Showing Off: How to Make your Web Design Portfolio Work for You

For any decent web design studio, or even an individual designer, a blazing hot portfolio is one of the most powerful weapons you can possess in the battle to win new contracts. The portfolio goes beyond the scope of all your other marketing, providing actual proof that your walk is as good as your talk.

But as we all know, quality portfolios can be an absolute hell to assemble, and they hardly ever tell the whole story in the way you'd like it told. Clients can completely ruin a good design within a matter of hours of the site leaving your hands. Even when a client site is completely under your own control, clients can still ruin it through nonsensical requests and refusing to accept advice. This is why even fantastic designers can struggle to amass an impressive portfolio.

It is simply astounding how many great designers really let themselves down with a terrible portfolio. The thing to know is that it's better not to have a portfolio at all than to have a bad one. Fortunately the perfect portfolio is achievable, as we'll help you with in this article.

1. Understand the task

One of the contributing factors to the portfolio problem is that designers don't always properly understand the true purpose of a portfolio. It will really help if you make sure to remember what a portfolio is not. It definitely isn't a showcase of all the work you have done in the past, and it's certainly not a collection of links to your previous work, or even an image gallery of your previous work.

Most design studios do actually make the mistake of doing exactly what I just said should not be done. It seems the natural agenda, because it's way people are taught to think in school and during the early stages of any career or job search. It's completely wrong though, because your portfolio needs to be future focused. The client is going to be thinking “Who cares what you did for that guy? I want to know what you can do for me.”

That doesn't mean your past achievements are not relevant, but as with everything we do on the web, it all has to be about the end user and not so much about you. So where does that leave you? It means that everything going in your portfolio must be relevant to what a potential client needs, and you need to show why it is relevant to them.

2. Weed the garden

If you just let nature do its thing in your back yard, you don't really have a garden, just a bunch of random plants and weird bugs. To make a good garden, you need to be highly selective about which plants you will allow to grow and which you will get rid of.

You need to be equally selective about what goes in your portfolio and what stays out, though we do recommend you use a different fertilizer to the one you use in the garden. If you just put everything in your portfolio without any selectivity, you're taking three risks:

  • You risk losing relevance
  • You risk overwhelming the client with choices
  • You risk including a site sample that detracts from your image instead of enhancing it

We love honesty and it's a great policy, but the only time you should be showing everything is when you're a nudist in an appropriate place for nudism. Otherwise it's better to conceal things that would better remain private, lest they cause embarrassment.

3. Dress it up like it's going to the prom

Obviously if you are making a site to showcase your site building skills, it should be a work of art that is worth showing off. In fact if you really nail it, you'll get people talking about your portfolio, sharing it, and using it as an example of how to make a great portfolio. You can't get better publicity than that!

This is the one place where it's really OK to be as creative as you want, especially if in general you've been creating business sites where there's not much room for making jaws drop.

Be careful of “sameness”. You don't want a portfolio that is too conservative or unoriginal. You've to to stand out if you want to make an impact. A quick case study can demonstrate this.

Rodesk versus Studio Schurk:

What's good about the Rodesk site?

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  • Great typography choices
  • Simple design
  • Clear and uncluttered
  • Relatively interesting & engaging copy
  • Site doesn't require too much figuring out
  • Portfolio well organized and not cluttered
  • Only 4 portfolio samples, but strong ones

What's probably not so good about the site?

  • Navigation waits to be discovered
  • Big pages, big pictures, lot's of scrolling
  • Some feeling of cliché
  • Very standard design, few risks taken

Who will Rodesk appeal to?

  • Big business clients who want to play safe

What's good about the Studio Schurk site?

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  • Instantly grabs attention with quirky animations
  • Beautiful use of comic book style typography
  • Clean and simple 2 col layout on text sections
  • More great animations between sections
  • Navigation is very simple and straightforward
  • There's a feeling of freshness and vigor
  • Name-dropping is done tastefully and appropriately

What's probably not so good about the site?

  • Portfolio section seems cluttered
  • There are probably too many samples
  • Portfolio should be strongest part of site, but it looks like it was added as an afterthought.

Who will Studio Schurk appeal to?

  • Those who appreciate originality and who are unafraid to experiment with a non-standard approach.

It's not that one of these is better than the other, as each has strengths and weaknesses. Both sites are actually excellent, and of course cater to completely different markets. The question, however, is which one is likely to stand out, be remembered, and get talked about? Which one is likely to get lost in the blur of thousands of other similar sites?

When it comes to showing off, the more unique and special you seem to be, the more likely it is that you'll get noticed in a good way. Just try not to be so different that it's hard to understand what kind of site you've arrived at.

4. Great copy is still important

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but you're still better off including words, and plenty of them. Tell a story, share your creative journey, or simply make the reader laugh. Whatever it takes to get them engaged with the content and interested in finding out more about you.

Your sample images should not link directly to the subject website. You need each one to link to a dedicated page that tells the story of the subject website, dissecting it and pointing out anything important or special. The goal is not to simply state what you did, but to state it in such a way that the person reading it cares about what you did and why. You want them to relate to it and be thinking about how you can effectively assist them in achieving their goals.

Keep it simple and on point, but also entertaining enough not to send them to sleep. If writing isn't your strong point, hire a professional writer to whip your copy into shape, then apply your design skills to make that text a work of art.

5. Make it easy for the client to contact you

Sending a message to you from your site should never require more than two clicks. If the customer can't easily get in touch, you're really wasting your time. Also it's not a bad idea to use auto-responders to avoid a situation where a customer feels like they're being ignored if you don't reply instantly.

Concluding Remarks

Building a great portfolio is so difficult that many designers don't even bother to make one at all. And really you don't need to have one, but if you do have one, you must make sure it is one you can really be proud to display. Anything less than 100% effort and passion in creating your portfolio means you will get a mediocre result. This means you will probably only get mediocre clients with mediocre projects. Don't settle, you're better than that.

header image courtesy of Fireart Studio

Bogdan Rancea

Bogdan is a founding member of Inspired Mag, having accumulated almost 6 years of experience over this period. In his spare time he likes to study classical music and explore visual arts. He’s quite obsessed with fixies as well. He owns 5 already.