This question comes from a tough conundrum often faced by new designers who only have work from school projects, internships, and perhaps an entry level design gig. They're feeling like, "My portfolio isn't rich. I need more work to show, but I need a job to make more work, but I can get a job because I need more work..."
Yes employers would love to see a range of projects, especially ones that were actualized, but most importantly, they're looking for someone with amazing design thinking skills and a strong sense of creativity. The solution is easy. Create your own projects.
I mean, you can always do more freelance work for family and friends to help build your portfolio, but sometimes those assignments won't give you the opportunity to go as crazy as you wish. Therefore, pretend you're back in school or working for an imaginary design firm, make your own brief, and execute.
The beauty of this is that you can work on projects that really interest you, and spend as much time as you need to make it the best work possible. Whether it's a re-brand for company you admire, a t-shirt design for a hypothetical clothing brand, or a series of web animations for a toy store, you can add work that really highlights your creative skills.**
Here are some ideas to get you thinking about what you can create:
Exploring subjects that you're passionate about will allow you to get excited, especially since this is extra work you're making for yourself — it should be fun. Using your imagination to create dynamic work is a great way to attract employers, especially if you create an imaginary brief for a company where you see yourself working. This shows the potential employer your interest early on, beyond a cover-letter and resume. It's also great to consider topics that aren't often explored, pursuing these topics will allow you to stand out.
After you execute, make sure you photograph or print your pieces, upload the images to your portfolio site/Pinterest/Instagram, and showcase the project on your blog. Show the world that you've been busy.
I have a few small self-initiated projects going that I revisit when I can. What about you, have you already done something like this for your portfolio or just to keep your design chops fresh? Tell me about it.
**important side-note: In the real world you're not always going to have the opportunity to work on projects or topics you like, which to some degree should not hinder how you solve a visual problem. Employers want to know you can provide a design solution regardless of the assignment. With that said, please know that "I didn't like the assignment" should NEVER be a good excuse for bad work.