How to make a portfolio when your work can’t be shared
By Tobias van Schneider Published June 11, 2018
An online portfolio is critical to a designer's success. But what do we do when we work on a confidential project where we’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement? Or what if we worked on something that hasn’t launched yet, but we really love the project and want it on our portfolio now? Or what if the nature of our design work doesn’t really make sense for a visual portfolio?
Most of us have run into one of these problems before. And while it’s tricky and sometimes more time consuming, you may still be able to feature this work in your portfolio to some extent. In my work with Semplice I’ve seen every kind of approach to solve these problems. Here’s how I’ve seen designers to get around the most common roadblocks.
When You’ve Signed a Non-Disclosure
Image from noemielecoz.com/hello, made with Semplice
Of course there is only so much you can do if you’ve legally agreed to keep your work private. Sharing confidential work without permission could get you fired and would certainly harm your reputation. But if you want to let people know you’re working on an impressive brand or specific type of project that’s still under wraps, I have seen designers make it work.
For example, take Noemie le Coz’s work for Apple. She shares the Apple logo on her homepage which even at a glance makes an impression. The logo clicks through to a short note (shown above) expressing the confidentiality of the project. Essentially you're treating your portfolio in this case like a CV. You simply mention roughly what kind of work you've done without saying anything that breaks your contract. If someone is curious to hear more, they can still contact you and you can decide from there how much you can share in private.
Pawel Nolbert does the same in his portfolio, but adds a playful and more personal description.
Image from nolbert.com, made with Semplice
Apple is not the FBI. They’re not going to be mad at Noemie and Pawel for simply saying they’ve done work for a big client, unless they’ve explicitly asked otherwise. Of course it’s not ideal and you don’t want ALL of your projects to be presented this way, but if it’s a high profile brand and it benefits you to have their name in your portfolio, try Noemie and Pawel’s approach.
Another possible solution: Simply describing the nature of the work. Instead of sharing the project details, you could talk briefly about what type of project it was and what role you played. Just be extremely careful here to speak in general terms, and get approval before you publish.
Terri Lee describes the type of work she did for Volvo, being careful to omit any specifics about the project.
Alternatively and providing your client’s OK with it, you could create password-protected case study to share only with potential clients or employers. In any case, make sure to read your NDA thoroughly to make sure you’re not crossing any lines. Of course you could also just feature the logo or brand name in your list of Select Clients, if you want to keep it simple.
In any case, always ask your client for permission. But even if you can't show the full project, just mentioning a few of your responsibilities, including what department you've worked in, could do wonders for your portfolio.
When the Project Isn’t Live Yet
In some cases, the work isn’t necessarily confidential, it just hasn’t been finalized or launched yet. In this case, there is sadly not much you can do but ask the client for permission.
Depending on the kind of project, you may be able to publish parts of your work as a preview before the actual project goes live. But this often depends on what kind of project it is. If it's for a restaurant which isn't going to be finished for another year, your client may allow you to use the work you did for them on your portfolio. If it's for a software product, your client will most likely not want to share anything before the product launches.
Don't feel discouraged and always ask your client. Sometimes you can work out a solution, even if that just means you're allowed to post a little preview on your portfolio.
When Your Work Doesn’t Lend Itself Well to a Portfolio
Maybe you do more strategy and design research, which doesn’t exactly translate to some beautiful image gallery. But even the most incredible visuals can fall flat in a portfolio without context. Excellent case studies are important for any kind of design project, but especially for more abstract design work.
Find a creative way to show the strategy phases from concept to solution: the wireframes, the scribbles and brainstorms on the whiteboard, the post-it notes, the pages from your notebook. Put some love into the presentation and showcase any visuals you do have in a thoughtful and consistent way.
Image from lizvwells.com, also made with Semplice 🙂
Recently I wrote about creating a portfolio as a UX designer, and a lot of the same tips apply here. Briefly and in simple terms, show us your process from concept to solution — including your feelings on the final result. Help us understand the way you think by taking us through your typical workflow.
Generally, sharing private or non-visual work comes down to a purposeful portfolio layout and/or great storytelling. Other times, it's just a matter of persistence and patience, waiting until you get more projects or the approval to share the ones you've already done.
When I started out building my portfolio, I specifically made sure that I worked on a project I could feature in my portfolio. After all, it's our job as designers to educate clients about the importance of showing the work. The earlier you can talk to a client about your intentions to share the work, the easier it will be once it's done. Don't wait until the end, make it a conversation point early on when starting the project. If you explain to your client exactly why it is important for you to showcase the work (or parts of it), most clients will understand and work on a solution with you.