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It doesn't mean what you think it means

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It seems that more and more people use the word ‘folio’ to mean ‘portfolio’ in professional design context, as in “Submit your resume and folio to apply.” Umm, no. Folio and portfolio are related terms but not synonyms. You don′t say ‘fast’ to mean ‘breakfast,’ do you?

Folio in design context

A traditional graphic designer might tell you folio means page numbering. A printer might tell you it means a printed sheet or its folded sizes. In any case, the term folio in print design has something to do with producing multiple pages of editorial layout.

A printed page number

It's a functional element. Any printed material with more pages than a handful could use a page number—not just a book, but also contracts, syllabi, or just about anything that has text worth referring to printed over multiple pages. A folio makes it possible to say things like "According to the Exhibit B on printed 175," or "Let's pick up where we left off on chapter 3 at page 235."

At bare minumum, a folio is a printed page number that works as a way finder. Often, however, a folio might contain multiple additional elements (e.g. book title, chapter number, chapter title, published date, etc.).

Indianapolis Early Music folio example A folio with publication title, web address, and page number (image source: underconsideration.com)

It's also an expressive design element, with which designers subtly show off their typographic composition skills and attention to detail on a page. A well-designed and well-crafted folio is a turn-on for many designers.

Folio example from CNTraveler.com A sophisticated folio with asymmetrical composition (image source: fontsinuse.com)

A sheet of paper for book binding

In this context, a folio means a full single sheet of paper, which is then folded in half and bound at the center fold to make a book. While I have to confess that I've never personally used those latin words at work (as explained in the illustration below), over the years I have produced countless of saddle-stitch booklets in a variety of sizes and can attest that it's a concept widely in use.

Folio, quatro, octavo print size explained The Folio: printing, folding and cutting, compared to the quarto and octavo. (image source: Wikipedia)

Portfolio in design context

A portfolio is a large, flat briefcase used to hold papers and other loose materials.
vocabulary.com

Wikipedia's definition of artist's portfolio reads applicable here. A design portfolio is an edited collection of a person's best design work intended to showcase their style or method of work. The goal is to show potential employers and clients their versatility and professionalism.

Today a portfolio is typically assumed to be a digital format—be it a PDF, a website, or a video reel—rather than a printed collection. But even just ten years ago it was still common to bring physical, printed design samples to job interviews: posters, booklets, brochures, letterheads, whatever. To carry those large-size prints, people needed even larger-size briefcases: the portfolio case.

A portfolio case from progresspackaging.co.uk A portfolio case (image source: progresspackaging.co.uk)

Etymology of Portfolio

Porta- means “to carry” and folio “a sheet of paper.” By origin portfolio just means a case for carrying loose papers. Through the particular use case of designers and artists, the word started to mean “a collection of selected work samples (often carried in those cases).”

My professional work samples now reside digitally—presented on my website, managed on GitHub, and hosted via Netlify. Even the print design works are shown as PDFs or JPGs. If anything, I'd bring my laptop or iPhone to an interview to showcase interactive pieces. So, in a literal sense, I don't have a portfolio.

TL;DR

  • Folio is
    • a sheet of paper used for printing, and
    • as a related concept, a page number printed on a page.
  • Portfolio is
    • a case to carry those sheets of paper, and
    • by convention, a curated collection of professional work samples.

Yeah, I know a language is an organic, ever-changing system, and words carry different meanings over time. But I cannot yet agree that folio can mean portfolio in the context of design profession. Not after having designed a ton of folios (page numbering) to be printed on lots of folios (sheets of paper) to be carried in portfolio (case) as my portfolio (work samples).

Don't mind me. You can keep saying folio to mean portfolio. Just know that the word doesn't mean what you think it means.

Inigo Montoya to Sicilian Inigo Montoya says... (image source: memegenerator.net)

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