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6 Wildly Common Portfolio Mistakes Designers Might Make

If you’re a designer, having a beautiful, responsive portfolio website to showcase your work is a no-brainer.

But all too often, designers build their portfolio site, upload a few pretty pictures, write a little copy, and go live. And then forget all about it till the next time they’re applying to a job.

And five years later, there that portfolio sits, packed with outdated content and screenshots that … Nobody. Ever. Looks at.

So let’s take a look at a few of the most common mistakes designers make with their portfolios — and how you can overcome them.

Mistake 1: Lacking a clearly defined purpose

 

It’s almost immediately obvious that Paul built his portfolio site with newsletter signups in mind.

It’s almost immediately obvious that Paul built his portfolio site with newsletter signups in mind.

All too often, designers act on the knowledge that they should have a portfolio without really considering why.

But you’d never do that on a professional project, right? In your “real,” paid work, you always investigate use cases, user journeys, and workflows. And there’s no reason not to put the same level of effort into building your personal design portfolio.

In fact, if you’re a freelancer, you should be doing even more.

So before you sketch a single screen or diagram one simple flow, take some time to define your portfolio’s purpose. Ask yourself:

Why am I building this website?

Do you want to attract freelance clients, build your personal build, get an awesome in-house job, or just have the best-looking blog on the planet? Note that it’s helpful to be really specific here. If you’re looking for freelance clients or an in-house job, what sort of client/job do you want? The answer could do a lot to shape how you design the site, and what sort of tone you take in the content.

Who do I expect to visit it? How will they get there?

This should flow straight from the why, but answering it will help you understand where to invest your energies and shape your content strategy. If you want to build your personal brand amongst other designers, frequent blogs with custom illustrations that you then post to Dribbble, Twitter, and Designer News would make a lot of sense. Someone looking for clients to build restaurant websites for will have a completely different answer.

What do I want them to do once they get there?

If you’re looking for freelance clients, you’ll want to show off your past work, include some testimonials, possibly some info on your rates, and a contact form. Looking for an in-house job? You’ll need a lot of the same content — but in terms of functionality, your personal email and phone number might be better than a contact form.

Now, it can be easy to look at a list of questions like that and think: Well, duh. The answer to every one of these is obvious. And yes, that’s probably true.

But by taking the time to think through these questions, you’ll crystalize your thinking not only your goal for your portfolio, but also how you’ll achieve your goals for the site. Even more importantly, you’ll be able to reference your answers throughout the design process to help inform your decisions — and to review your site after launch to make sure it’s meeting your goals.

Mistake 2: Lacking a custom, responsive design

Oh, look, it’s another portfolio with a slider above three columns of text with icons. Stifles yawn.

Oh, look, it’s another portfolio with a slider above three columns of text with icons. Stifles yawn.

Once you know what your site’s goal is, inside and out, you can define how you’ll get people to help you fulfill that goal.

That will mean something different for each individual purpose, but in all cases, it’ll mean defining a path to the fulfilment of that goal, be it filling out a contact form or just checking out your blog. And that will have a profound impact on your design.

If you’re looking to build your brand via your in-depth blog posts, maybe your front page is just a blog index, with projects an afterthought, and social sharing options super-prominent.

Looking to attract clients? Maybe you make a “Get in touch” CTA visible on each and every page, and point it to a form that features testimonials on one side and tailored form fields on the other.

You get where I’m going here: whatever your purpose, your portfolio website’s design shouldn’t be some generic template.

Your portfolio should be tailor-made to communicate your purpose and drive people to act on that purpose, not matter what device they’re using.

(And if you’re looking for a great way to custom-build your portfolio, there’s no better option than Webflow. But hey, I may be biased.)

Mistake 3: Relying on imagery alone

screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-12-05-26-pm

Designer Marc Wieland built his portfolio on Medium specifically because it helps him focus on content instead of design.

Don’t expect luscious screenshots to do the job for you—these days, a beautiful website just isn’t enough.

After all, you’re competing against hordes of other talented visual designers. Some of whom are almost certainly better than you, at least on the visual side of things.

That’s where your non-visual content can really help set you apart. So instead of just posting a series of screenshots cleverly placed on a variety of devices, put some meat on your projects’ bones with case studies.

A standard structure for a case study includes:

  • Problem
  • Solution
  • Result

Clearly define the problem you were tasked with solving and how you solved the problem. In some cases, documenting process will matter a great deal (typically, more salient for those seeking in-house work), while for others it will matter less (freelancers).

But be sure to always include the challenge, solution, and key results. This will allow you to add tons of context to your work, and highlight your design thinking. This can be particularly attractive for clients who are facing a similar challenge to the ones capture in your case studies. It’s also helpful to provide the results of your work, as this will show that you’re not just concerned with making beautiful/usable things, but also delivering results for businesses.

“Content is king, that’s especially important for portfolios. It’s very easy to shift toward a more design-centered approach. The design isn’t our first goal and that’s what I like about Medium. The platform forces us to center on content.”

–Marc Wieland, How I built my portfolio on Medium.com

Pro tip: When naming your case studies, be sure to include a reference to the problem you solved. So instead of “mobile app redesign for company X,” name it “mobile app redesign to increase engagement and conversion.” The greater level of specificity will again attract those looking to overcome a specific challenge you have experience with — both when they’re on your site, and when they’re googling around.

Mistake 4: Leaving your portfolio to languish

I admit, my own portfolio could use some love...

I admit, my own portfolio could use some love…

When you’re hustling to get paid work done and land new clients, it’s easy to let your portfolio website go by the wayside. But that’s a big mistake.

Why? Well, there are a host of reasons, but here are a few of the biggest:

  • Keeping it real: About a year ago now, an event organizer contacted me to see if I’d be interested in speaking on a panel he was putting together. After he managed to track me down, I learned that he’d read on my portfolio that I was working at Esurance — a fact that hadn’t been true for several years at that point! Would’ve been a shame to miss that opportunity if he hadn’t been able to track me down / decided I wasn’t worth it based on one inaccuracy.
  • Keeping it current: Regularly adding new work (especially if you use timestamps on posts) will show visitors that you’re actively working and that your design thinking and style are evolving with the times.
  • Keeping it SEO-friendly: There’s solid evidence that Google likes fresh content and a new opportunity to crawl your content. Plus, each content update means the potential for more keywords showing up on your site, which means more chances for your site to match your next client’s search.

Mistake 5: Putting no effort into SEO

Proof: there are still Flash sites on the web. And they’re still terrible for SEO.

Proof: there are still Flash sites on the web. And they’re still terrible for SEO.

While researching this article, I came across a piece in Creative Bloq titled “10 stunning web design portfolios.” And while the websites were, in at least a couple cases, appropriately stunning, their search engine optimization left something to be desired almost across the board.

Now, there are tons of ways to neglect SEO, but for this example, I’ll list how a couple handled their H1 tags — one of the most important elements in determining a page’s topic.

  1. Number one’s H1 tag read “Hello.” Not exactly a popular search term.
  2. The next? “Code Sketch.” I see.
  3. On the next, I couldn’t even find an H1.
  4. The next had an image where you’d normally find an H1.

You see where I’m going with this. SEO isn’t the only way to help people find your website, and in the world of freelance, it can be a pretty tough way to get found. After all, you’re competing with huge listing sites like Behance, Upwork, etc.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Especially when your H1 could be something highly targeted and searched, like “freelance UX designer in the SF Bay Area.”

Mistake 6: Oversharing … the wrong work

I can’t tell you how often I come across designer portfolios that seem to list every single thing the designer has ever run through Photoshop or Sketch.
That’s not what a portfolio is for. Maybe someday, when your genius achieves the worldwide recognition it no doubt deserves, people will labor for years to gather all your design work together in a gorgeous archive.

But until then, remember that your portfolio is supposed to show off your best work. The stuff you’re proud of. The stuff that helped clients 10x something. The stuff that got an Awwward or a mention in a Smashing Magazine article.

It might be helpful to imagine your portfolio as something you’d actually print and carry into your next job interview. Do you actually want to carry your last 50 projects to the office with you — let alone walk 3 interviewers through every page of it?

If you can imagine an interviewer’s attention waning, then your website visitors’ attention probably will too. So focus on your best and brightest — it’s less work for you, and more likely to turn visitors into clients!

Ready to refresh your portfolio?

Hopefully, this review of common mistakes has inspired you to take another look at your portfolio. If it has, and you’d love a way to build your own, totally custom portfolio website, without writing a line of code, check out Webflow. It’s free to try, and I’m sure you’ll love working with it!

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