How to Create Your Best Portfolio

August 21, 2018

As the summer draws to a close and the fiscal year begins for many agencies, job and business opportunities abound. For creative types, seizing these opportunities will rely, at least in part, on having a strong portfolio to show potential employers and clients.

In nearly 10 years of working for the government, for agencies, and as a freelancer, I’ve evaluated hundreds of portfolios. Unfortunately, there are more than a few designers I’ve seen who lack either the knowledge or the desire to market themselves effectively through their body of work. Attracting success doesn’t have to be a difficult prospect, though. Here are some steps you can take to put together your best portfolio.

Don’t Be Sloppy

Before everyone had their own personal website, my peers and I would meticulously hone our physical portfolios. Finding that perfect binder, hours of careful review — we did everything we could to improve our presentation, because even the slightest mistake could prove costly.

Now the game has changed. Physical portfolios still exist, especially for print work, but posting your portfolio online is more common now. It provides an amazing level of convenience, as it’s often easier to get eyeballs on your work when it’s accessible at the click of a button. Going the online route, however, also leaves you susceptible to a few pitfalls.

I’m not talking solely about the quality of your work here — it goes without saying that you need strong design samples to make a positive impression. What I’m referring to is how you display your work. If you cut corners on your portfolio’s presentation, you’ll reduce the impact your designs have on potential clients.

Follow these tenets to ensure your portfolio appears professional and gives would-be clients an untarnished estimation of your skills:

  • Check your work for quality — Your portfolio should be a glowing representation of your skills. Hence, the work you include therein should represent the apex of your creative talents. Perform an honest evaluation of your samples and enlist the aid of other designers in assessing your work. They will be able to bring flaws to your attention that you might never have noticed otherwise.
  • Keep your samples organized — If you arrange your work at random, it will be difficult for prospective clients to navigate your portfolio and find the work they’re interested in viewing. Develop a structure for your design samples, arranging them chronologically by industry and media specialty. This will make it easier for viewers to skip specific sections and focus on what they wish to see.
  • Choose your work carefully and keep your portfolio to the point — Having too little work in your portfolio might give clients the impression you’re inexperienced, but having too much will test the limits of their attention spans. Cap each section in your portfolio to about 15 pieces of work, and display your strongest projects first.
  • Develop a unique style (for both your work and your website) — Your portfolio should convey what you can offer a client that other designers cannot. Separate yourself from the crowd by highlighting your personal brand through the work you select for your portfolio and the presentation of your website.
  • Keep your site fresh and up-to-date — Make sure that your online portfolio doesn’t appear dated. Times change; if your portfolio contains designs that seem like it’s stuck in the past, clients and employers might think you are too. Keep pace with current trends while adding your own creative flair to demonstrate that you are both authentic and in tune with the industry.
  • Assume your visitors are short on time and lacking in technical skills — Err on the side of caution by making sure your online portfolio is simple and straightforward. Viewers may well be in a hurry or limited in their web browsing abilities. Ensuring that they can see your best work quickly and without hassle is the best recipe for success.

In addition, take the time to correct a few simple mistakes that are common across online portfolios, such as failing to include any personal information, presenting your work without explanation, and forgetting to proofread your copy.

Source: Adobe Stock

Adaptability Is Key…

At this point, you might feel that creating a single portfolio to cater to all your potential employers or clients is impractical. But who says you need to limit yourself to only one portfolio?

In the same way you would craft different resumes for different employers, you should create different portfolios for the kinds of opportunities you’re seeking. Online, this is a fairly straightforward process. You’ll just need to link different versions of your portfolio from the homepage of your website, and then work on tailoring each portfolio to a different focus.

I won’t sugarcoat it — the process is time consuming. Researching what your prospects want and pulling together the best samples of your work takes a lot of effort. If you want to maximize your chances of finding work, you’ll find this approach to be worth the investment.

…Which Means You’ll Need Work to Choose From

Resting on your laurels won’t cut it when it comes to getting noticed in this industry. Relying solely on a few old projects to get noticed will quickly have you lost in a crowd of other talented designers. To that end, you need to cultivate and maintain your drive to create new work.

Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Creative People, offers this advice:

“It’s widely assumed that there’s a trade-off between quantity and quality — if you want to do better work, you have to do less of it — but this turns out to be false. Quantity breeds quality. The act of creating something, no matter how lousy, is practice for creating a better one.”

It might seem like a no brainer, but you have to continue designing to get the pieces that will entice clients while simultaneously granting yourself the freedom to produce a dud or two along the way.

Maintaining this sense of ambition is the hallmark of a true artist. Daniel DiPiazza, the founder/writer of the motivational podcast series, business book, and website Rich20Something, summed it up best:

“Creators don’t wait to be asked to create something. They create because there’s nothing else to do but create. Creators don’t care if what they create doesn’t turn out beautifully. The true pleasure is in the process — even the frustrating aspects.”

I challenge you to develop this killer instinct (if you don’t possess it already) and continue creating. Keep whatever you produce in an organized manner, and have it on hand for the moment when opportunity comes knocking.

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Analysis

In the process of enhancing your online portfolio, be sure to take advantage of one of its most beneficial abilities: the power to analyze your website traffic. Analysis will allow you to gauge the performance of your portfolio and provide insights for how you can improve it even further.

Most web-building platforms offer some level of analytics that provide insights into how visitors are viewing your work or what portfolio items are generating the most interest. If you’re using a website creator like Squarespace, for instance, the built-in analytics function provides statistics on vital metrics like pageviews, conversions, and popular content.

If you choose not to use a platform that comes with analytic tools, you can supplement your online portfolio with services like Google Analytics. You’ll be able to measure almost any bit of web data you can think of and use said metrics to optimize your portfolio.

Regardless of the route you take to obtain your analytics, be sure to study this information carefully, then adapt your portfolio to boost engagement, audience reach, and conversion rates.

Source: Adobe Stock

The Bottom Line

Gear your mindset toward making your work both impactful and accessible. Even if you’re content with sticking to a niche, you’ll want to make yourself appear as appealing as possible, which means spending time on your portfolio.

Creating the best portfolio you can is a hearty task, but doing so will put you further down the path to success. As the old saying goes, “success is where preparation and opportunity meet.” There’s no better way to move forward than by being prepared and ensuring your work can speak for you when the right time comes.

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