Designing a portfolio with intent
I designed and built a new portfolio website for myself. Take a look: roomfive.net.
Here’s the thing: I didn’t need a new portfolio, but I wanted a new portfolio so I could better target the work I want to do. This article delves into the reason behind creating it, what makes a good portfolio website, my process for creating my new website, and some general advice for getting your work out there and seen by the people that count.
Over the past few years, every time I felt that impulse to redesign my portfolio, I’d look at my website and think: ‘…Actually, it’s fine how it is’.
There were two reasons for this:
- I was in full-time employment and not looking for work.
- When I was freelance, I shipped new projects every other week and regularly shared new work. But during my stint in full-time leadership roles, I had very little I could share — work-wise — over an extended period. Because of this, I started to write more articles as a creative outlet and to keep my name out there.
Below is a look back at my previous website, which prioritised links to my articles over links to case studies. The design was generic and lacked personality. It wasn’t bad, it was just what you’d expect a design director’s portfolio to look like. This was fine, then.
Things are different now.
In late-2018 I obtained my EB-1 green card and was freed from the chains of full-time employment in the United States (context: I’m a British expat). I returned to life as a freelance web designer and developer, which means I’m back to doing what I love: designing and building websites, being creative, challenging myself, learning, and picking the people I want to work with and the projects I want to work on.
I’m no longer content with fitting into a corporate role. I want to let my work and personality stand out.
My amazing wife, Meagan Fisher, re-designed and built her own portfolio website recently. It clearly communicates what she does, her (excellent) credentials, and her brand. It’s loaded with her personality; it goes back to her roots of a design style she’s long-loved but hadn’t exercised as much in recent years, having also worked full-time in tech design leadership roles. She even wrote an article about her new website, if you’re interested.
I watched on as she launched her new website and saw the praise people heaped on her for creating an original website that was ‘very her’.
It got me thinking: what does my website say about me? I think it said:
‘I’m a design director in full-time employment who knows his stuff and does good work. I don’t really wanna talk, but here’s some articles I wrote’.
🤷♂ Impressive, yet visually underwhelming and closed off. I’m freelance now and my doors are open. I want my portfolio to say:
‘I’m a freelance designer who codes. I know my stuff and I make kick-ass, quality websites! Let’s work together’.
👌 Okay, now how do I communicate that?
What makes a good portfolio?
At the outset of any design project, it’s wise to take a step back and look at things objectively. I know why I want to re-brand my portfolio, and that I want to target the work I want to do. But it’s important to also think about what actually makes a good portfolio.
Traditionally I’m an advocate for simple portfolios. Whether it’s an individual, entrepreneur, or a creative director browsing a designer’s portfolio — their time is precious and short.
People take only seconds to decide whether a designer’s portfolio is worth exploring more.
Everyone is different and will be looking for something unique to fit their needs. The challenge is to create something easy to navigate that clearly communicates what each of these people wants to see.
So, what are people looking for in a designer’s portfolio?
- Impressive work (duh). Some people want to see a great breadth of work, while others want to see a small, curated sample. You should meet somewhere in the middle. Don’t show everything you’ve done — only show the work you’re proud of and can talk about passionately.
- If you’ve done work for big brands, communicate that somehow. I’m personally not the sort to be impressed by such things, but I’ve worked with many people who very much are.
- Demonstrate your thinking and process. What was the brief? Don’t just show the design, explain why you did what you did. Show that you actually put a lot of thought into a design, and aren’t just crafting the prettiest pixels or copying the work you saw on Dribbble. The people reviewing your portfolio may assume there’s not a lot of critical thought or research that goes into your work if there’s no evidence to say otherwise.
- Give credit where credit’s due. A portfolio piece with no credit or indication of what you did, is—whether you mean it to or not—claiming you did it all. Did you design and build it? Did you also do the branding or creative direction? Were you the solo designer, or 1 of 5 designers? You don’t need to name all the people involved — it’s likely unrealistic to do that — but it’s courteous and ethical to at least name people who played a major role. Stating your role(s) in a project at least implies you didn’t fulfill the roles you didn’t list (e.g. user research, branding, illustration, copywriting, etc). It’s also fine — in fact, it’s great — if you did all or most of it, and you should say if you did!
- Who are you? An ‘about me’ page always helps. People are looking to hire a person, not a machine. Personality counts for a lot in design, especially if you’re looking to join a team or forge a strong working relationship with a client. Your backstory and work experience may be more relevant than you think to the people looking. So sell yourself! Keep the ego in check, but tell people who you are, where you’re from, what you do, and why you’re good at it. P.S. For what it’s worth, my bio page is by far the most visited page on my portfolio website (behind my home page).
- Whether you’re junior or senior level, passion is everything. If you love what you do, it should come through in how you write about your work and yourself.
- How do I find out more about you? Make it easy to visit your Dribbble, Behance, Medium, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. The people most interested in your experience may skip straight to your LinkedIn. The visual biased people may skip to your design platform profiles. Some design leaders may be more interested in your thought pieces on design than your actual portfolio — and may look for a link to Medium or a blog.
- How do I follow you? Similar to the previous point, only focussed on people actually following you on Twitter, Dribbble, Medium, etc. People aren’t always looking to recruit right now, but they still browse and stumble upon portfolios. When they are looking to recruit, they likely won’t remember you and 50+ other designer’s names, but if they like what they see and follow you, you’ll keep appearing in their feeds and your name is more likely to be present in their thoughts.
Target the work you want to do
Your portfolio is a reflection not only of what you’ve done, but of the work you want to do. I’m proud of the work I’ve done in my career, but that doesn’t mean I want to do all the same things again. I’ve taken jobs to pay the bills, I’ve worked on non-creative projects I’m not excited about, and I’ve done my time in-house navigating internal politics and endless meetings. I don’t want to do any of that anymore.
Start by asking yourself:
What do I want to work on?
Heck, if you’ve been in the game awhile, as I have, it might be easier to start with what you don’t want to do.
So, who am I not targeting?
- I’m not interested in a full-time job unless you make me an offer I can’t refuse! So I don’t need to convince people of my ‘fit’ for a team. Instead, I should focus on what I do, and what I can do for your brand and business.
- If you want something cheap, you’re looking in the wrong place. I believe in creating quality work, and working with people who see the value in that.
- I’m not a ‘full-service agency’, I don’t pretend to do everything well. I’m an expert in designing and building quality responsive websites, creating design systems, and developing digital brands.
- I have no interest in working with unethical people or companies. For context, see Mike Monteiro’s “A Designer’s Code of Ethics”.
- I don’t do dark UX.
Who am I targeting?
- If you want something creative, well-crafted, and tailored to your brand and target audience, then I want to work with you.
- If you’re a company doing good in the world, then I want to work with you.
- If you’re a company involved with surfing, skateboarding, sports, fashion, or arts, I probably want to work with you.
- If you build rockets that go to space or your brand mascot is a loveable talking mouse with yellow shoes, then I want to work with you.
Here’s the bottom line: I’ve been doing this 15+ years. I know what I enjoy doing, and what I don’t. I also know that what I do is valuable to the companies I work with. So the goal of my portfolio is simple: to target the people I want to work with — people and companies doing good in the world — and to work with people who appreciate high-quality work.
Now that I’ve explained what my goal was for redesigning my site, I want to share a bit about the thinking behind specific design choices I made.
My new portfolio website
Over the past few years, my full-time work has been — by necessity — fairly safe, muted, and somewhat sterile, from designing a product for Adobe to creating design systems at WeWork. While I’m proud of this work, it’s not representative of the work I really love to do.
So with my new website, I went back to my roots. I’ve always loved grungy textures, hand-drawn elements, typography, minimalism, simplicity, and quirky layouts. I am personally more inspired by the work of designers and artists like David Carson, James Victore, and Erik Abel, more than any digital designer, agency, or tech company.
As my career has progressed I’ve worn many different hats. 10–15 years ago I was just a web designer and developer, so my bio was pretty simple. Since then, I founded a personal project which I continue to curate, I’ve led products and teams at companies, and most recently I’ve written a book. It’s not easy to sum all of this up in a short statement. To showcase the different roles and experiences I’ve had, I had a little fun with a multi-part interaction. The most important information is up-front and center on page load, and there are three navigational links you can click to learn more. Play with it live here, or see the gif below:
I was really uneasy about putting a photo of myself on my website! I’ve never done that before — I’ve always focused on my work. Having said that, it’s my belief that working with a freelancer is far more personal than a client relationship with an agency or company. When you hire me, you’re speaking to the person actually doing the work, not an account manager who’s paid to speak to you. I’m personally invested in the work we do together. I want our project to succeed just as much as you do. Because of this, I tried to inject “me” into the design, which meant using grungy and typographic elements, using my own words (not marketing talk), and even putting a photo of me in the mix! 😎
The grid layout above is a short scroll down my home page. I’m a fan of quirky layouts, as they break up the monotony of scrolling websites and help draw focus to the content. Here I’ve mixed some projects I want to highlight along with some recent articles I’ve written. My articles are a deeper dive into my design process and a great validation of my work, so I display them prominently alongside more visual case studies. This way I’m appealing to the people who want to see visual candy, while also appealing to the people who want to see a designer’s process and leadership qualities.
Practice what you preach
I’m a designer who codes, it’s a huge part of my value that I can do both. It makes me a better designer and a better developer. I wouldn’t be much of a web developer if I didn’t practice what I preach, so it’s important that I design and build my own portfolio website. And it’s fun. I genuinely enjoy building what I design. There’s a level of polish and care you can only achieve when you tweak and perfect the design in the browser. My clients notice and appreciate this attention to detail.
And of course, the website is responsive. I still can’t quite believe this statement holds any value in 2019, but it does.
A final note on getting your name out there
Your portfolio website is only a small part in attracting the work you want to do. My portfolio website gets a decent amount of traffic, but most of my work comes via referrals, other projects I’ve done, and occasionally via design platforms like Dribbble (and once upon a time, Behance).
Pro tip: people often try to track down who was behind websites they like. If you can, put a credit/link on your work, write a case study about it, and share it on social media. Leave a breadcrumb trail so people can find you.
Fortunately, I’ve been proactive about getting my name out there and my work seen my whole career. The hard work I put in throughout my 20s and early 30s is paying dividends now. But, while I’ve reaped the rewards of this work, it never really stops. Nobody is above marketing and publicity. It’s true that some people are luckier than others, going job-to-job on personal connections — getting by on their ability to talk the talk. However, you’d be wise not to rely on such good fortune. Instead focus on sharing your work, writing articles, talking at design events, doing personal projects and freelance work, and earning a good reputation. The time you invest in your portfolio and these pursuits are all worth it.
Here’s to a creative and successful 2019 and beyond. 🚀