Your portfolio is full of polished images—you’re a designer, after all. And the copy? Well, that doesn’t matter, right? Potential clients are impressed by your amazing designs alone. So you jot down a quick explanation of who your clients are and why they hired you, and leave it at that.
But if you spare a thought for your non-designer clients—which is probably all of them—you’ll soon realize your design portfolio needs more than just pretty images.
One reason clients are looking to hire you is they don’t know as much about design as you do. They don’t know what style they’re looking for or what separates a good designer from a great one.
So it’s unlikely the client will see images of your work and think “Yes, this person’s style is exactly what we need for our business,” or even, “Wow, what an awesome designer.” Instead, they’re browsing your website to check whether you’ve done this type of work before and that you know what you’re doing (because they certainly don’t).
That means your portfolio should demonstrate your credibility, not just as a designer but as a professional—and for that, convincing copy is crucial. It helps clients feel confident hiring you and reassures them that, even though they don’t really know what they want, they can trust you’ll give the professional guidance they need.
“Your design portfolio needs more than just pretty images.”
So instead of writing a lackluster paragraph about your previous client and the brief they gave you, take your portfolio to another level by showing your thought process and your problem solving and communication skills.
1. Choose an angle
It’s tempting to place more focus on explaining the business you worked for than what you did for them.
After all, you’ll have spent a whole lot of time thinking about those businesses and what they need—and probably not much time reflecting on your own work. That’s why most portfolio projects begin with a spiel about the client, and often don’t include much else.
Sure, you’ll want to be clear about who your client was and what they do, but that’s not the most interesting part for your potential clients. If you’re going to convince people to hire you, you’d better grab their attention first.
To start, think like a journalist. Journalists make stories more interesting and memorable by choosing an angle. This is simply a particular focus for the story that makes it fresh or different to other stories on the topic.
“Your portfolio should demonstrate your credibility as a professional.”
If your “topic” is your design experience, each piece in your portfolio can be a “story” with its own unique angle that makes it worth reading.
There are two main things to keep in mind here:
- Start with the most interesting part of the project, or what makes it different to your other projects (and therefore worth sharing)
- Make sure the focus of your portfolio is on your work, not what your clients do
What makes your project interesting might be an aspect of the design, like the typography, the color palette, or the way you blended traditional and contemporary styles. Or it might be something about your initial research into the company’s competition, a challenge you overcame, or your process of working with the client or handling their feedback.
Check out how designer Claire Coullon writes about her work for Jam! and even includes copy to explain what went into designing the “J.” See the rest of her portfolio here.
Don’t expect a great angle to present itself to you—you’ve got to think about it. It’s likely you’re so familiar with your work that the process seems obvious to you, so at first it might not seem like you did anything special. But I promise, if you did work that needed to be done and it couldn’t have been done by any random person off the street, there’s something about it that’s worth sharing.
Remember, stories don’t always need to be long, and your angle might just be a sentence or two—something interesting to hook the reader in before you go into the details.
Consider this fictional example, written the way portfolio projects typically are:
Clown Cat has been designing adorable clown outfits for cats for more than a decade. They’re a community-minded business known for sourcing sustainable and ethical materials of the highest quality. Clown Cat needed a high-converting website with a modern design that would appeal to its youthful customers. The site required a new logo and included an online store to showcase their products.
And here’s one possible angle to kick off the description of this same portfolio project:
What do you do when you have plenty of traffic to your website, but you want more people to buy your products? For Clown Cat—which designs adorable clown outfits for cats—the answer was a modern website designed to encourage customers to click through to the checkout.
Now, it’s still clear who the client is and what they do, but the focus is on the challenge the designer faced and how they tackled it.
2. Be a problem solver
Remember how your math teacher used to tell you to show your work? Often, how you arrived at the end product is just as important as the product itself. Same goes for your design work.
Of course, no one wants to read a boring list of what you did, such as, “I created a color palette and wireframes based on the brief, and then …” Instead, use your portfolio projects to show potential clients how you solved a problem—preferably a problem they might have too.
For example, a typical portfolio project might read as follows:
This health and wellness business provides resources for people seeking holistic health solutions. I was hired to create a new logo and redesign their website. The site includes a membership area and was designed to maximize leads. The end result is a modern, fresh new site that appeals to their customers.
If the first two sentences didn’t put you to sleep, you might have noticed something interesting in the third sentence: the website was designed to maximize leads. That’s something a lot of potential clients would want, because finding more leads is a common business concern. So expand on that point to show how you solved the problem.
For instance, did you place opt-in forms in strategic places on the site? Did you add testimonials to support the website’s claims and boost the client’s credibility? Did you do user testing or look at analytics or heat maps to work out how to improve the design? An explanation of any of these things will show your expertise far better than just images of the end result.
Until we perfect mind-reading technology, the reader won’t know what you did unless you tell them. By explaining how you achieved something in a way that non-designers will understand, you’re not relying on potential clients knowing good design when they see it.
Better still, you’ll no longer be competing with every other designer with good images in their portfolio (hint: that’s most of them). If a future client reads about your thought process and thinks, “That’s exactly what we need,” your chances of landing the job will skyrocket. You’ll have convinced them you can think through and solve problems like theirs.
A nice example from product designer Queenie Wu’s portfolio. Love how she explains how she solved a problem, and also what she learned in the process. Check out the rest of her portfolio.
3. Avoid jargon
Most of us grew up with the impression that big words are something smart people use. So when you want to sound intelligent and professional, it’s tempting to pull out fancy lingo like:
I utilized modern technologies to create a renewed visual identity while retaining the integrity of the original brand.
But if you want to show you know your stuff, you should aim to stick with shorter words and everyday language. Research has shown you’ll come across as more intelligent and capable if you use simple language that’s easy to understand.
Again, your potential clients probably aren’t designers. They’ll need you to be able to communicate your process and decisions clearly using language they understand. If they read your portfolio and don’t know what you’re talking about, that’s not a good sign. You’ll probably confuse them and send them to another website.
To weed out jargon, read over your copy with this question in mind: “Would someone outside my industry know what this means?” It can help to picture a particular person you know, like your aunt who you suspect has no clue how you earn a living.
You can also paste your copy into the Hemingway App. It’ll highlight any long or complicated sentences, suggest simpler alternatives for complex words, and give your writing a readability grade.
An excellent example of powerful portfolio copywriting, from Facebook product designer Timothy Achumba. These two paragraphs grab our attention, explain what the client and project was, and what was solved. See more of Timothy’s portfolio here.
4. Prove it
Vague statements are the enemy of convincing copy. It’s easy to let them slip into your portfolio.
Here are some examples of statements that are unconvincing on their own:
- We created a website that is engaging and reflects the client’s style
- We built a high-converting landing page that is both appealing and functional
- The site was designed to increase customer satisfaction
If you claim your design, say, appeals to the client’s target market or converts web traffic into customers, it raises the question of how you know that. The statement itself is potentially interesting, but unconvincing unless it’s backed up by proof.
Top of the list for convincing proof is numbers. Look for opportunities to show the numerical results of your work. Did your redesign of a website convert 20 percent more traffic than the old design? After you worked on a client’s branding, did they get three new customers in the first week? If so, say it.
How do you get these numbers? You’ll often find your clients are already measuring the results of your work because it’s relevant to their business. So, start by asking them for numbers, or perhaps even include in your contract that this information is part of the deal.
Sometimes there might be legal reasons why you can’t put that information online. Luckily, testimonials are another good option for proving the success of your work.
The best testimonials are about what you achieved, not what a great person you are. There’s a big difference between “Jess was great and we loved working with her” and “The website Jess designed brought in new business straight away.”
To encourage clients to sing your praises the way you want them to, try asking a few questions as prompts. For example, questions like “How has my work impacted your business?” or “What results have you had since we worked together?” will probably draw out a better answer than “What did you like about working with me?”
5. Make it flow
There’s more than one way to structure a portfolio, but whatever you go with, you want a top-notch user experience. If your portfolio isn’t easy to navigate, potential clients will give up and go back to Twitter—or your competitors’ websites—before you have a chance to win them over.
When it comes to copy, here are three things that will help create a good user experience:
Let people know what they’re clicking on
Many portfolio projects have the name of the client as the title. That means the only way to work out what the project is about is to click on it. And ultimately, the names of your previous clients usually aren’t particularly useful information for potential clients.
There’s nothing wrong with naming the client (unless, of course, your contract with them says you can’t). In particular, if you’ve had some big-name clients you’ll want to mention them prominently because of the credibility it carries. But consider either titles or subtitles that clearly explain what the project was about. This will capture the interest of prospective clients and let them know what they’re going to read about when they click on the project.
- A landing page that increased conversions by 20 percent
- My rules for a high-converting website
- Design strategies to appeal to a young audience
You might be tempted to reserve this kind of language for blog posts, because it’s not what you’re used to seeing in other people’s portfolios. But there’s a reason those blog titles work so well—they give people a reason to click, and that’s something you want for your portfolio projects.
Following a basic structure for each project helps create a consistent user experience throughout your portfolio.
For instance, if you explain the brief when writing about one of your projects, you should do so for all of them. You should also aim for a similar amount of text about each client. If you talk about one client for five sentences but barely mention another, it could give the impression you think one is more important than the other.
The structure of your copy might be something like this:
- Angle (1-2 sentences)
- Explain who the client is (1-2 sentences)
- Sum up the goal or brief (1-2 sentences)
- Explain how you achieved the goal (1 or more paragraphs)
- Describe the outcome, including data and/or a testimonial (1 or more paragraphs)
Think of the structure as a guide, not a straight-jacket—you can tweak it for each project as you see fit.
Offer a next step
Once someone has clicked on a particular project, don’t leave them to scroll back up to the navigation bar and work out where to go from there.
Instead, encourage potential clients to continue looking around by including links to your other portfolio projects. You should also make it easy for them to hire you by pointing them in the right direction with a call to action.
Remember that there’s no one right way to present your work, and your portfolio doesn’t need to look like everyone else’s. So use these ideas as a guide and adjust them as needed to showcase your creativity and expertise.
by Ross Gaither
Ross Gaither is the Director of Product Design at Splash (and employee #10) and has over 8 years of design experience in the digital world. Formerly, he's built products for Salesforce and Scrollmotion. Currently, he leads the design and development of the Splash platform. Eternally, he loves a good stout. (p.s. Splash is hiring product designers!)