Any fool can say they’re a web designer. But your portfolio is what backs up your claims. Any freelancer wanting to bring in business needs a portfolio to showcase what they can do.
A portfolio lets your past work do the talking. It’s proof of professionalism. It gives potential clients the confidence to close the deal.
As a freelance web designer you need a portfolio to showcase your work.
1. Be Selective in Your Portfolio
Your portfolio is not a catalog of every project you’ve ever worked on, including your mother-in-law’s real estate landing page.
“Don’t just list everything you’ve ever worked on in your portfolio,” says web designer Brian Casel. “Pick three to five really great projects that represent the type of work you want to get.”
Be selective and choose the sites that really showcase your talents. Pick the projects you’re proud of. Highlighting three to five of your absolute best sites guarantees a potential client will see your best work. Plus, showcasing dozens of sites is overwhelming. That’s not a showcase, that’s a catalog.
2. Show the Work You Want to Get
It’s also important that you select projects for your portfolio that showcase the kind of work you want to get. There should be a clear focus and direction in your portfolio. There should be a consistent theme, whether it’s the type of client, the industry or the type of work.
If you want to work with small businesses, don’t show Fortune 500 brands. If you want to do websites for the medical industry, don’t throw in an example of a retail site. If you want to do ecommerce sites, don’t show a content site.
3. The Wow Factor
The purpose of your portfolio is not to wow clients. You don’t want a collection of over-the-moon projects with ridiculous budgets and crazy features. You do want impressive projects in your portfolio, but potential clients should see themselves in your portfolio. Clients want to see that you can do their kind of work. They want to see you solving problems, not just building fancy stuff.
Resist the temptation to cram your portfolio with bells and whistles. You should be showing off the kind of work you want to bring in. If you build bells and whistles on a daily basis, that’s fine. But your portfolio should reflect the bread and butter of what you do. Focus your portfolio on your regular, everyday work of solving problems. It’s not as flashy, but it’s more effective.
Clients will be more wowed with consistent, quality work than flashy brands or one-of-a-kind features.
4. What Should You Show?
So what should you actually show in your portfolio? It’s not enough to list URLs. You should offer a lot more information that’s going to give context for the projects and better showcase your expertise.
Yes, your code should stand on its own. But your code doesn’t say anything about the many questions you asked the client and how you helped them work through specific problems and strategies. You can give context and explain the problems you solved for the client. That’s not always obvious in the HTML, but it makes a big difference in who gets hired.
Your portfolio should include screenshots and not just links. You never know when a site is going to be redesigned or disappear. They might go out of business or shift directions and turn to someone else for yet another new site. Things last forever on the Internet, until you need them. Then they have a habit of disappearing. So save some screenshots, or hang on to the final code so you can show it off.
But don’t rely on screenshots alone. Add those helpful details to give context. Include case studies to explain the client’s specific problem and how you solved it. Offer testimonies from clients bragging about your work. Let someone else say all the nice things about you that would sound pretentious and questionable if you said them.
Your portfolio should tell a story. Good coders do more than code, and this is your chance to show it.
5. What If You’re Not Proud of Your Work?
If you’re not proud of the work you have to show, put it out there anyway. Having nothing to show is worse. Plus, everybody starts somewhere.
The real value of a portfolio is showing that you can do the work. You attracted a client, they were impressed with your work enough to hire you, you asked the right questions and built a site for them. There’s a finished project and you presumably got paid. Impressive or not, it’s proof of your professionalism. Sometimes that’s all that potential clients are looking for—is this person legit?
6. What If You Don’t Have Any Work?
For freelancers just starting out, there’s the constant problem of how to fill your portfolio when you don’t have any work to show.
One solution is to redesign someone else’s site. Take an existing site that needs some work and use the same content to create a new site that showcases your skills. One freelance writing expert recommends this for up and coming writers, but the same idea can work for web designers.
Just don’t think this is going to get your foot in the door with a client. There’s nothing more presumptuous than walking in the door thinking you know their stuff better than they do and have already done the work. You’re much better off showing made up work for companies they’re not quite as familiar with. There will be less distractions (“You didn’t do our logo right!”) and they’ll focus on your work.
Another solution to having nothing to show is to do some pro bono work. Build up your portfolio with volunteer work for a nonprofit. Just be careful to set clear boundaries about what you’re providing.
7. Proof Your Portfolio
When you think your portfolio is ready to share with the world, don’t. Share it with some close friends first. Get some fresh eyes to proof your portfolio and catch any embarrassing mistakes.
You’re trying to attract potential clients, but nothing will turn them away faster than typos, broken links and rookie errors. Remember to test your portfolio on multiple browsers and devices.
8. Make it Portable
Put your portfolio online, but that’s not the only place it should be. The whole point of having a portfolio is so you can show off your work to potential clients at any time. So your portfolio needs to be portable.
Putting your portfolio online makes it pretty portable, but you never know when you’ll be talking to a potential client and not have Internet access. Or you’re stuck with someone else’s spotty connection. How lame is it to make a client wait while you try to type in a coffee shop’s goofy password?
Instead of all that hassle, put your portfolio on your favorite device. Put it on a thumb drive you always carry in your bag. As an added bonus, saving your portfolio locally means it will load speedy fast.
Build Your Reputation, Too
As important as it is to build your portfolio, it’s not everything:
“Building your portfolio is great, but you can build your reputation much faster and easier if you build it on multiple fronts: client work, speaking engagements, contributions to open source, local meetups, etc.” –Aaron Campbell
- Watch an iThemes Training webinar (subscription required) on how to build a portfolio.
- Read more portfolio tips in this post: How to Stop Neglecting Your Freelance Website & Make It Awesome
- Learn more about building a portfolio in our book, The Ultimate Guide to Starting a Freelance Web Design Business.