5 Tips for Creating the Perfect Web Design Portfolio

If you’re a freelance designer or if you’re looking for your next design job, a portfolio of work is essential. Clients and employers want to see your capabilities and form a quick impression. If you don’t have a portfolio yet, you may want to start with the course How to Make a Website on Treehouse in which I show the process of building a portfolio website step by step. If you don’t have any work yet, here’s a post about how to get web design experience.

Screenshot of the website http://treehousewebsite.com

On Treehouse, you can learn how build a portfolio with the course How to Make a Website.

Assuming you do have some work, it’s important to organize it all in one place. Here are five tips that can help you create the perfect portfolio website.

1. Dress for the Job You Want

The adage “dress for the job you want, not the one you have” applies to design portfolios. If you want to do web work, then make sure that’s exactly what you’re highlighting on your portfolio. Furthermore, if you’re just one designer or a small team, focusing on a specific market niche can be highly beneficial. When all of your clients share a common industry, it’s easier to anticipate their needs, even before a meeting. For example, if you want to specialize in a particular vertical (such as websites for apartment complexes or doctors offices), then you should highlight that type of work.

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Everyone has a mixed bag of experience, so even if you don’t feel like a designer, you’ve probably done some design work. If someone browsing your site is looking for a good web designer, they may not want to see all of your video work, T-shirts you made, and so on (unless, of course, you’re known for that and you want to do more of it).

This is also true if you’re trying to transition to a new focus. If you’ve done a lot of web design, but you want to design logos instead, then isolate any prior graphic design work you’ve done. In the design industry, perception is reality, so if you’re able to show good logo design work, then people will take your word for it that you are indeed a logo designer.

2. Edit Yourself

At first, it might seem like you want to showcase everything you’ve ever done so that you can demonstrate your breadth of skill. This is usually a mistake; less is more.

Instead, it’s better to create a potent mix of your best work. When people are looking for a designer, they don’t have time to dig through hundreds of portfolios and then subsequently dig through all of your work. Impressions are formed instantly, so a small selection of quality should be front and center. Your portfolio should still be you, but only the best you.

Screenshot of Jessica Hische's portfolio at http://jessicahische.is/working

Jessica Hische is a letterer, illustrator, and type designer with a massive portfolio. In this case, it’s a good thing.

I said including everything is usually a mistake. However, if you know that all of your work is at a very high level of quality, then filling the screen with a huge amount of stellar pieces can create a powerful effect. Jessica Hische is a great example of this; her self-described “unabridged portfolio” overwhelms the page (in a good way) and leaves a lasting impression.

3. Tell a Story

Every piece you choose to include in your portfolio should tell a story, either visually or with words. If you’ve made a website for a local food truck that’s known for gourmet quality food, the aesthetics should correspond and fit the message. Websites are a communication medium, so clients want to see work that really says something.

Beyond the visuals, you may want to consider turning each portfolio piece into a case study. If website visitors want to know more, allow them to click through to additional detail for each piece. Tell them about the needs of each client, what problems each client tried to overcome, and how the solutions you provided worked. Carry visitors’ interest by telling a short story that has a beginning and a conclusion, and be sure to underscore how you played the role of a problem-solver.

4. Don’t Overthink It

Business owners understand that time is their most precious resource. They don’t want to waste time drowning in dozens of your portfolio pieces or dealing with complicated navigation.

Your portfolio should maintain a crystal-clear intent throughout the entire site. Your work should be visible immediately and it should only be your best work. Don’t slow visitors down by getting too creative with the navigation or trying something you’ve never done before. Chances are, it won’t impress them. Instead, go for something simple and elegant. In fact, your portfolio site itself should really just fade into the background and act as a frame for the work you’re presenting.

It’s also important to make sure a portfolio site works well across popular browsers. If visitors are browsing the web in the previous version of Internet Explorer and your website looks broken to them, then you’ve made a poor impression; they’re not going to give it another shot in Chrome or Firefox. The simpler you make your site, the easier it will be to resolve any cross-browser issues.

5. Keep It Fresh

Crafting a great portfolio is like gardening. Every so often you need to prune and selectively remove pieces that are no longer representative of your best work. You also need to make sure you plant the seeds for new work and look for opportunities to expand your portfolio.

Every time you work on a new project, you’re not only making work for a client, you’re also potentially creating a new portfolio piece. If the money or the project isn’t very motivating, you should still make sure you’re injecting quality work. That way, you’ll have an easier time landing gigs you do want to work on with better pay.

Share Your Tips

This is not an exhaustive guide, but hopefully these five tips help you create a more perfect portfolio. If you have any tips of your own, please share them in the comments!

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Nick Pettit

Nick is a designer, public speaker, and teacher at Treehouse. He is also a co-host of The Treehouse Show. Twitter: @nickrp


11 comments on “5 Tips for Creating the Perfect Web Design Portfolio

  1. Do you have any advice you could offer for a more developer-oriented portfolio?

    • In addition to Github, make some Codepens and write lots of blog posts about your thoughts on web development or demos of your programming/coding experiments.

  2. I really appreciate your stuff and recommended all the developers to read this article specially point the Tell a Story.Good Post….

  3. Great advice, and timing as I’m currently revising mine to include newer work and try and attract similar business. It’s not easy to communicate exactly what the customer needs to know, succinctly.

    • This is a great idea! I will do just that as soon as I can carve out some time to write it. Stay tuned!

  4. Good post. I’ve been working on and scrutinizing my own portfolio lately and I agree with your 5 points. I find myself wondering about a couple of questions:
    1) For web design portfolios, should “thumbnail” be a homepage screenshot or something more artistic?
    2) I see a lot of people calling it “Work” vs “Portfolio”. Is one better than the other?

    Thanks for posting!

    • Hi Mike,

      I think the preview images should be a screenshot of whatever best represents the work. As for work vs portfolio, I’m not sure it really matters. In this context, they mean almost the same thing.