How to Build a Design Portfolio Without Clients

The struggles of a new graphic designer. You know you can do the work but you have not had the chance to land any projects yet, been there done that. You find yourself in a circle. "I need clients to add work to my portfolio but wait, what work am I suppose to show potential clients?" We have all been there. The most common answer you probably will get is "start doing work for free". Well, think about that before you put up a "Free Design Work Here" post.

The challenge with free work is, it's free. If you do something with no incentive rather than be compensation or for a great cause, you could lack effort in completing the project. This could result in not so great work. You could also attract people who do not see the value in your work nor your time. Without "skin in the game" people have nothing to lose. So if not for free then how could I build a portfolio? Is this what you are thinking? Well here are ways I have used to build a portfolio.

Student Work

Grab that old hard drive a select a few projects you think you can enhance. I know when I look back at some of my freshman year work I giggle a little bit. Oh, how I have grown. The past work is a good way to get a few portfolio pieces. Clean up the work a little, show off your new skills. Be sure to only include projects that represent work you want to do. If you want to focus on logo design, you do not want your website full of poster designs.

Need some inspiration? Check out a few portfolios on Behance


Okay before you get confused, let me explained the difference between volunteer work and straight out free. When you choose to volunteer your service, choose a company, event, or the cause you feel a level of connection with or will bring you value.

If there is a local event with thousands of attendees, this may be the spot for you to display your work. No, you are not getting paid in cold hard cash but there may be a good tradeoff. Maybe there is a walk such as a Breast Cancer walk in which you feel connected to, design a few t-shirts for the cause and have a piece for your portfolio in return.

When you volunteer your service be selective, choosing something you are motivated to work for and find the value for yourself and the other party.

Mock Projects

Flat out make the projects up! Eventually you will need work from clients to provided testimonials but for now, mock projects will do the job. If you are a brand designer, create a company from scratch, document the process and add it to your portfolio.

When I started out I used Briefbox to find design projects. You can search through the database for a project and create a design. Focus on producing high-quality work. Potential clients want to see that you know what you are doing.


You are your first client. Build your brand for your current business as if you were working with someone else. Ask yourself questions, create sketches, and produce a great product. This will not only add a project to your portfolio but get yourself time to perfect your process.

You can also create a brand for a business you would like to start in the future. Say if you want to own a food truck in a few years, (I want to own a vegetarian food truck in the future) you can once again treat yourself like a client. You win all around, another portfolio piece and a brand for your future business.

Barter System

Talk about killing two birds with one stone. Find some that can benefit from your services and vice versa. I used this method plenty of times starting out. Photoshoots, editing, whatever I needed. I connected with a new business that had yet built a brand for their business and was able to crank out a few brand design projects.

Your Turn!

Take down that free work over here sign and build a portfolio that brings you value. Share your work in the Brand Builders Club on Facebook. I would love to see what you come up with.