Whether you’re just starting to build your first portfolio projects or are getting ready to apply for design jobs, your portfolio is your best chance to showcase your skills, process, and problem solving abilities to employers and clients. Beautiful visuals are great, but if you want to stand out from your peers, your portfolio need to showcase your problem-solving abilities and process.
We spoke with dozens of hiring managers and recruiters while building our Design Career Bootcamps, and they all confirmed that a strong, well-thought-out portfolio site can be just as important as the projects that comprise it! But if you’ve never created your own portfolio website before, how do you structure it so that it will wow any potential employers?
In this article, we’ll share a few of the lessons we learned while talking to industry professionals so you can build a unique portfolio site that showcases your work beautifully, is easy to navigate, and impresses employers.
Choose the Right Projects to Include
First things first — before you build your actual portfolio website, you need to have enough portfolio projects to populate your site! When you’re deciding what projects to work on, spend some time thinking about what types of design interest you most as well as what sort of role you’d like and what industries you want to work in. Whenever possible, focus on building projects that match most closely to the type of career you want to build.
Unless you’re truly hoping to be a design generalist, you should try to focus on building up deep expertise in one or two areas of design and showcasing those projects most prominently in your portfolio for relevant jobs, while also showing a few projects that demonstrate your breadth of abilities.
Logically this makes sense – someone recruiting for a web designer role wants to see that you have the most expertise in web design, while also being able to incorporate other elements of design into your work! If a recruiter lands on your portfolio homepage and sees projects that match the role you applied for, you’ll be much more likely to land an interview than someone who shows one example of ten different types of projects.
Show Real World Work
Recruiters love to see real work in portfolios. Theoretical projects are great and will generally make up the bulk of your portfolio if you’re early in your career, but being able to showcase a project you’ve built yourself and then launched into the world or delivered to a client is a great way to stand out from your competition. Here are a few ways you can get real world work in your portfolio early in your career.
- Real Clients: Finding real clients might seem daunting, especially if you don’t think your work quality is high enough to get paid for your services. If that’s the case, you can consider offering your services pro bono to local businesses or nonprofits you find online. While it’s not something you want to get into a habit of doing, offering your services for free early in your career is a great way to get real client experience, which ultimately should help you get more interviews!
- Side Projects: If you have ideas for side hustles or web projects you’re interested in working on, we highly recommend doing so! A real world side project, like an online course, an ecommerce business, or a newsletter, shows that you have a desire to utilize your design skills outside of your 9-5 and have a love for solving problems and building things.
- Theoretical Projects: If you have ideas for cool design projects you want to work on, that’s also totally fine. Just be sure that your project ideas are solving real problems and that you follow the proper design process when working on them. It can be tempting to dive straight into Sketch or Illustrator, but employers want to see your entire process, from research all the way to user testing and iterating on their feedback.
Having real work in your portfolio (whether it’s a side project, client work, or a project you came up with to solve a real problem) shows that you’re able to work within the type of constraints that you’ll experience in any job. If you want to work on real client projects or want some help coming up with ideas for projects that solve real problems, you can check out our Portfolio Starter Kit which includes over 30 projects as well as real client projects you can work on with nonprofits and startups!
Present Case Studies, Not Just Visuals
When you’re putting your projects onto your portfolio site, it can be tempting to only showcase the final polished designs. If you visit a social sharing design site like Dribbble, you’ll be overwhelmed by thousands of colorful and vibrant designs.
There’s a lot of great design work on sites like this, but even more work that was created just for the sake of creating something pretty, with no thought around the context for the design. However, recruiters want to see more – they want to see your process, your problem-solving abilities, and how you actually arrived at the final design deliverables.
Remember to present projects as case studies on your portfolio site. In general, this means that you should start by outlining the project, including the problem you were trying to solve and what your approach was. Then show the final deliverables mocked up to make the viewer want to keep reading. Then dive into your process, showing early concepts and wireframes, outlining any challenges you faced with an explanation for how you solved those challenges. Finish with the final work nicely mocked up into relevant digital or print locations.
Check out this site and this site for examples of agencies that perfectly showcase their process and beautiful visuals side by side.
Now, Let’s Build Your Portfolio Website
Your portfolio website is your best chance to make a lasting impression on potential employers and clients. Before diving into the build of your actual site, be sure to create or polish your personal brand identity. Do you have a personal logo? Do you have consistent typography across your website that matches your personality? A strong personal brand that is consistent across your portfolio site and resume can make your site more memorable and help to differentiate you from other junior designers.
Start by looking at the portfolio sites of famous designers to understand how experienced creatives showcase their own brand. Look at their personal logos as well as their use of consistent color and typography across their websites. Take note of elements that you like and start to jot down any ideas you have for your own branding.
A few sites to look at are Krop, Dribbble, Behance, and Twitter. Then go through a normal design process that you’d follow for any branding project, from moodboarding and ideating to sketching and diving into Illustrator to refine.
Next, it’s time to actually start to build your site. If you’ve got coding skills, coding your own site from scratch is a great idea, but in general, we’d suggest using a platform like Squarespace or Format, which feature dozens of amazing portfolio templates. Once you’ve created an account, follow these tips to build your portfolio:
Make a strong and distinctive first impression! Most recruiters and employers will spend 5-10 seconds looking at your portfolio before deciding whether to seriously consider you. The homepage of your portfolio site should clearly showcase who you are and what your specialties and abilities are. It should also be visually appealing and clearly show that you are someone this person should take note of.
Next, make sure any work that focuses on your target role or industry is showcased front and center on your site. Remember, first impressions are important so ensure that you showcase your best and most relevant work on your homepage! Showcase a portion of the final designs to entice them to click through to the full case study.
Make it easy to navigate. Any recruiters navigating your site likely only have a minute or two before they have to make a decision about you. Have a persistent navigation bar that makes it easy for them to get to any page of the site. Have a clear order to your layout. Be sure projects are grouped by type. Make it as easy as possible for a recruiter to get an idea of your strengths and review relevant projects.
Your About Page
Have a clear and unique About page that showcases your background, strengths, current role, and previous employers. Let your personality shine through and try to make it as memorable as your work itself. After all, employers are hiring you for your skills but also want to hire someone who will add a unique dynamic to the team and will bring new ideas to the table.
Make it incredibly easy for visitors to contact you, via a simple Contact page or form, as well as links to your other social channels. If a potential employer or client stumbles on your site but can’t get in touch with you, then all of your efforts to craft a memorable site go to waste.
Like we mentioned earlier, showcase your top projects as comprehensive case studies. Your goal should be for any potential visitor to completely understand all of your design decisions and have a clear view of how your final designs solve the original problem stated at the beginning of the page.
They should also be able to understand what your role on the project was and with whom you validated your designs.
Recruiters look through dozens, if not hundreds and sometimes it can take more to stand out than a few well-thought out projects. So whenever possible, don’t be afraid to make your portfolio site memorable and even a bit quirky or out of the box. You could add a blog where you write about your interests and opinions on current design trends (or link to your Medium page if you have one). You can also showcase interesting passions or side projects that have nothing to do with the job you’re applying for. Whenever possible, add color or hover state animations to your nav bar or footer.
Don’t be afraid to get creative with your portfolio site. As long as your work is easy to review, your site is easily navigable, and you go into the appropriate amount of depth on each project, showing your personality is totally fine!
Congrats! You now have a fully built out portfolio site that is structured to showcase your work as well as possible while also speaking to your personality and unique value prop. Your portfolio site is a living showcase of your design career, so remember to keep it updated with your newest work and ideas. If you want help building up portfolio projects and creating an amazing portfolio site that will land you a job, you can check out our Design Career Bootcamps or Portfolio Starter Kit.