Designer Needed, Portfolio Required

By Alyssa Gregory
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laptopIn my post, “Warning: 6 Signs You Are About To Hire A Bad Designer Or Developer,” one of my warning signs was that the designer or developer did not have examples of past work. While I understand how it might be difficult for a back-end developer to visually display their work (although it is possible to provide some kind of example of what you can do), a web designer should not have this problem.

I am always surprised to find a web designer who does not have some sort of portfolio. Not having a portfolio is a major disadvantage when an anonymous potential client is trying to compare your work to others in order to determine who to hire.

Why don’t you have a portfolio?

For one thing, the designer may have only designed corporate websites or worked on private projects and may not have access or permission to display the sites or pieces of the sites that they designed.

Second, the web designer may just be starting out on their own. Perhaps they were in school and did not have any real world experience that they could show online.

Lastly, I suppose a designer who is not actively looking for work would think it’s not necessary to have a portfolio. Although in this case, I can certainly make an argument why it will save you time and work later to maintain a portfolio as you go anyway, as you never know when your situation might change.

If you fit into one of these categories, it makes sense that you may not have a portfolio. However, a potential client searching for a designer is not thinking about why you don’t have a portfolio. They just know that you do not. If you are looking for work, it may be worth your time and effort to beef up your portfolio by taking on some charitable work, customizing the design of your blog, or creating some other tool you can use to show what you can do.

Can I see some samples of your work?

Many times, your portfolio (and your website) is your first chance to impress a prospective client. And clients are looking for some very specific things. Here are three necessities your portfolio should include:

  1. Samples of Work: It may be obvious, but keep in mind you don’t have to limit yourself to complete and active websites. Samples can take many forms — links, screenshots, interactive tours, even videos.
  2. Summary: Along with giving a visual idea of what you did, provide a summary explaining your role in the project.
  3. Contact Information: Make sure you include a way for potential clients to contact you with questions or for more information.

Another way to give the client more information about what you can do is by creating a case study, which is simply just a more in-depth look at the project. This is a great idea if you have one or two projects you are particularly proud of and think offer potential clients useful information.

If you are very experienced, keep in mind that your portfolio doesn’t have to include everything you’ve done. It’s meant to be an overview highlighting your best, most creative and unique projects. Check out these articles for some great portfolio development tips:

Creating A Successful Online Portfolio, by Sean Hodge for Smashing Magazine

How to Make Your Portfolio Work for You, by Angela Ferraro-Fanning for Freelance Switch

12 Steps to a Super Graphic Design Portfolio on YouTheDesigner

Image credit: Craig Jacobs

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  • nachenko

    For back-end developers, I’d recommend recording video-demos showing how to use their backends. I’m using CamStudio open source for this.

    While educating my customers in a modern way that saves you many phone calls, it can be shown to prospective customers so that they can see how’s your work, and how to use your stuff. It’s working great for me.

    • That’s a great idea! Could do that with a lot elements of design/development.

  • W2ttsy


    I’m currently building an interactive video tutorial system for a web system for that exact reason. Hopefully our customers will view the tutorials first before needing to lodge a support ticket. It covers basic things from creating a user account to managing a multi tier PPC campaign. It utilises a mix of video presenter content and screen capture.

    Youtube and the like has definitely opened the door for new interactive ways to present FAQ content. Users are more accustomed to using a video platform now than say 3 years ago when text based help sections were being widely implemented.

  • Sascha Brossmann

    I am missing a fourth sensible answer to “Why don’t you have a portfolio?” – “I am neither bored by lack of work nor do I have interns to keep busy.”

    Keeping up a portfolio that deserves its name comes at a price which is sometimes just too high to pay. Especially if you are more than just a little bit busy and already slightly struggling to have a life (and you should have one). The same goes for some other types of self-representation, like web sites (rather do not necessarily judge designers by their own sites). Directing your time and energy to where it matters _more_ does not seem unprofessional to me – in contrary.

    I have to admit though, that in this case the designer definitely should be able to show some work otherwise, in a less brushed-up manner (and hopefully also point out some credible references). I would just not call it a portfolio, then. YMMV.

  • Anonymous

    @Sascha: why not judge designers by their own sites? Any other business that has a website has to set aside time to maintain their website and other marketing efforts. Are web designers immune to good time management and marketing budgets?

    When the point of your job is to talk people into having quality websites, it’s a bit hypocritical to lose track of your own.