The ‘pre-press’ of the portfolio PDFs


As part of the business of running our publication, Ligature Journal, we ask for and get numerous pdf portfolios from designers. This post is a response to some of the problems we see in the submitted portfolios and also some of the things we like to see and don’t always get.

First and foremost, remind yourself of the purpose of this document: to get yourself a job from a design agency or client doing something that have skills in (what you can do) and that you enjoy doing (what you like/love to do). However, it must also address the needs of the people you are sending it to as well, which should match your skills and hopefully what you also enjoy doing (but may not entirely).


Tips on content

Increasingly potential employers are setting a limit on the size of the portfolio. Not the physical dimensions but the amount of content. Often, as in our case, it may only be five carefully chosen pieces. So each piece needs to work very hard to meet the purpose mentioned above. So …

  • Include pieces that address everything that the recipient is looking for
  • If you have other skills that may complement that skill set, that you enjoy doing try and squeeze that in too (or at least be prepared to highlight its inclusion in work that addresses point 1.
  • Show and tell, images don’t always convey the whole story. Tell us (in words) very succinctly what the brief was and how you arrived at the solution
  • Design work is almost always collaborative so tell us honestly which bits you worked on, and if you had a leadership role for even part of it tell us about that too. Don’t fudge the truth, you will get caught out.
  • Present your work clearly, thoughtfully and informatively. And don’t overload the portfolio with unnecessary ornamentation (unless that is an important part of your style).
  • Remember that the portfolio itself is the ‘bonus’ sixth portfolio piece so give it as much attention and care as the work it showcases.
  • Creating a design template that allows you to swap pages in and out so you can customise your portfolio easily and quickly for different job will save you a lot of time and effort.
  • Oh, and remember to include contact details in the document. Don’t rely on the email to which the document was attached for return contact.


Preparing the PDF

So you have a beautifully designed portfolio full of the best and most appropriate work you have. Time to hit ‘export’. Well, not so fast, here’s a checklist of things to do to ensure that the export results in a top-notch document.

  • Check the submission requirements, have you addressed ALL the one relevant to the portfolio?
  • What format/orientation have you designed for? Most times a pdf portfolio will be viewed on a computer screen, so a portrait orientation document is a big nah uh.
  • Spellcheck your writing. Typos are a great way to show that attention to detail is NOT your thing.
  • Read and re-read your writing and if you are still unsure it makes sense get someone you trust to be honest to read and comment on it too.
  • If there have been changes, spellcheck it all again.
  • Images should be clean, carefully photographed if necessary, and sharp. Don’t be afraid to photoshop out small blemishes (of for example, packaging mock-ups) if needed. Don’t be lazy.
  • Effective PPI must not be less that 72. However, I would suggest that the Effective PPI be 150 (if you don’t know about effective PPI look it up).
  • The colour space for images and colour swatches should be RGB.
  • Embed active, working (check) links for email addresses, portfolio websites and a LinkedIn profile (if you have one).


Exporting the PDF

There are a few parameters in the Export dialogue panel you need to be aware of to create an optimum document. There are other parameters you can change from the defaults if you wish. These following are what I consider to be the most critical.


If you export using Adobe PDF (Print) format

  • Choose ‘High Resolution Print’ as your Adobe PDF Preset (this assumes an image PPI of 150 and will ensure a good quality print on a digital printer is the recipient decides to print it out)
  • Ensure you have Export As Pages (not Spreads)
  • Options: Create Tagged PDF, Optimise for Fast Web View
  • Include: Hyperlinks
  • Nothing should be selected in the Marks and Bleeds panel.

If you export using Adobe PDF (Interactive) format

  • Ensure you have Export As Pages (not Spreads)
  • It is polite to leave Presentation: Open in Full Screen Mode Unselected (if I want to look at your portfolio in full screen mode I will – usually I don’t)
  • And definitely DO NOT automate page flipping.
  • In the Compression panel JPEG quality should be set to maximum and the Resolution (ppi) to 144. On these setting you may still see some pixilation of your document page size is a significantly smaller than the screen size.


Checking the PDF

Even though the above process seems exhaustive it is a very good idea to check everything again.

  • Is the format/orientation correct? Not portrait. Not spreads.
  • Read through the document looking once more for typos and grammatical errors. You’d be surprised at how often one or two slip through
  • How do the images look? Is there any evidence of distortion due to excessive compression? What about evidence of pixilation? If you can see either compression effects or pixilation they you will need to check your image resolution and the possibly change your export settings.
  • Do all the links work?
  • Check the file size. The total file size should not exceed 20-30Mb for speed of download. If the file size is under about 500Kb your images may be too small (but not necessarily, a lot depends on the kinds of images you are including).


If you encounter any issues at all here. Go back to the original, fix them, export again and then check it all again. Keep doing this until you are sure you have picked up all the problems.


And finally, write a thoughtful and friendly cover email. Attach your beautiful PDF Portfolio. Don’t forget to include a CV as well.

Review the submission requirements one last time. Is everything you need to include there? Yes. Send!

Good Luck


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