As a designer, you're asked to solve problems all the time.
You're tasked with designing a great website around bad assets. Or your client has a small budget and wants you to do big things with it. Or you're expected to deliver a design based on zero content and a flimsy project brief – tomorrow. You learn to make it work.
When you're just starting out, creating your portfolio is one of those challenges. You don't have many projects to work with yet. You're not sure how to position yourself for the job you want – or if you even know what job you want. You can recognize a nicely designed site when you see one, but anything you make doesn't live up to your own standards.
Take these challenges as a sign that you're officially a designer. It all comes with the game. Then follow these tips to create a portfolio that says it too.
If you want to elevate your “brand” and your work:
There are certain details that immediately reveal an inexperienced designer. A big one is this: typography.
You can see a designer’s experience in the typography they choose. In the way they kern their letters. In how well the different typography on their site complements each other.
If you want to build a beautiful portfolio – one that might even make you look more experienced than you are – pay attention to your typography. Find a beautiful typeface (or invest in one, if you can afford it) and carefully refine it everywhere you use it. And don't just focus on the headlines. Pay attention to your paragraph type as well, which significantly affects the look and feel of your site.
This is the problem with using portfolio templates. They're made for the general designer's work. But no designer is a general designer. And as a new designer, the "general" solution isn't necessarily right for you either.
How do you use a standard homepage grid, meant to show multiple projects, when you only have one or two? You don't. Instead of presenting a half-empty grid, feature your two projects in big layers on your homepage. Make them full-width, so they take up half your page. Now add another full-width section that links to your homepage. And with that, you already have a beautiful, complete portfolio.
If you're creating a custom portfolio for your work, you have control over how the work is presented. Put those two projects on spotlight by designing the whole page around them. Pretend you're creating a magazine and those projects are your cover story.
If you only have one project:
I hear it a lot from new designers: “I barely have anything to put in a portfolio yet. Shouldn’t I focus on doing more work, and better work, first?”
Of course you want to hone your craft and build your body of work. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a portfolio in the meantime. If you have one project you’re proud of – even a class project or experiment – you can and should have a portfolio.
Make your entire portfolio about that single project. Create a one-pager that features your single case study and your contact info. Make it so good, people want to share it. Take a note from Apple and make your one project feel as epic as a new iPhone release. We talk more about this approach here.
If you’re looking for your first job
New designers often make this mistake: In an effort to fill their portfolio with work, they add everything they’ve ever worked on. A poster they designed in high school. Every class assignment they completed in college. Business cards they designed for their aunt’s friend’s yoga business.
Those projects are all valuable, but they don't necessarily belong in your portfolio. Your portfolio should paint a clear picture of what you want to do. This is true for any designer, but especially a new one. Before your work speaks for you, you need to speak for yourself. Lead with the projects that align most closely with those goals, and state clearly on your homepage what you want to do. Curate your portfolio for the job you want, even if that means cutting out 90% of your projects.