Re-Building My Portfolio | Part 2 | Planning the Layout Design


This post is part of an on-going series that brings you behind the scenes as I Re-Build my personal design portfolio from the ground up. Each entry in the series is intended to be both a glimpse into my process and a reflection on what it means to design one’s body of work.


If you recall the last post, you’ll remember that we’ve established the first two steps of the five portfolio steps.

  1. Gather your work

  2. Assess what you have

  3. Plan the overall vision

  4. Build what you still need

  5. Assemble your work for display

This time, let’s take a look at the portfolio's formal design layout as we build the foundation of the portfolio we envision.

It Always Starts with a Sketch

You may think that you have some mad skills when it comes to Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and any number of other digital tools. But if I can impart one lesson to you from this post, it’s that a sketch will propel you farther, faster than any digital tool you can find. This is especially true when it comes to the initial design of the portfolio layout.

I’m not saying this from atop a mountaintop hoping you listen. I’ve been where you are now — just trying to figure out where to start, not quite sure what the next step is.

The wrong step is to dive head first into the computer and try to build your entire portfolio without a plan. Inevitably, you’ll come up with something, of course. But what you come up with won’t be nearly as refined as what you can design by putting pen to paper first.

The reason I start with analog tools is that I can quickly identify the patterns that make sense to me without spending too much time perfecting my grids, my lettering, and my spacing over several layouts down to the pixel.

That’s frankly time wasted.

Sketching with Purpose - What to Sketch and How

When I say that the sketch is the best and first place you should start when planning your portfolio, I should clarify that there’s a specific way that I sketch out my ideas so that they’re efficient and effective.

I’ve always been sort of an editorial graphics nerd. In other words, I’ve always had an affinity towards the layouts of magazines, books, and other printed documents.

Because of that, I’ve developed a sort of eye for what works and what doesn’t. Let me help break down a few of the tips that may help you sketch.

  1. Rule of Thirds — The rule of thirds is a graphic guideline in which you break up your canvas into thirds. Major focal points in the composition you create should align with the intersections of these guidelines in order to maximize the impact of the overall piece. You can use graphic elements such as photos or text to emphasize particular moments on the page.

  2. Worry (but Don’t Worry) about Page Size — While page size will ultimately matter for the final portfolio, you don’t necessarily need to finalize the size just yet. Our sketches will rely mostly upon big picture concepts and less upon the exact size of the page itself. Remember, we’re working in sketch-mode, not fabricating a Swiss watch here. For our purposes, assume a landscape format ‘US Letter’ page size (or an 8.5”x11” page turned on its side). While there are a variety of sizes that you can choose from for your portfolio, I want to use Letter for this one because it’s easiest to print on my own without the help of a 3rd party printer and it’s likely something you have access to as we develop a portfolio together.

  3. Use a Template — Since we’re working with real page sizes, we can sketch the page outlines as a template under which we’ll sketch the layout concepts. The reason we use a template is because it will help us see the patterns when we translate the sketches to the computer later. To help you  out, you can download the template I print out for myself below. It’s an 8.5x11 sheet with scaled ‘Spreads’ (two open-facing pages) sprinkled across the page.


After I print the template, I start sketching with three primary elements that represent real assets I’ll use later:

  1. Photos : Blocks marked with an ‘X’

  2. Text : Horizontal groupings of lines

  3. Graphic Support : Lines/Shapes/Colors/Shading

I took my template and printed out three copies. I sketched until I felt like I had enough of a diverse offering of layout designs.


You’ll notice that my lineweights and shades vary to help me further identify patterns and design emphasis on each scheme. After the first or second layout sketch, I lock in the ‘style’ I’ve started sketching with so that subsequent layout designs can be compared easily with one another.

It’s important to keep in mind while you’re sketching that each design is less like a classical recital and more like a jazz riff. We need to take the basic elements and coax something out of the sketch that we can use without allowing the layout to become to stale.

After a bunch of sketching, I feel pretty good about what I’ve drawn and start my move to the computer.

InDesign, My Old Friend

Now, this post isn’t a tutorial per say with regard to how to use InDesign. (I’ll return to InDesign in a future tutorial). Rather, I want to briefly help you understand how I set up my file and then show you a few of the preliminary layouts I generated.

Also, there’s nothing saying you couldn’t use another program such as Microsoft Word, Publisher, Powerpoint, Adobe Ilustrator or something else. I use InDesign because I’ve used it for over a decade already for editorial design and because I believe it’s the best tool on the market to do as it was built for just that purpose.

So — First, open up InDesign and take a look around.

InDesign // User Interface

If you’re already familiar with Adobe software such as Photoshop, you’ll notice that many of the tools are in similar locations. You have tools along the left, trays along the right, and a main menu along the top.

If you take a look at the image below, you can see a few key items I make sure are always set up before I start. (Side Note: You can click on these images to expand them).

InDesign // First Master Slides

This image shows how the guides you create can quickly establish rules for your layouts. Be sure to keep the Guides, Words, Lines, and Images all on separate Layers as you work for maximum efficiency.

Let’s Design in InDesign

For the purposes of exploring my sketches, I opted to basically recreate the same sketches I made nearly verbatim.

Master Template // Format

Creating a page specifically to test out the text and graphic formatting of your InDesign File will save HUGE amounts of time later.

I start by establishing some gridlines in the first ‘Master’ page and then recreate the first spread. I then do the same for the next and so on — always making sure to keep the text boxes and graphics separated by layers.

Something I glossed over a little just now was that I started a ‘Master’ page. That means that if I want to use the page as a template throughout the rest of the portfolio, I can apply the template to any page I want to later. It’s an important distinction from a Normal page because I won’t have the same level of efficiency and control over the final product otherwise.

I went through all of my sketches and created a variety of Master pages.

Below are a few of the preliminary results. Try to see if you can recreate your own sketches now so that you have your own series of Master pages.

InDesign // First Master Pages

This is an example of one of my Master Spreads.

InDesign // First Master Pages

This is an example of one of my Master Spreads.

Overall Results

As you can see, once you start getting a few Master Slides going, you can create a variety of combinations of layouts for future use. After a few Spreads have been developed, you can get a better sense of what works and what doesn’t. Don’t be afraid to get rid of a Master Template or change it up from your sketch.

Next Time

In the next series post, we’ll go through a project and begin to populate a section of the portfolio with real assets I’ll use in the final portfolio. I’ll print a draft copy of the portfolio as well to see where I’m at and share the results.

For now, you can download a copy of where I ended up by clicking the button below.

Let me know in the comments how your own portfolio is coming and if there’s anything specifically you’d like me to follow up on or address in a future post.

Thanks for coming along on this journey with me. I think we’re really making some good progress!

SkillsMichael LaValley