraphs.
Align your damn document
This single tip is so important that I've given it it's own section. When I started working on my
portfolio, I was just placing text and images without
really thinking about their position in relation to the center of the document. I would just "eyeball"
the distance from the left and from the right
without properly checking. Then, two weeks before my final A-level submission I looked at some of my
eariler documents and my heart sank when I realised that
some of them were completely off center and really stood out. So that was basically two days wasted just
realigning my whole 100 page portfolio.
I came up with a method that might not be the best way of confirming that my pages were centered but it most certainly felt like the most effective way. Note: I'm using an old document of mine that I designed almost two years before my final project so many of the suggestions I mentioned earlier were not applied.
- Step 1. Look at the whitespace on the left and right of the document
- Step 2. On the thinner side of the document, drag a guide to line up with the first element from the right
- Step 3. Using the box select tool, create a selection box from the edge of the document to the guide. The box's height does not matter.
- Step 4. Create a new layer and using the brush tool, paint the selection box in.
- Step 5. Press CTRL+D to deselect everything and drag the box you just created over to the far left of the document.
- Step 6. Create another guide and drag it to the right side of the box
- Step 7. Align all your elements on the left and right of the document to their respective guide lines that you created.
If you can't see the guides tab, press CTRL + R
Create a design doc
At the start of the project, it can be extremely useful to use a design document (often referred to as a design doc or a technical spec) to keep all the elements you use to create your portfolio pages in one place. In this doc, you should store colours that you use, fonts that you use and any assets you've created that you use in your portfolio. Below is an example of one of the design docs I used.
In this design doc, I included my figure tabs, an illustration I created for one of my pages, my underline and a logo that I had converted into vector format.
Make your art look complicated
I feel like this section is best shown rather than described so I've included a bunch of comparison images below for you to look at. What I'm saying with these images is that you need to remember that your examiner will most likely be quite old and have a fairly weak understanding of digital design software. That's why when showcasing your work, make it look complicated since that makes the work done seem much more impressive. For logos, add guidelines (even if you didn't actually use them). For 3D Models, use wireframe mode and try to show as many windows as possible. When taking photos, try to use cool lighting and locations rather than shooting on a boring white background (Unless you think that a white background is a better artistic choice).
Embrace your surroundings
Add some illustrations
I would say that this section can turn your portfolio from just another portfolio to its own work of art. My first artist analysis was actually on the video game: Half Life 2. I was discussing the large, ominous and evil-looking building in the middle of the map and thought that my work on that page was done. However, with a week to go until the submission date, I was looking for anything to try and boost my mark to a 9 so I noticed the large gap at the bottom of the page on Half Life 2 and how odd it looked. I felt that adding something at the bottom would really add some life to the page so I went into Adobe Illustrator and began creating the tower from Half Life 2. I then just placed the tower into the document and as you can see below, it's a small change that goes a really long way.
Following the success of the small illustration on the Half Life 2 page, I decided to do the same with the next page shown below.
Show the reader what you're talking about more seamlessly
Usually, when describing an artistic piece of work, you'll describe it then include a photo to the left or right of the paragraph.
What if you embedded that piece of work directly into your page? I know what I just said sounds confusing but let's imagine you're
comparing two fonts. Instead of just taking a screenshot of the two fonts, you could do something like this:
The difference between Arial and Impact is that Arial manages to maintain better legibility when bold.
Another example could be when zooming into an image, to use an asset to show that you're zooming in on a certain point in a photo
Break "The Fourth Wall"
Now, obviously there is no fourth wall when it comes to a portfolio but what I'm referring to is that it can be really refreshing to see some humanity
in a person's portfolio. Include your mistakes, show your process, describe your failures but most importantly try and talk to the reader. As aforementioned,
your portfolio should feel like a really interesting conversation.
The first example of breaking the fourth wall that I used was this little warning:
Hopefully you won't ever have to use a warning like this in your project but it's a good way of showing the reader that this project was in fact made by a real person who has been affected by the environement they found themselves in. You could instead write about how this portion of the project was developed during a time where protests were at a high or when your country was going through a heatwave etc.
Another way you can break the fourth wall is to include your final piece inside of your pages. An example is shown below.
Those are the main few tips and tricks that I wish I had known when I started my project. If you have more questions, you can contact me at
Pardon the weird formatting, just trying to avoid getting botted :)
You can also view my whole A-Level design project at https://tinosps.com/A-Level
Good luck and thank you for reading.