Creating the perfect portfolio

What you need to know

If you’re a designer looking for a job — whether of the freelance or permanent variety — then an online portfolio is pretty much mandatory. In many instances, your portfolio will be looked at without you present, without any other information about you, and probably by a person who has never spoken to or seen you in person.

If your portfolio has to stand alone in a critical situation like hiring, It’s worth spending some time making sure It’s going to get the job done !

I like to think I’ve seen all the angles on portfolios; I started out working as a designer internship, went a bit freelance. Let me share with you some of my observations and opinions — particularly from the viewpoint of an employer — on how to approach the task of building an online portfolio.

Identify your audience

At its core, building an online portfolio is much the same as any other design brief — the only difference is that you are your own client. So as with any design brief, it’s best to begin by asking yourself, “who is my target audience?” Let’s look at two types of portfolios.

Portfolios to get hired

In this case your audience is clearly potential employers. These people will certainly have a keen sense of aesthetics, and may even be designers themselves, although that isn’t always the case. This audience will be looking to see the quality of your work, but also what involvement you had in each project, find out a bit about you, and discover how work can help them in their business.

Portfolios to get clients

Here your audience is two-fold. One the one hand we have potential new clients, or leads as they tend to be known — these are your main target audience, as they are the ones bringing in new work. But on the other hand you also have existing clients who may also wish to see where you are at, refer you to someone else, or to complete some admin task such as finding your contact or billing details. In this article we’ll focus mostly on the leads.

The potential employer

As a designer looking to get hired, it’s worth taking a moment and getting into the headspace of the person who is looking to employ you. Know your audience and you know how to communicate with them.

What can we assume about a potential employer ? Often they will be someone with a web and design background themselves, probably capable of doing the job they are hiring you for. Chances are this person is looking through dozens, if not hundreds, of portfolios. They are looking for a person who will fit into their organization, be able to jump into current projects, be capable as the person they are replacing, and who understands what to do.

The different steps you need to know

1) Get to it

If someone needs to review a hundred portfolios, you can bet they will come up with some shortcuts to make fast decisions about their potential employee.

When I used to look through job applications , for the most part I would open the email and look for a link to click. My first thought would be “is this portfolio downright ugly or horrible ?” If it managed to pass that simple test then I’d go straight to work samples, and only if the works was good would I consider reading an about page, blog, or doing anything else. The obvious corollary is that you have to have some work to show.

I would immediately reject any applicant who just sent a résumé with no portfolio of any kind. I was also extremely suspicious of web designers with no website themselves.

You should remember that a potential employer will probably make up their mind within the first half-dozen pieces you show — if you’ve got the goods, get them to the front of the portfolios so they act as a hook. Certainly when I would look through portfolios, if I didn’t see what I liked early on I wouldn’t bother going much further.

The main rule here is to get to your portfolio quickly and show your best hand. Only once you’ve made the cut as a potential candidate can you afford to show extra work, talk about yourself, or go off topic.

2) Explain your work

Unfortunately many portfolios show work in insolation. Design operates in context, and the business and work of design even more so. Who was the client ? What was the brief ? What problem was it solving ? How did your work solve their needs ?

Giving information about a portfolio piece not only fills the viewer in on the job, but gives you a chance to shine. While you don’t need to write an essay, giving some details will allow the employer to appreciate it not just on an aesthetic level, but on a practical client project level too.

3) Choose wich work you show carefully

I’ve already mentioned getting the best pieces to the front. Taking that a step further, ask yourself what your employer is going to be interested in seeing.

Ask yourself, what type of work does this agency or company do ? What projects can I show that best illustrate how I would help them with their business. Remember, your potential employer is looking at you as someone to work within their existing team, culture, practice.

4) Wrappers should be easy to open

Have you ever bought a candy bar and had to spend ages fiddling with it just to get to the chocolate inside ? No, because companies that make packaging that badly designed would go out of business.

People with not much to do may enjoy exploring a portfolio and clicking on hard to find links to see tiny thumbnails of your work, but a busy potential employer will not. Make your portfolio fast, accessible and simple. If you want to show your interactive creativity, it’s best to do it in the portfolio, not on it. So be careful of what you do.

The two key concepts here are usability and showing the work properly. As far as usability is concerned, it’s really not a good idea to test out new methods of navigation and interaction on a site that is supposed to win you jobs. Interaction and navigation should be seamless and intuitive — anything else makes you look irresponsible.

When it comes to showing your work, make previews large, include links to website, and avoid popping up dozens of new windows. Nothing is more frustrating than not being able to see a candidate’s work fully — and nothing is more likely to get you boosted off this short list !

The business lead

There is much more variation in clients than there is in potential employers, but we can still make some general assumptions. A typical lead may be uncertain — unless they have a referral, they are looking at you out of the blue. Moreover, they may not even be sure of what they need beyond a vague idea that they “need a website”. And, of course, just like those potential employers a business lead is short on time.

1) Uncertainty

There are many things people find reassuring, but some of the simplest are:

  • Provide testimonials. Having reassuring quotes from previous clients helps quell uncertainty. The best way to get a testimonials ? Ask ! Most clients are happy to provide a few words over email. Just remember to keep them short and to the point.
  • Who else have you worked with ? You might also consider a page showing a client list, or even a rotating graphic on your homepage with some famous clients brands.
  • Be professional. You don’t need to be a corporate designer to act and look professional. Just make sure the copy on your site is well thought-out, that there are no spelling mistakes, your links all work, your design is polished, and that you’ve taken care to present yourself well.

2) Unsure of their needs

You might try some of the following:

  • List your services and explain what they are. A client who needs a simple logo job may not know that you can also help them brand their email and Power Point presentations as well. A page that explains what you can do is a great way to sell a potential client on your services.
  • Explain portfolio pieces and how they helped their perspective clients. If you present your portfolio with explanations of what they are looking at, how the work solved the business needs of the client, the viewer is much more likely to understand the value in your work.
  • Say how you help businesses. Explain how you can help the potential client achieve their business goals. Remember your leads are only interested in their own requirements.

3) Busy, busy, busy

Business leads are busy. They have their usual workload, plus they need to hire someone new. Consequently it’s a good idea to make your portfolio as painless and efficient as possible. You can do this by :

  • Get your best work up front and don’t overdo it. Put the good stuff at the front and drop anything that isn’t worthwhile showing. A small, sharp, and targeted portfolio is much better than a large, unfocused, and mediocre one. Keep in mind this.
  • Make it easy to contact you. If you’ve managed to win over your prospect to the point that they wish to contact you, then for heaven’s sake make it easy ! A contact form is the best as it avoids the need to even open up an email application, but a simple address will do just as well.

Put yourself in their shoes

So those are some considerations to help frame a portfolio, but the key thing to always bear in mind is that you must put yourself in your audience shoes. What do they want ? What do they need to hear or see to realise that you are the designer for them ? By ensuring your portfolio is communicating to the right person, you stand a better chance of winning the job you really want.


Thank you for reading this article, if you enjoyed my advices, please give a comment or clap in your hands :) I hope all this will help you build a better portfolio for your next business or job. Peace ❤

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