Image credits: Sergey Zolkin @ Unsplash

Why your next portfolio shouldn’t be a PDF

Design portfolios live through their content. Or at least they should. But while a portfolio’s content is one thing, how that content is wrapped and delivered is another. Nowadays, PDF and website portfolios are the most common way to do exactly that. But when it comes to which is the better choice, opinions still differ. It’s time to put this discussion to rest and see, why your next portfolio probably shouldn’t be a PDF.

Building a PDF portfolio isn’t inherently wrong. But depending on what kind of design you practice, it’s probably not great either. Let’s take a look at some of the shortcomings of a PDF that can make it a poor choice when it comes to building, viewing, or sharing your design portfolio.

1. PDF portfolios are too linear

A PDF portfolio usually is composed of pages, each of which builds upon the other. Project 1 is followed by project 2, project 2 is followed by project 3, and so on. Just like in a book, this creates a linear narrative of your projects. And this is not always working in your favor.

The linear and page-like structure of a PDF makes it not only difficult to quickly flip through your portfolio, but also exhausting to jump back and forth between projects. Because the order of your projects is set and the time of your audience is scarce, you have to make a tough decision: how much of each project can you afford to show? If each project has too many pages, most of your audience might not make it past your second project. But if each project has too little, you might lack depth and substance. When deciding on how much of each project you want to show, the medium shouldn’t be the limiting factor.

2. PDF portfolios are a hassle to update

It’s an unspoken truth that a portfolio is never truly finished. Ideally, you’d revisit your portfolio over time and update what you’re currently working on, adding new projects, or removing old ones. In that sense, a portfolio is a breathing thing that needs love and care. If you want to keep your portfolio maintained and up-to-date, your portfolio content must be easy to update— and this where a PDF portfolio can become a real headache.

Every time you export your portfolio as a PDF file, the portfolio basically gets set in stone. Layers get flattened, graphics get rasterized, and the complete document gets compressed. This means that every time you want to make any further changes, you always have to return to your original file (which you always have to keep around). Because of this, even minor changes such as changing a single heading can create an enormous overhead and waste time that you already don’t have. At best you spend an entire afternoon updating your projects, at worst you don’t update your portfolio at all.

3. PDF + 🎞️ = 🙁

Pictures are worth a thousand words. And animations maybe even more. Small clips or GIFs are a powerful tool to communicate your ideas and facilitate content to your audience. You can use animations to bring process images to life, illustrate user interactions, or explain complex mechanics. But in a PDF, you can’t. At least not properly.

Having to give up on animations and videos means having to give up on a tool that can be used to communicate your ideas. In a portfolio where content and its communication are key, this can be a significant limitation.

4. PDF portfolios are awkward to view

When you export your portfolio as a PDF, it gets rendered with a fixed resolution and aspect ratio. This means that the viewing experience of your portfolio depends entirely on the device it is being viewed on. This seeming disadvantage of PDFs is by design. In fact, PDF files are supposed to look exactly the same across multiple devices.

Imagine that you export your PDF as a 16:9 landscape-oriented document. While it might look nice on your desktop, on a mobile phone it’s an entirely different story. Since the landscape orientation of your document is retained on your phone, you’d have to rotate your phone or endure a lot of pinching and finger gymnastics to view your portfolio properly.

5. PDF portfolios are awkward to share

What is a portfolio without an audience? In order to make your PDF portfolio accessible to other people, you constantly have to send a PDF file around. While uploading the file to a cloud drive makes life easier, even then you’d still have to share an obscure link that points to it. Either way, sharing and viewing your PDF portfolio involves some extra steps for both you and your audience. By the time your portfolio reaches your audience, the interest in it might be gone.

6. PDF portfolios are large

Sharing a PDF portfolio means sharing a single document that can’t be separated. Even if you’re only interested in one particular project, you’d still have to download the entire file. This plays into one of the pitfalls of a PDF document: its file size. Design portfolios usually contain a lot of high-res images and graphics. Just a few images can already mean a double-digit of megabytes and just a few more and the file size starts to snowball. This becomes a concern when you think about the context in which your portfolio might be viewed — are people really going to download your 100MB portfolio when they’re on the go using their phone?

Wrapping up

Most of the shortcomings of a PDF portfolio come from the fact that it’s not the best tool for the job. Instead, all of the above problems can be solved or mitigated by using a website portfolio. While the barrier to entry of a website is significantly higher than that of a PDF portfolio, it certainly pays off in the long run.

Oh, and one more thing…what about (ab)using a PDF portfolio as a website?

If you already have a PDF portfolio and want to transition to a web portfolio, chances are that you already thought about converting your PDF pages into images and embedding them on your website.

While you’re making your portfolio somewhat accessible on the web, you’re not reaping any of the benefits a website offers. In fact, you probably make things worse. Texts are getting baked into images and are not selectable anymore. Fonts are getting rasterized and screen size becomes the decisive factor in whether you can read your content at all. The list goes on but the message here is simple: it’s not a good idea. Embedding PDF pages on a website is the equivalent of printing out a website. It’s a mixing of media that just doesn’t work. If you want to share your PDF with the world, you should keep it as a PDF.

MFA Interaction Design @ Umeå Institute of Design

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