In graphic design, your portfolio is the best tool you’ve got to sell yourself. Whether you’re just out of school, making the move to freelance, or throwing your hat in the ring for a big job, hiring managers will likely spend more time poring over your portfolio than your résumé. Here are a few tips to consider (with some help from a few awesome designers’ great examples) as you make the portfolio that best represents you, what you’ve done, and what you hope to do.
Pick the right platform
Before you choose a platform, ask yourself who your target audience is. It might not sound intuitive, but if you can figure out how you plan to use your portfolio, it will give you a better sense of how to construct it. You might decide to put it together on a hosting platform like Squarespace, Wix, or Cargo (more on these below), or it might be best to build something custom. Most designers tend to shy away from building their own site because they have a limited background in coding. But that shouldn’t be the deciding factor—your audience should be.
Are you mostly planning to use this portfolio as a visual résumé to give to hiring managers and potential clients, or are you hoping to expand your reach and use it to attract new clientele? If your use case is the former, then an existing builder will likely suffice. Here are our picks for places to start:
- Wix: The cheapest and easiest way to get started—especially if your main concern is just finding a place to put all of your visual assets. Wix’s templates make it simple to drag and drop elements into a satisfying layout.
- Squarespace: For those of you who love the simple, classic grid layout, these templates are mobile responsive, which is crucial. The platform’s got excellent blogging features, as well as e-commerce capabilities, if you’re also hoping to sell some of your work.
- Cargo: For templates that are slightly edgier and a bit less traditional. Cargo has a strong community forum where you can crowdsource ideas about how to customize your site.
- Webflow: If you’re looking for something with a little more flexibility—or if your work involves any kind of interactivity—building a site with a customizable CMS in Webflow is the way to go. Its visual design tools translate into code in a way that can both be used by developers and designers alike.
However, if you’ll effectively use this portfolio like a website, consider building it from scratch. We say this not because it will give you design flexibility, but because it will give you access to all of the stuff that modern hosting platforms usually hide from their users: the source code that helps a website be found in the first place. In other words, if you know you’ll want to optimize your source code to improve your SEO, go custom.
Choose the right work
Once you know where your portfolio will live, you can pick the right work to showcase. This is a very simple concept, but it can be difficult to execute if you’re not thinking ahead. You want to grab your visitor’s attention the moment your site loads—what can you put about the fold that is eye-catching and curious enough that it will make the audience want to learn more?
Again, as with choosing the right platform, “putting your best foot forward” really depends on the type of designer you are, and what you want to show that you can do. Chances are, you’ve probably applied your skills to a variety of projects in various media. If you’re starting out, you might have more personal work to show than client case studies. Whatever you choose, just make sure that there’s an intuitive organizing principle to your layout. The way your website is designed should feed directly into the work itself. Here are a few examples to consider—just keep in mind that these are top designers, and no one expects your portfolio to look like this out of the gate, but they’re great for inspiration!
- The digital designer Alex Dram showcases his talent through his interactive portfolio. Above the fold is just a taste of what he can do. Triangles in purple gradients overlap each other and unfold, and a simple move of your mouse reveals a homepage that links to just two pages—a bio and a portfolio. He kept his case studies to six, so that all of them can be viewed simultaneously on a browser. But if you drill down to read more about his projects, you realize that there’s a distinct theme for each one.
- Chantal Jahchan’s portfolio takes a horizontal format that highlights the print media she often works in. Images rotate through a brisk slideshow which evokes the kind of collage and zine-like style much of her work takes. Each piece links to a page that documents the scope of her work more thoroughly. It’s a good reminder that if you work with printed materials, let the specs of the work dictate your layout—with uneven grids, overlapping images, and carousels and GIFs to show movement.
- The website for Jessica Walsh’s new creative agency &Walsh, which officially launched a year ago, displays case studies in a single vertical column on the home page. At the top of the page, above the fold, there are a series of short animations—one featuring Jessica herself—of a bubbly, iridescent, 3D ampersand set to thumping music. The prominence of these animations show that some of the agency’s best work is the branding of the agency itself.
Pro tip: Don’t overload! Even if you’re extremely proud of dozens of examples of your work, you don’t want to overwhelm your visitor with options. Try to limit your list of case studies and projects to 10—that’s more than enough to show your breadth of experience.
Show your work in the right context
As you might’ve noticed, there’s a certain formula regarding how to talk about your work. You want to leave visitors to your site with a story, a clear picture of the before and after, and an understanding of what you did in particular to help achieve it. Be sure to include:
- The client, if there was one.
- Your employer at the time you did the work, and any collaborators you may have had.
- The objective of the work.
- Your specific role in making it happen. (Be sure to give others credit for their part in it, too.)
- The end results.
Keep the quality of your images consistent
Even if you have really nice assets to show off your work, try to avoid uploading exceptionally large files to your site. They could slow down your site’s load time and prevent anyone from seeing your work altogether. Each hosting platform will have different suggestions about the resolution of full-size images—and certain services (like Webflow) will automatically optimize your images for you—but it’s important to keep this mind nonetheless.
Compression is the key to make sure your load times stay speedy. With JPEGs and PNGs, you can often compress an image without changing its dimensions. If you’re using Photoshop, you can optimize your JPEGs for the web, while specifying how much you compress the image, and therefore how much information in the image you lose. In terms of pixels, a safe launching point is that the resolution of a 13-inch MacBook Pro is 2560 x 1600 pixels.
Make that introduction count
Some designers don’t wait for visitors to click on their “About” page to introduce themselves. If you want to establish your bio early, try to incorporate it into the overall design of your site. Take a cue from Adam Ho, who treats his short bio as graphic material on his home page. Similarly, Scott Reinhard repeats his name and practice until the block of text takes the form of a kind of abstract banner, that floats across the screen at a glacial pace. Or follow the example of Tobias van Schneider, who provides even more information about his practice, including past jobs and clients, before sharing case studies. Whatever you decide—whether it’s just including your name, or giving your visitor more information about you—think about what the text itself says about you and the work you could provide to future clients.
Keep sharing your work
Sharing your work doesn’t stop with making a perfect portfolio. A portfolio is a living account of your professional self, and it should evolve as your projects and client roster expand. To that end, remember that there are great tools out there to share things in their less-than-perfect state, if you want to keep your portfolio tight and pristine. Don’t forget the benefits of using Dribbble, Behance, and of course Instagram, the mecca for artists. Everyone starts somewhere, so just keep putting stuff out and learn to hone your image as you go along.