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How to turn your design portfolio into something amazing

Design portfolios can be daunting. But they don't have to be, says Grace Carter.

Your design portfolio is one of the most important aspects of being a designer, and getting it right means you’ll be able to secure all the best clients and work in the future. However, creating the ideal design portfolio that’s really going to resonate with your potential clients is no easy business, especially when you’re trying to work at the same time and remember everything.

Here's what you need to cover all the key areas of your design portfolio, guaranteeing you won’t miss anything and turning your current portfolio into an amazing one.

Highlight your personality

You’re a designer, and a designer creates and, well, designs their projects based on their personality. There’s always personal input in a project, and if you gave the same brief to five different designers, they would all come back with something different.

With this in mind, a client is going to want to hire you based on your personal input, so it’s essential you show this off within your portfolio. In short, make your portfolio your own, and something you can be proud of.

Add explanations to each project

To some of you, this may sound like something you’ll do without even thinking about it. But if you haven’t, you’re about to change your portfolio completely. Instead of just putting images of your work into your portfolio and mentioning the experience you’ve gained, make sure that you’re writing about your creative process.

“Within this explanatory text, you’ll want to talk about what you did, the original client’s brief, what you were aiming to achieve with the project, and the approach that got you from client brief to finished product,” says Jennifer Harper, a graphic designer for BestAustralianWriters.

Of course, you’re not going to want to write an essay of text. But a nice summary will inform any potential clients of your process, which will make them far more likely to hire you, since they know what you’re going to be doing.

Think about your audience

In other words, your target market. It’s only natural, especially when you’re looking at other designers’ portfolios, to think you’ll need the flashiest and most feature-filled website out there to attract attention and make your client think "Wow, this is the person we want!"

However, while these websites are impressive, it doesn’t necessarily reflect the target market you’re aiming for as an individual. When you create and design your portfolio, you’ll need to make sure you’re designing it with the clients you’re trying to attract in mind, and not just trying to make it as creative as possible. Sometimes, simpler is better.

Research your competition

As a designer, it’s safe to say your days are pretty full, whether you’re trying to promote yourself, answering emails, making phone calls, or completing client work. This means you might not have a lot of time to work on your portfolio and you could be missing out on something critical.

When you do have the time, it’s extremely beneficial to check out other designers and their portfolios. Make sure the individuals you’re checking out are similar to the niche that you operate in; watch how they are presenting themselves to their audience.

While you don’t want to be copying what they are doing, look at things like style, colour schemes, fonts and other layout and content choices they have made. This way you can get an idea of what you should do, even if it’s just for inspiration.

Harvest constructive criticism

“Feedback is the breakfast of giants.”

“One of the best ways to make sure your website portfolio is the best it can be is to get people you know to test it out. Not only will they be looking at the design, but this is also a great way for them to test the usability of your website,” says Oskar Travis, a graphic designer for UKWritings.

When you’re designing your portfolio, it’s so easy to get caught up in the design aspects that fancy features can sometimes overtake overall functionality. It goes without saying that a client will simply leave your website if they do not know how to use it.

Make sure you’re choosing people, perhaps colleagues or family, to check your website and look through a few pages to see what they think. Make sure the criticisms are constructive, and they give reasons for what they say.

Perfect your written text

The large majority of your portfolio is going to be made up of two main components: visual media and text content. Of course, as a designer, I’m sure you’ve got the visual media down to a tee, but have you spent time making sure your text content is 100 percent accurate?

After all, if you were to put yourself in your client’s shoes, would you hire yourself if the content you were reading was full of spelling mistakes, typos and misplaced punctuation? It just seems unprofessional. Fortunately, there are a wealth of online tools that can help:

  • Via Writing & Grammarix - Two online services full of grammar blogs to improve your skills and an online grammar checker.
  • My Writing Way & Simple Grad - Two leading writing blogs full of writing guides that can help you improve your general writing skills.
  • AustralianReviewer & Oxessays - These are two professional proofreading services that can help you find and correct any mistakes in your work, as recommended by the Huffington Post.
  • Cite It In - A free formatting tool that can help you insert professionally formatted references.
  • Essay Services - An online writing community, that can help you connect with other like-minded writers to share advice.
  • Let's Go And Learn & Writing Populist - Two free writing blogs full of advice and tips on how to write at a professional level.

Overselling & underselling

This is perhaps one of the biggest problems that designers face when trying to create their portfolio. Of course, it is incredibly difficult to write about yourself in a balanced way, but it is still an essential part of creating a powerful and accurate portfolio.

On the one hand, you don’t want to oversell yourself and make it seem like you’re the master of everything because you’ve worked on some amazing projects. Not only will this result in some clients hiring you for complex projects you might not be able to fulfil, but it can also come across as arrogant, and nobody wants to be that kind of designer.

On the other hand, you’ll need to make sure you’re not underselling yourself. This will only result in low paying clients wanting your services, despite the fact that you know you can do better. At the end of the day, the best approach to take is just to be honest and neutral. The more honest you are, the better your portfolio will be.

Don’t forget about mobile users

Thanks to the hyper-connected state of the world we live in, it’s important to remember that not every client is going to be sitting at a computer when they come across your website. They could be at home, at work, commuting between the two, in a café, or a park bench. You name it, they could be there.

With this in mind, it’s so important to ensure your portfolio is responsive and works flawlessly on desktops, tablets and mobile devices. If you’re using WordPress to host your portfolio, this should come as standard unless you’re using a custom theme, which you should be if you’re a UX or website designer.

If not, make sure you’re taking proactive steps to ensure your website is responsive. The best way to check is to log onto your portfolio through your own phone, making sure you check all the pages to ensure your text is clear and your images fit the screen properly.

Analyze and adapt

Just because you’ve finished creating your portfolio, that doesn’t mean it’s complete. The best way to approach your portfolio is as an ever-changing project where you’ll continuously add new projects that you’ve been working on. Frequently reviewing your content, perhaps every 3-4 months, to make sure it’s exactly how you want it to be presented.

After all, your portfolio could be the first and last impression you make on your potential clients, so you’ll need to make sure you’re making it count. When you’re accessing your portfolio, make sure you’re looking at it through a client’s eye, constantly asking yourself whether you’re selling your skills effectively. If you wouldn’t hire yourself, then why would a client?

Analyze your website, and check out the statistics and analytics your website providers give you. See what pages your visitors are looking at and where they’re leaving your site, so you can make relevant changes to make it the best it can be.

Grace Carter is a business coach and online editor at Assignment Help Service, where she helps people with career searches. Also, she proofreads content at Revieweal, a service that reviews online writing sites. Grace is based in Florida, but she lived in New Zealand and studied at the University of Auckland. 

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