Your baby’s ugly: 5 ways to improve your creative portfolio and get that job.

Greetings, creative person! You’ve run away to join the digital circus as a copywriter, visual designer, user experience jockey or title-yet-to-be-conjured, and that’s glorious. You’re smart enough to have recently updated your online portfolio with new work, but you still find that your downtime between gigs is getting uncomfortably longer.

“What’s happening? Is the tech economy tanking again? Have they figured out I’m a hack? Do I need to start buying ramen in bulk?”

Nope. Most likely you’re out of work because your online portfolio, the gateway to your next job, stinks more than a sweaty outhouse at Coachella. On Day 3.

Over 90% of the portfolios I’ve reviewed obscure great creative work through misguided design decisions, haphazard information, and confused narratives. You know who’s misguided, haphazard and confused? Daffy Duck. Don’t be that guy. Don’t let your professional face remind anybody of that guy. To prevent such a condition, here’s five ways to make employment-friendly improvements to your portfolio that will help you get an interview:

1. Become a speed freak — make your portfolio quick to scan.

When a Creative Director is looking to hire new talent for a project, one thing is for sure: that project is already behind schedule. And struggling through a labyrinthian portfolio featuring a tiny maze of shrimp-sized caption-less images doesn’t seem like a great use of time.

But a scannable portfolio, with defined section headers and images large enough to convey meaning, will be reviewed first because it takes less effort to do so. Clearly state what you created for every portfolio entry so that all your skills are placed in context and not overlooked. If your work mainly consists of sites and landing pages then having prominently-placed live links is crucial, and mandatory if you’re a coder.

Even if you have zero site-building skills and limited funds you can use sites like Behance and Squarespace to help you create easy-to-scan portfolios quickly and simply, so you can focus on the work you do best.

2. Phone it in — make it mobile-friendly.

Since most email is opened on a smartphone, your portfolio will be viewed on a smartphone. Having a responsive site ensures that your work is seen in the best light, regardless of screen size. But having a non-responsive site could not only result in a broken user experience, but also telegraphs “I don’t understand the current climate of the Internet.”

The same is true for using a gargantuan-sized PDF as a portfolio, as they make for a hideously frustrating mobile experience. PDFs over 50MB are glacially slow to download on typical cell speeds, resize poorly, and feature little logical interaction besides the user swiping back and forth within it. On some email systems they are even too big to forward to a colleague, which instantly reduces its chances of being seen.

This also means saying goodbye to Flash, since it won’t function on mobile devices at all. I’m sure your Flash-enabled banner ads, page takeovers and Facebook games were fantastic in their day, and there’s no harm in showing them on your portfolio as static images or video clips. But unless you are specifically gunning for a Flash animation position, your Flash assets will drag your portfolio from “charmingly current” to “sedately stagnant”.

3. Lose some weight — only show your best work.

Your portfolio is as strong as your weakest piece, which is why you should be ruthless about self-curation. Show less mercy to your own work than a meter maid with a quota. I’ve seen stellar portfolios with as little as five entries, but each one was a jewel.

The response you want to create in a reviewer’s mind is “OMG! I hope they’re still available!”. But if you lard up your portfolio with well-intentioned but B-level work, that response degrades into “maybe the early stuff was a fluke”. Your ability to tell “meh” from “yeah!” is why someone wants to hire you. If you can’t divine that difference in your own work, you’ll look inconsistent at best, and confused at worst.

4. Brag about money — only show work you made on the clock.

Unless you’ve recently graduated don’t show what you made in college, where you had generous creative deadlines set by caring requesters. Same goes for your cousin’s wedding invitation or your mom’s artisan cupcake logo. Lovely as that work may be, it doesn’t show how well you can function under pressure with vague direction from paying clients with underdeveloped tastes.

Conversely, if you can display top-notch work from a company known for mediocrity, you’ll vault to the top of the interview list.

5. Start some name calling — define your narrative.

Having many creative talents has come in handy when you needed to make rent, but which ones should you promote on your portfolio? I’ll show you, interactively.

Make a circle with the index finger and thumb of your left hand. (Yes, I seriously would like you to do this.) Call this circle “Stuff I Love To Make”. Start listing in your head everything you’ve created with passion in the last six months, and mentally place them in the circle.

Now make a circle with the index finger and thumb of your right hand. Call this circle “Stuff People Pay Me to Create”. Everything you’ve created in the last year that resulted in money gets mentally placed into this circle.

Bring one circle slightly over the other circle, resulting in a new oval-shaped space. Call this new intersection “What Goes In My Portfolio”. For example, if your idea of fun is to stay up all night crafting icons so arresting that others want you to make icons for them, then you should definitely trumpet your icon-making ability. But that PowerPoint template you made under duress because a client asked and it just came out OK — skip it.

Don’t feel the need to apply all of these steps at once. Some of them are quicker than others and some, like self-curation, may need to be repeated from time to time. On a practical note, you’ll still need to get a job with the portfolio you have, since you can’t pay for artisanal coffee with your personal charm. But…once you’ve streamlined your portfolio to display your most compelling creative in a clear and relevant fashion, you’ll see a demonstrable increase in job interest.