Every very good designer knows that they have one thing that will showcase their unique skillset and set them apart from the masses: their design portfolio. Whether you’re starting out with your design career or have been in the trenches for decades, you’ve created some version of your portfolio to share with interviewers at potential jobs or future clients. And every good designer also knows that this “portfolio” thing is not an easy feat.
Friends, let me be straight with you… I have good news and bad news. The bad news: updating your portfolio never really gets easier. (Sorry to pop your bubble.) The good news: you can get better at updating your portfolio, which might make the experience and the outcome a bit more enjoyable.
I remember late nights in design school struggling to get my design thesis done, studying for my final exams and putting together a mind-blowing portfolio. I also remember procrastinating so much on designing my portfolio because I just did not know where to begin! After going through a couple rounds of this having updated my portfolio for various jobs and other projects, I’ve compiled the best tricks and techniques for a portfolio that will ‘wow’ you.
Decide what kind of designer you want to be. You can’t be a Product / UI / UX / Interaction / Motion Designer. It just can’t happen. Sending mixed signals is frustrating and often confusing for a potential employer. If they can’t figure out what you do and what you’re good at in 2 minutes of glancing at your portfolio, they’re going to toss you into the “No” pile. (I know this because I’ve done it before…) Not only is it good to focus the messaging of the portfolio for clarity, but it will also give you a focused vision when deciding which projects to include in your portfolio.
2. Make a List
Start by listing off all the potential projects you want to include in your design portfolio. Throw it all out their to begin the brainstorm; you can always pare it down later. Having more to chose from is always a plus. Remember, projects can also be from non-design classes you’ve taken or brainstorming exercises you’ve led. Think outside of the box – your future employer is probably going to ask you to do so anyway! Once you have a sizable list, you can start throwing projects out by determining whether or not they fit the main focus of your portfolio (See Step 1).
3. Choose Your Medium
For this one, I have a strong preference for personal website portfolio. PDF portfolios are great (and sometimes necessary for confidential projects), however having an online presence and persona as a designer is crucial in today’s day and age. This allows people to find you or stumble upon your work even if you haven’t applied to their website. Some people rely on their Behance, Tumblr, or Dribbble accounts as their portfolios, but I still strongly recommend having a personal website alongside those other options. With the limitations that these other platforms come with, it becomes increasingly hard to tell the story of your work. You don’t want to be limited in that way.
4. Find Your Platform
There are several great options out there for this one and I’ve only tried a handful. Popular portfolio platforms include: Weebly, Squarespace, WordPress, and Cargo Collective to name a few. I’ve used each one of these at some point for my portfolio and I’ve found that Squarespace has been the most effective for me. I pay $8/month for my Squarespace website that I’ve connected to a domain that I own. (I also strongly recommend buying your own domain with your name; it will make you seem more polished and professional.) The great thing about Squarespace is that you can use their tools to customize layout, colors, fonts and drop in your content. The best part about it is that you don’t have to mess with code at all, unlike WordPress. (This
5. Choose a Simple Website Design
My best advice is to choose a website design that is simple and clean. This way, your work can be the star of the show and really shine. You don’t want the layout of your website to have loud colors or harsh lines that take away from the quality of the work in your portfolio.
6. Limit Yourself
I’ve seen people overload their portfolios with dozens of projects and unless your specific area of design calls for it, less is more. Select between 3 and 10 projects to show off; find a number that feels appropriate and that tells the story of you, the designer. Currently, my portfolio only has five major projects, but I’ve gone in depth on each of them in order to tell my story. Too many projects signals to future employers that you don’t know how to curate properly and that perhaps you’re all over the place. It is always good to drop old projects that seem outdated or low-quality. You want to show off your best! (A little disclaimer here, there are a handful of successful designers that display tons of work (like the famous Allan Peters), but they are few and far in between.)
7. Show Your Process
This is probably one of the most powerful things you can do in your portfolio. Showing your design process is like giving the viewer a little tour of your magnificent brain. By doing so, you are showing them how you arrived at various decisions, where you had epiphanies and how it all came together. This allows your future employer to begin to visualize you thinking through the problems that their organization may have (SUPER powerful!).
8. Link Your Socials
Leverage the power of social media! Designers and recruiters alike are always snooping around the various social media platforms, so it is always good to have somewhat of a presences and link them to your website. Great social media platforms that I’ve linked include Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Dribbble. These can show off what you read, what your next project is or even how you get inspiration. You never know which amazing company will stumble upon your little GIF on Dribbble and end up hiring you for a lead designer role!
9. Show Off Something Unique
This step isn’t always easy and might take some time. Finding something (even something tiny) that says you’re different or unique will really help in adding a bit of sparkle to your portfolio. This shows that you are a multi-faceted person, and can do more than just strictly designing in your realm. For example, some friends of mine have included little comic books in their portfolios, while others have added in their Kickstarter projects. I included 3D work in my portfolio because I have an interest in jewelry making and love working with my hands!
10. Link to Something Live
If possible, point your viewers to something that you’ve made that is in the wild. It could be a video, a website, or even a small feature. Being able to play around with and experience someone else’s design work is powerful and if it’s done well, it can seal the deal for your future employer!
And there you have it! 10 simple steps to get going on your best portfolio yet. There are several other tips and tricks out there, but the best way to know what works for you is to just start trying them! I also recommend doing some research and pulling a few portfolios that you admire. Getting inspiration from others will really help these concepts click in your mind.
Lastly, know that you aren’t alone. All of us fellow designers struggle with our portfolios constantly. Creating and then updating your portfolio is scary! Take comfort in knowing that we all feel the same way!