Tips for creating a great portfolio website

Andrew Couldwell
7 min readOct 7, 2015

For creatives, showcasing your work is vitally important. Your portfolio is your shop window — what you put on display and how you dress it, is important to how you are perceived. It connects you to potential employers, clients and opportunities. And it helps you to grow your network, which you are nothing without.

Remember, you are not the only person who does what you do — your portfolio is one of many the Creative Director, Founder, client etc. will view during their search. Their time is valuable, your window to impress them is small and you may only get one chance at that. Your portfolio website has an important role to play, so it needs to be great!

Design & curation by Andrew Couldwell, featuring creative by Matthias Heirderich, Lina Skukauskė and YemaYema

Let the work do the talking.

First up. The best portfolio sites simply frame the actual work. The less distracting that ‘frame’ is, the better. More often than not, over fussy, loud, cluttered portfolio sites are over-compensating for mediocre work. Simple is always best. Perhaps the only exception to this rule is illustrators — when those extra characterful touches here and there can make a big difference.

Simple, clean and to the point.

Easy to study and navigate. People will spend seconds looking through your website! Make it easy to scan and view your (best) work.

Value quality, not quantity.

Consider the phrase: ‘You are only as good as your last project…’. A user will likely only view one or two projects, so lead with your best work, not all your work! Especially digital has a short shelf life, so showing work from a few years ago isn’t valuable, unless it’s a high profile project, in which case it’s certainly worth highlighting that you worked on it. The bulk of your portfolio is best served to show the breadth of what you do, but it’s unlikely people will click through all of it — so consider that in your layout, order of projects and presentation.

What type of work do you want to do?

If you don’t want to work on xxxx types of projects in the future, it’s probably best not to showcase xxxx projects in your portfolio. You will forever get that type of work if you do.

Show personal work (and pro bono projects).

So you didn’t get paid, who cares?! If it’s great work, then show it off! Personal projects show passion for what you do, and most importantly that you are a ‘self-starter’, which is a very important quality! Don’t show too much personal work though, you should strike a balance between personal and professional.

Here are more thoughts on: ‘The benefit of personal projects

Show real work!

Unsolicited redesigns of existing products are very common. But be careful of how much of this sort of thing you show.

Demonstrate that you can respond to real briefs, working with constraints, budgets, deadlines and actual assets.

Share your process.

Design is more than making things pretty. Showing that your work is considered and well thought out is important for three reasons:

  1. It demonstrates the value in what you do. How many times has a client asked you to ‘just’ do something, like it’s nothing?! You know exactly what I mean. There is more to what you do…
  2. It’s interesting to clients and other creatives to see or read about how and why something was created.
  3. Creatives hiring creatives want to see your thinking. Designers are problem solvers. What was the problem, and how did you solve it?

This is applicable to all creative fields, only the best way to showcase your process will be very different. Some examples include:

  • Explain (write-up) your thinking behind elements or features.
  • Time lapse videos or photos at different stages.
  • Sketchbook work and initial ideas to show progression, whether it’s a logo, a typeface, page layouts for print, digital UIs etc…
Example of my Behance (design platform) covers, versus my bespoke portfolio website

Appropriate project covers.

It’s pretty common practice to present projects with image thumbnails, otherwise known as ‘project covers’. The point of this is to lure in the user to click to access the project, but also to give an indication of what they can expect to see in that project. But what images are best to use? I personally take a different approach for ‘design platform’ covers (e.g. Behance), versus my own portfolio website covers. Here’s why:

My portfolio website cover images.
The people navigating my own website are arguably more of a captive audience — they navigated to my site and are taking the time to view specifically my work. In this scenario I use more abstract, enticing imagery, such as photography, illustration or branding, to show off the creative direction. But the imagery is still an indication of the project content, or at least the industry (e.g. fashion or extreme sports).

Design platform cover images.
On design platforms/networks, it’s more likely people are stumbling upon your work while searching for inspiration, or seeking a good designer in a particular field. Either way, the user is scanning through hundreds of covers to find what they’re looking for. In this scenario, the abstract image crops I spoke of before are now mostly useless. If I’m searching for UI projects, a page full of hundreds of crops of photos is useless to me. The cover really needs to show me at least some of the UI, or I’m forced to click into the project to see if it actually interests me, which is very frustrating.

Give credit. Or at least specify what you did.

It’s astonishingly rare how often designers give credit where it’s due. It’s respectful, but it also helps the person reviewing your portfolio to know exactly what you do. Because it’s not always clear.

The majority of agency or in-house based projects will have involved a few, several or a dozen (+) people. If you did it all, or most of it, then great — sing your own praises — that’s impressive! But, if you only worked on the wireframes, for example, then don’t take credit for the final design, branding, art direction, photography, copywriting, illustrations, front and back-end build etc… that also made up the project.

By not giving credit, or not specifying what you actually did, you are implying you did it all, which is dishonest, misleading, and can be embarrassing when later brought up in an interview! Think about what genuine claim you have to a project with so many contributors — could you say you were ‘that’ involved in front of the other contributors? If the answer is no, then don’t put it in your portfolio.

Have a personality.

This is a professional portfolio. But creative industries are generally very personality driven. Passion for what you do and personality can be as important as raw ability, experience or technical skill. Your ultimate aim is to work with the people who are viewing and considering your portfolio. So… How do you come across? Would you want to work with you? What sort of language are you using? Is it down to earth, friendly, approachable?

Introduce yourself.

Don’t write an essay. Keep it short, interesting and informative. Absolutely let your personality shine through, if you want to ✿. Use ‘your own words’, not industry buzzwords. If you feel you need to go into personal stuff, keep it short and sweet.

Avoid writing in the third person. If you do, cite the person who wrote it about you. If your third person bio is written by you — and most people will assume it was — then make sure it doesn’t read like it was! I read a LinkedIn bio once that was very unconvincingly written in the third person that stated he was: “…one of the leading minds in the tech world” — I had a good laugh, tuned out and lost all respect for that person.

Tone down the ego.

It’s not up to you to tell your audience you are good, or “the best” ... Yeah, I’ve seen this! Let them decide. The work you showcase and how you present it is testament to your ability (and experience).

Talk about yourself and what you do. List your achievements, press and awards. But be humble about it. Be honest and realistic about what you actually do…

Are you really “the leading…” or a “full-service agency”?

Photography by Lina Skukauskė — Layout design & curation by Andrew Couldwell for Adobe Portfolio

Make it accessible.

Make sure your website looks great on all devices, especially desktop and mobile. Creative Directors (for example) are busy people — they are just as likely to skip through your portfolio on their phone, out and about, as they are sat at their desktop. Or at least, they will skip through and shortlist portfolios on their mobile to study later in more detail on desktop.

Make it easy to follow you.

I often don’t have time to study portfolios in as much detail as I’d like. But if I like what I see, then I’m very interested to see more of your work in the future. So make it easy for people to do that, with clear links to your networks or social profiles (e.g. Twitter, Behance, Dribbble etc…). If you don’t, this brief visit to your portfolio could be the last time they ever see your work, or name. You don’t want that.

Finally, good luck!

I hope this article helps :)

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