How to make a portfolio when you don't have any work to show
by Tobias van Schneider
Everyone says you need an online portfolio as a creative, but what if you don’t have any work to put in it?
We may tell ourselves we haven’t built our portfolio because we’re too inexperienced, or too busy, or too lazy, or too overwhelmed. But what’s behind those feelings is often insecurity.
What if our work’s not good enough? What if we don’t have enough to show?
Everyone starts with nothing at the beginning. But if you have just one project – even if it’s a personal experiment – you can create an online portfolio. Here’s how.
When you’re just starting out
Take your one project and make your entire portfolio a case study of that project. It doesn't matter if it's client work or self-initiated, as long as you're proud of it.
Think of the way Apple promotes their latest product release. With every new iPhone or Macbook, they launch a beautifully designed page that shows off each feature in a bold way. Aim for the same confident approach, creating a custom landing page that makes your one project feel epic and meaningful.
Focus on telling the story of that one piece of work and really selling it. Use colors that complement the brand. Create scannable sections for each phase or project element. Use strong images and headlines to pull us in. Now create a section on that same page with your bio and contact info. Take your one page live under your own domain name and you're done. You have a portfolio.
It can take just one interesting, unexpected and original idea to launch a designer's career. Your one project might be that. Or the next one may be. It's often single projects in a our portfolio that get shared and seen anyway, but sadly they're often buried on some external platform where we have no control over how they're presented. It's so easy to build your own custom page now (on tools like Carbonmade or Semplice), there's no reason not to.
As you keep designing these extensive case studies for your individual projects, you are slowly building your portfolio without realizing it. They may be single landing pages floating in the ether for now. Eventually, you can connect them together on a homepage as a full body of work.
It may be that you’re working under a non-disclosure agreement where you’ve legally agreed to keep your work private.
Or it may just be that the project hasn’t launched yet and you’re not allowed to share it, or feel like you don’t have much to say, until it does.
Or you may be working for a large, corporate company that doesn’t allow you to say you worked on the project at all.
While you have to be more careful in this case, you may be able to find a solution. Some designers can get away with just sharing the logo of the company on their site if the brand carries some weight (I see many designers who work for Apple, which has strict NDAs, do this). Others are able to talk about the project in vague terms, explaining the nature of the work and the role they played on the project. Others are lucky (and smart) enough to negotiate their NDA before the project begins, so they’re safe to share their work later.
While it all depends on the company and the project, you can usually find a way to make it work.
It’s hard because you should be proud of the work in your portfolio, but we will always find flaws in our own work and wish we could be better.
I try to let these feelings of doubt work for me instead of against me. My high standards mean I’ve curated my portfolio to include only a few of my very best projects. This is a much stronger approach than cluttering it with subpar work that doesn’t represent me or what I want to do. Or sometimes I’ll force myself to share work that my inner perfectionist could keep tweaking forever. If I decide to keep improving it after that, fine. It’s Phase II. But getting it out there suddenly makes it feel more real and final. It creates some momentum that either makes that project better or gets me moving on to the next one.
Hold on tight to your work and obsess over it, and you’ll get nowhere. Keep working, keep experimenting and shipping, and you will improve with every project. Soon you’ll have a portfolio that makes you proud.
If you are ready to start working on your portfolio, I'd recommend trying Carbonmade or Semplice. Carbonmade makes it easy for non-designers to build a beautifully designed portfolio, and fast. Semplice is a bit more advanced, typically used by designers to create a highly custom portfolio. You can compare the two here.
Whatever you use to build your online portfolio, don't wait around for anyone to give you permission. Just begin and keep it simple. The best way to get more work for your portfolio is to launch your portfolio, and then keep working.