Making An Impression: Part 1

Planning the layout and choosing the carrying case for a design-tech portfolio can be a very exciting project; it creates the opportunity to showcase an individual's character, style, and expertise. Careful research is needed to manage what could become a large and overwhelming task and before purchasing expensive or unfit supplies.

Planning: First Steps

Before investing a lot of time and money in a portfolio, the designer/technician needs to define the goals and uses of it: Will it be carried on a daily basis or occasionally? Will it hold small documents or large works? Will it be used to apply for a job or to apply to a graduate school? How will it be presented: flat or upright? The answers to these questions can clarify the type of case to get. For example, if the body of work is very large — in size and volume — and the portfolio is carried occasionally, then a large case may be the answer. On the other hand, if the work is large and the portfolio case needs to travel constantly, then the designer/technician may consider having a second showcase (that fits in a plane's overhead compartment) with reductions of the work. As portfolios come in many styles and sizes, knowing the purpose of a portfolio will help determine the type of case to choose.

Models, Styles, Dimensions, And Handling

Portfolio cases can be grouped into three categories: binders, presentation cases, and folios. Each one of these can be fitted with a variety of sheet holders that can accommodate different projects. Binders are often used for smaller-project presentations such as paperwork; cases are more traditional and often favored by designers; and folios are excellent for large, hands-free presentations.


Acid-free sheets are recommended to protect artwork, and reinforced rings are a plus for durability. The following are some examples of the products available in the market:

  1. Multi-Ring Binders: They can be attractive and sturdy, usually include five to 10 sheet protectors and have 30- to 50-sheet capacity, depending on the manufacturer. They can be covered in leather, vinyl, or fabric. Rings with metal-reinforced corners are sturdier. They are ideal for small documents and often-traveling portfolios. Typical measurements include 11"×14", 11"×17", 14"×17", 17“×22“, and 18“×24“

  2. Easel Binder: These types of binders feature convenient spine-mounted retractable handles and allow a horizontal or vertical presentation. They are ideal for on-the-road presentations and industrial designs. They often include 10 sheet protectors and have 30-sheet capacity. They can be found in 14"×17", 8½"×11", 11"×14", and 18"×24" sheet sizes.

  3. Aluminum Portfolio Binders: They are stylish and durable — ideal for carpentry, rigging, and electrics. They usually include 10 archival multi-ring sheet protectors, zippered black-nylon jacket, and a set of screw-post extensions. Sizes include 8½"×11", 11"×14", and 11"×17".

  4. Slide-In Pocket Page Portfolio Binders: These are great for work that can be included with the main portfolio — while presenting — but can also stand on its own (i.e., for specific period research and specialty craft projects). They have clear pocket pages for an organized, stylish, and professional presentation. This type of portfolio is ideal for individual project presentation and usually contains 24 pocket pages with black inserts. The best are acid- and PVC-free. Sizes vary depending on the manufacturer; they come in 8½"×11", 9"×12", 11"×14", and 14"×17".

  5. Standard Three-Ring Binder: These are general-use binders for letter 8½"×11", legal 8½"×14", and ledger 11"×17" sheet sizes — best if they have interior storage pockets for miscellaneous items. Their depth can go from 1“ to 3“. They are ideal to store organizational data, charts, slides, photos, and research.

In addition to binders, there are also presentation cases and folios that can serve multiple purposes. They can be the main portfolio or (depending on size) a presentation aid — i.e., to hold paperwork for a project in the main case or an individual project carrying case used at a production meeting presentation.

Presentation Cases

They are the most often-used portfolios in the design-tech field and can be found in many styles, from durable vinyl-coated exterior to metal covers and soft leather. Many of the varieties found in the market feature a solid construction (reinforced base, metal protective floor bumpers, and industrial-strength zippers) and include inside pockets and carrying handles — adding to their manageability and multifunction. Some cases even feature multi-use pockets in their interior to store accessories such as computer disks, business cards, etc. The sheets in this type of portfolio can be part of the carrying mechanism or can be inserts in a separate and removable multi-ring book. This is especially important for someone who may have various books but can only afford one case. Most presentation cases include 10 standard archival sheet protectors and have a 25- to 30-sheet capacity. They measure 8½"×11", 11"×14", 14"×17", 17"×22", and 18"×24"


These are great for hands-free presentations, including industrial designs, museum installations, and designs in other allied fields.

  1. Easel Folios: This type of portfolio is designed with an integrated easel stand, which allows easy desktop display. For standard book use and storage, the easel folds away. Covers are often made of durable black polypropylene. They can hold as many as 20 pages. Acid-free and PVC-free pages are best. Usual sizes are 8½"×11", 11"×14", and 14"×17".

  2. Oversized Expandable Portfolios: Geared for large works, these extra-large-capacity portfolios hold up to 25 sheets of 3/16“ foam board. Zippers open to allow portfolio to lie flat. They often include two 10"×13" outside zipper pockets, business card window, two side handles, and a 6“ expandable gusset. Some have an optional detachable wheel-board for easy transport of heavy artwork. They can expand from 25"×37"×6" to 41"×61"×6".

Inside The Case: Supplies And Materials

The portfolio isn't just the carrying case; the inside organization materials are just as important. The proper sheet holders help the overall look of a presentation, the manageability of the display sheets help the handling of materials, and the durability of the materials ensure that you have a healthy and long-lasting showcase. The right choice can add pizzazz to a portfolio presentation.

  1. Multi-Ring Refill Pages

    a) Laser Archival: These are high-quality, super-clear, non-stick polypropylene sheet protectors that can prevent color alteration and transfer. They are highly recommended for digital images. They are often sealed on three sides with reinforced, perforated multi-ring binder edge and contain acid-free black paper inserts. Sizes: 8½"×11" to 18"×24".

    b) Clear Polyester Archival: Clear polyester sheets often come with deluxe black acid-free insert paper and standard multi-ring perforation. They are recommended for digital images and all laser copies, and will not lift print or toner off artwork. Sizes: 8½"×11" to 18"×24".

    c) Polypropylene Archival: These are heavy-duty, welded polypropylene multi-ring sheet protectors of archival quality — 0045 polypropylene. They are unplasticized, heat resistant, and chemically stable. They come with black acid- and lignin-free paper inserts. Both plastic and paper pass the Photographic Activity Test (PAT) and meet all ANSI requirements for archival storage. Sizes 8½"×11" to 11"×17".

  2. Three-Ring Binder Sheet Protectors

    a) Sheet Protectors: When using a standard three-ring binder, top-load sheet protectors are best if manufactured from heavyweight polypropylene for crystal-clear clarity, safety, and extra strength. They're sealed on three sides and contain pre-punched holes for standard three-ring binders. They come in different varieties such as top-loading; side-loading, quick-load (two sides are open), and fold-out sheets. Sizes: letter 8½"×11", legal 8½"×14", and ledger 11"×17" pages.

    b) Storage Pages: For photo/slide archival purposes, 4-mil polypropylene pages are recommended; they provide high clarity for superior presentation and are suitable for long-term storage. They can be used with standard three-ring binders and are PVC-free. They can be bought in packages of 25 pages. Size Sheet Cap: 2"×2", 3-1/2"×5", 4"×5", 4"×6", 4"×7", 4"×11", 5"×7", and 8"×10" slides.

    c) Tab-Dividers: Useful to separate projects by sections and by categories, they come with insertable tabs and blank-white inserts. They can be found in traditional eight-tab packs or Big Tab five-tab packs — the Big Tab inserts provide 50% more printing space for tab titles than traditional insertable tab dividers. The tab inserts can be created using an inkjet or laser printer.

Specialty Layout Materials And Supplies

The materials and supplies needed to put a portfolio together and create the desired layout include sheet protectors, tab dividers, résumé paper, matting boards, double-sided tape, paper-cutting gadgets, computer print-outs, labels, etc. The following are some important aspects to consider when choosing these materials:

  1. Durability: The best material choices are acid-free, PVC-free, and heat-resistant to preserve the work and to prevent lifting or transferring the color onto the sheet holders.

  2. Safety: When using paper-cutting gadgets it is important to observe manufacturers' instructions and use the instruments that provide confidence to avoid personal injuries and work damage.

  3. Legibility: Background paper, matting boards, labels, and résumé papers should not compete or detract from the project information on display. When making a choice on any of these, it is also important to take into consideration that the paper will have to be photocopied, and the work has to be legible in the copies.

  4. Versatility: Depending on the complexity of the project and how many parts are in display, the materials chosen need to allow flexibility to the presentation: Is the project going to be taken out of its sheet holders? Does the project have multiple components that need different portfolio cases? Does the project include small inserts such as reviews, program, etc., that may not need a full large page? Do all the components need to be bound, or do some need to be free for handling purposes?

Where To Find Specialty Materials And Supplies

Larger cities may give the designer/technician the option to visit an art store in person and speak to an informed salesperson if needed. When this is not an option because of geographical location or a busy schedule, the Internet is the best way to access a very diverse market with many products. Experience dictates that it is best to research first and then shop. Sometimes after identifying a source on the Web, a designer/technician may want to dial the company's customer service number and ask questions about their products directly. Sometimes stores will refer you to another vendor that may carry something more suitable to your needs. Always research first!

Rafael Jaen is a costume designer, technician, and professor who has been designing costumes for more than 27 years. He chairs costume portfolio reviews at the USITT Design Expo and is a respondent for the KC/ACTF. His book, Developing And Maintaining A Design-Tech Portfolio, is published by FOCAL Press/Elsevier Science. He is the costume area supervisor at Emerson College in Boston. For additional information, visit

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