“Show your work!”
Who didn’t hear that from teachers over the years? But despite the collective groans from the classroom, they had a good reason for telling you to do so.
Showing your work demonstrates your mastery of a particular skill or concept—a skillset that is all too often forgotten (or happily sloughed off) by the time we migrate to the working world.
Showing your work involves so much more than just slapping up a few screenshots and hoping for the best. Let’s take a closer look at not only what to include in your portfolio, but how to set it up so that it’s so irresistible, clients beat a path to your digital door.
What do you want to be known for?
Showing your work is one of the best ways to demonstrate to potential clients what it is you want them to hire you for. Since much of what we understand and act upon in our daily lives is visual, it makes sense to use your portfolio as a guided representation of the kind of work you want to do.
Whether you want to position yourself as an expert in responsive web design or you want to focus your prospect’s attention on your variety of custom WordPress themes, it’s important to realize that you’ll need to put your best foot forward.
That means showing projects that are not only beautiful, but also complex; fast-loading, but also challenging. Describe how you worked through those challenges and complexities because those are the things clients are looking for beyond the pretty graphics and gorgeous layouts.
Support your skills with a showcase
If you’re using your portfolio as a vehicle to demonstrate your personal brand or boost your resume, it makes sense to highlight projects where you used the very skills you pride yourself on. Are you a flexible team player? Can you handle priorities and deadlines under stress?
While it may seem impossible to present these traits in a portfolio, you can describe the deadlines you had to work within or talk about your team’s contributions—as well as your own—that lead to the final result.
If you plan to use your portfolio as a way to build your credibility and authority as a thought leader in your chosen field, it makes sense to showcase the projects that have earned you the highest accolades from the most recognizable names in the field.
Ask yourself what about your work would truly impress someone? That’s what you need to show.
Show the process, not just the end result
When deciding between multiple candidates, prospects often browse portfolios to judge the quality of the work. Over time, even the most stellar examples can start to blend together, causing would-be clients to feel fatigued and want to rush through the rest of the process.
To help fight this fatigue, show more than just the end result of your work. Show the process that went into it, such as the prototypes or wireframes. Seeing a site fully come together not only demonstrates that you know design, but that you also understand the intricacies that come along with the process of creating a site, logo or other visual styles from start to finish.
What if I don’t have a portfolio?
Many aspiring designers are understandably hesitant about creating a portfolio of work simply because they have nothing to show. It could be that you’re transitioning between jobs or that you’re just starting out and don’t have a lot of projects that truly speak to the quality of your work. Or perhaps the designs you’ve worked on contain proprietary company information.
What should you do then?
Design a mock website with full creative freedom
Have you ever dreamed of being the designer for a well-known brand or company? Put your skills to the test and imagine you’ve been given full creative freedom to redesign their website. How would you approach the design? What changes would you make?
Of course, you should be clear in your description that this is only a prototype or concept design, lest prospects think you actually designed the current site. The last thing you want to do is mislead. But this presents an excellent opportunity for you to not only show your work but demonstrate the processes that you would go through to redesign such a popular website.
Highlight a local business in your area
From boutique shops to mom-and-pop corner stores, chances are, your neighborhood has a variety of eclectic little nooks that specialize in a particular product or service. They may not even have a website. This presents a great opportunity to not only create one but also highlight a local business. Who knows? They may even see the design and decide to hire you on the spot!
Need more ideas? Click here for more thoughts on creating a portfolio with limited work to showcase.
More than just websites
Much of this article has been devoted to showcasing web design work in your portfolio, but if you want to branch out and do more than just websites, showing your work matters just as much in other visual fields too.
For example, you can show a logo design process from rough sketch to completion, or demonstrate how to present information from an infographic alongside the final result. Icons, branding packages, newsletters, and other similar designs can follow these same steps.
In each of these cases, you’re not only showing the final work but all of the steps that lead up to it; be they wireframes, prototypes or simple sketches on a napkin.
The fact is, ideas and inspiration can come from anywhere, at any time. As a designer, you need to be ready when these flashes of brilliance hit. Showing your work demonstrates to potential clients that you not only have the experience to create eye-catching layouts and designs but that you also have the self-discipline and dedication to take a project from concept to completion.
These are the kinds of things that separate good designers from great designers, and position you as a stand-out hire. You’ve demonstrated that not only can you walk the walk, but you can choreograph the steps as well.
And while the days of mapping out the process of long division or sentence diagramming may long be over, being able to show your work in this day and age is sure to give you an A+ in your client’s eyes!
by Joe Ardeeser
Joe Ardeeser is the owner and operator at Jordan Crown, a design agency in the Seattle area. Joe founded his company 10 years ago and they provide premium marketing websites to small to mid-sized businesses. As a seasoned professional in the creative industry, Joe comes with over 15 years of hard-earned experience. His greatest enjoyment comes from business building and business development- whether that's improving the company's sales process or figuring out how to bring on the highe