Today we tackle the subject of endless hours of speculation, agonizing and unseen effort: how to present your visual work online. Note: we’re going to ignore the specifics of format (website/portfolio site like dribble or behance/instagram etc.) and focus on the conceptual.
First thing’s first, though…a touch of bitching:
I’ve mostly come to terms with how painfully reductive a (modern digital) portfolio is, particularly when one of the hallmarks of creative people is a core adaptability and a drive to learn/do/make a wide variety of things. What compels many of us towards creative work in the first place is the chance to constantly solve new problems and figure out how to do new things well—not the chance to produce the same things in a slightly different way over and over in an endless loop of misery.
Violations of basic hallmarks of human-ness aside, we still have to make those cash dollars. We must learn to shrink ourselves and our capabilities to a handful of webpages that someone is going to glance at for 10 seconds before deciding if A) they want to learn more or B) close the window and forget we ever existed.
In the storied human tradition, we have acknowledged the absurdity of this and commiserated about it through writing, and now it is time to bury our grievances and get to work.
So, shed a lonesome tear or two, my creative creatures. Put your hoop-jumping shoes on and get ready to consolidate your essence into a few chic web pages. Step one: you should probably figure out why you’re about to jump through these hoops, and for whom…
Part 1: IDENTIFY YOUR GOALS
Who do you wish to attract to your portfolio site (creative directors, recruiters, editors, publishers, potential future ex-husbands/wives, etc.)? What is the ideal visitor to your page like, and what are they looking for? Make a list!
To what end do you wish to attract this specific type of person? Is your site a place where you showcase your artwork because you enjoy curating it/expressing yourself, or are you trying to get hired? Don’t say both—pick one and refer all your portfolio choices back to this one goal.
When members of your intended audience visit your website, what do you want them to do? (Generally the answer is: navigate your site quickly/easily, get a fast and accurate snapshot of the kind of work you want to be hired for, come away with confidence about your ability to do that work well, contact you.)
Snapshot the above into a written statement of portfolio mission. If you can’t articulate it to yourself, you’ll have a lot of trouble making it clear to someone else.
Part 2: CHOOSE & ORGANIZE CONTENT
- Show your best work only (trim the fat). There is nothing more disappointing than seeing a bunch of great work and then one or two pieces that drag it all down and call skill/judgement into question. Major letdown.
- Let the work speak for itself by organizing it into clear categories and using clean, simple formatting/layout. Don’t make people look for information and make it easy for them to do the actions you want them to do. This ain’t a scavenger hunt.
- Only show work that you want to get more of. People have a surprisingly hard time imagining your capabilities beyond what you put in front of their face, and the assumption is that if you’re doing/displaying work of type X, you want more work of the same type. If necessary, create some fake work. Just be prepared to talk about it as though it were real and were commissioned to solve a meaningful visual problem.
- Speaking of problems, always be solving a problem. Here’s a great argument in favor of case studies and showing your work/thought processes (flashback to high school math proofs). A jewel of a quote from a must-read for UX/UI folks: “I love seeing beautiful, entertaining interaction design work. But I know this from my own work: if your design doesn’t improve the user’s experience, solve the business goals, or whatever outcome you set, it’s purely decorative and useless.”
- Include a bio. I know, you’re like, “I gotta explain all my projects and now I gotta explain my very existence too?” and regretfully, I’m like, “Yes, sorry.” Bios are the worst. Anyone who’s a decent person sort of cowers in shame writing about themselves but if you can find a way to nutshell yourself & your work without sounding like a megadouche, you’ve pretty much done it. Maybe start here with these aspirational 7-word bios and build from there? Or if someone has a good resource/article/example of an epic bio, please share in the comments.
At some point once you have recovered from the objective hell that is portfolio creating or restructuring you will ask yourself if it’s working. What if you don’t suddenly get 10,000% more traffic? What if you didn’t pack in enough stupid keywords? What if it’s still just your mom visiting just so you don’t feel bad?
How do you know if your hard work is having the desired effect? You kind of don’t. Sure, you can measure site traffic and the relative quality of new leads, assuming people are using your contact form or telling you they contacted you after looking at your portfolio site.
But the real hidden gem here is that in going through the process of refining your outward presentation, you’ve completed an exercise in learning how to represent yourself well.
If you’ve done the conceptual and visual work to clarify how you and your work are seen by an outside eye, you’ll be well-equipped to talk about it with new clarity and confidence. And that in and of itself, is plenty worthwhile.