Dear Ueno: What are the dos and don’ts of an online portfolio?

Dear Ueno is an advice column for people who for some weird reason think we know what we’re doing. Read more about it.


From Bayron van den Boomen in Veldhoven, the Netherlands:

“Dear Ueno, I’m a 19 year old digital design student who’s currently in the research phase of his first online portfolio. I thought it would be a good idea to contact some of the best creative agencies and ask for some advice on the dos and don’ts of an online portfolio. I would greatly appreciate if you could maybe give me some tips on this matter. Thanks in advance.”

Jenny Johannesson, Senior Designer at Ueno in San Francisco, replies:

Hi Bayron,

Sounds like you have some really exciting times ahead of you. When it comes to portfolios (and design in general), there’s no black and white. But hold on to your butt, because I’m about to guide you through the world of online design portfolios.

Actual photo of me writing this Medium post.

First of all, you need to define a goal with your portfolio, and then work towards that through the whole project. Are you looking for a job, or do you just want to razzle-dazzle the design community with your awesomeness? What type of designer do you want to be? Where do you want to work and what type of work do you want to be doing? If you’re looking for a job, having thorough case studies might be more important than a website that spins around in circles and shoots lasers. A portfolio targeted for advertising agencies would have to be bolder and crazier than if you want to get a serious job creating digital health care systems and changing the world. (Fabricio Teixeira, Creative Director at R/GA, wrote about the role of a designer’s portfolio — open his post in a new tab and read it after you finish my masterpiece of an answer.)

Since you’re a student, I’m assuming you’ll be using your portfolio to hunt for jobs. As per your question, I’ve divided this guide in to dos and don’ts, where the sections are sort of in order of importance.

Dos!

Treat the landing page like the cover of a book. Not only does it need to be attractive, the user should also be able to tell at first glance who you are and what you do. If not, potential employers will swipe left right away. (That’s how the world works nowadays, right?)

“We get dozens of applications every week and over the years I must have seen tens of thousands of portfolios. So when I review a site I usually take about four to five seconds before deciding whether it’s worth exploring further. If the right first impression isn’t there then I usually move to the next application very fast.”
– Haraldur Thorleifsson, founder of Ueno.

Create thorough case studies. Keep in mind that whoever is looking at your site knows nothing about the project and challenges you had to tackle. Specify what the problem was, how you solved it, why you did it, how you did it and who you were working with. If you want to include sketches and photos of the process, that’s fine, but don’t forget that you’re a designer and your case page needs to look hella good too! And please make sure your cases are consistent; if it looks like different people made each case page, then it’s pretty easy to assume you just pulled images from the rest of the team and didn’t do the actual work. Check out Amy and Jennifer Hood’s site for inspiration, or Vilde Moen Hudson’s Behance page. Anton and Irene also has amazing case pages.

Nick Jones has one of my favorite portfolios ever — it’s nuts!

Stand out! Looking at lots of portfolios gets really boring. Do something new; combine unusual colors, make a whack layout or use that crazy font you bookmarked but have always been too afraid to use. Be brave and stand out from the crowd, even if just a little. Some silly “design critic” will maybe tweet something mean, and someone may hate on it on a “design” forum. So what? It’s way better than being ignored.

Show work you’d like to be hired to do. If you want to design marketing sites, then show marketing sites. I wouldn’t hire an illustrator to design apps any more than I’d hire a butcher to fix my car.

A great example of a side project is this sick redesign of The New York Times.

“But I only have ‘fake’ projects to show!” We’ve all been there, and to be honest, I love when portfolios show side projects. It shows you have a passion for design outside of school or work. Just make sure that it’s realistic, even if it’s just a concept design. I don’t want to see a fancy redesign of Facebook where you’ve removed 50% of the UI and made it completely useless.

Have a great bio that lets your personality shine through. Tell us who you are, what you do, your specialties, where you’ve worked — and ABSOLUTELY boast about the baller clients you’ve worked with and awards you’ve won! As a European myself, I know it can be hard to brag, but moving to the US really made me get over that. I’m very humble, because I’m the best! 😉 Check out Chris Bramford’s really thorough about page.

Make space for projects under NDA, but be cryptic. Hide them behind a password, or have people email you to request access. It’s quite common that clients won’t allow you to show really recent projects, and you should respect that. But having a grayed out tile in your portfolio grid that says “Apple” is generally better than to not mention it at all. If all else fails, make a $10,000,000 paywall to cover legal fees!

Don’ts!

Don’t copy someone else’s portfolio. Looking at you, Peter and Jorge…

Leave my portfolio alone!

Don’t lie or take credit for other people’s work. Yes, people really do this. And yes, we will figure it out, because everyone knows everyone in this industry! If the work in your portfolio is very inconsistent, this may be a clear warning signal. When one of your projects is way better than the others because you worked with a baller Art Director, at least specify that in your portfolio.

Don’t show everything. Only show projects you’re proud of. If you get invited to an interview, you should be prepared to talk about every single project in your portfolio — even that old embarrassing one you tried to hide at the bottom. So you’re better off just leaving that one out, and only show just a couple of projects that you really like. Same reason you wouldn’t put your school portrait from seventh grade on your Tinder profile. (Yes, I know that’s the second Tinder reference in this post. Don’t overthink it.)

Dribbble is not a portfolio. It’s a great place to quickly share random designs, illustrations and small UI interactions, but there is literally no context. If you want people to review your work, you need to put in the effort of making case pages to properly explain things.

Don’t even think about making a skill chart. 78% Photoshop, 82% Sketch, 86% Motion Design and 53% Prototyping. What would make you 100%? Is anyone 100%? Why is the chicken wearing purple pants?

Don’t make a PDF portfolio if you’re looking for digital work. It’s 2017 and there are a million other ways to show your work. Don’t be lazy!

Don’t call yourself a Junior Designer. You’re a Designer. Let your portfolio do the talking and don’t degrade yourself like that.

If this isn’t enough for you, check out Tobias van Schneider’s 5 other things you should avoid when building your design portfolio.

Now what?

Go make your portfolio! If you need help making a custom one, I suggest you pair up with a developer friend who builds your portfolio in exchange for your help with designing theirs. If you want to use a CMS, I’d recommend you to look in to these:

Semplice

Semplice uses Wordpress, and their latest update is great! It’s a super easy way to make a nice looking portfolio without having to type a single line of code (although you can, if you really want to). And their showcase is full of inspiration.

ReadyMag

ReadyMag is an easy way to create a magazine-like portfolio, and you can have objects animate in with the scroll. Check out some examples.

Behance

If all else fails, you can make great case studies on Behance (and connect it all with Adobe Portfolio). I wouldn’t even be mad if your site was a stand-alone one-pager with links to case studies on Behance. Whatever gets the job done.

And that’s it from me.

Dikke doei doei en veel geluk met je portfolio, Bayron!

— Jenny


Jenny Johannesson is a husband, father and a third thing. You should probably follow her on Twitter. To submit questions to Dear Ueno, email hi@ueno.co with the subject line “Dear Ueno” or tweet at us with the hashtag #DearUeno. Include your name (fake if you want), location, and profession.