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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Displaying Your Ninja Skills To Others

Creating The Perfect Portfolio

If you’re a designer looking for a job - whether of the freelance or permanent variety - then an online portfolio is pretty much mandatory. In many instances, your portfolio will be looked at without you present, without any other information about you, and probably by a person who has never spoken to or seen you in person. If your portfolio has to stand alone in a critical situation like hiring, it’s worth spending some time making sure it’s going to get the job done!

I like to think I’ve seen all the angles on portfolios; I started out working as a designer, went freelance, expanded into an interactive agency where I hired designers, and finally cofounded a startup where we employ lots of freelancers. Let me share with you some of my observations and opinions - particularly from the viewpoint of an employer - on how to approach the task of building an online portfolio.

Identifying your audience

At its core, building an online portfolio is much the same as any other design brief—the only difference is that you are your own client. So as with any design brief, it’s best to begin by asking yourself, “who is my target audience?” Let’s look at two types of portfolios.

Portfolios to get hired

In this case your audience is clearly potential employers. These people will certainly have a keen sense of aesthetics, and may even be designers themselves, although that isn’t always the case. This audience will be looking to see the quality of your work, but also what involvement you had in each project, find out a bit about you, and discover how your work can help them in their business.

Portfolios to get clients

Here your audience is two-fold. On the one hand we have potential new clients, or leads as they tend to be known—these are your main target audience, as they are the ones bringing in new work. But on the other hand you also have existing clients who may also wish to see where you are at, refer you to someone else, or to complete some admin task such as finding your contact or billing details. In this article we’ll focus mostly on the leads.

The Potential Employer

As a designer looking to get hired, it’s worth taking a moment and getting into the headspace of the person who is looking to employ you. Know your audience and you know how to communicate with them.

What can we assume about a potential employer? Often they will be someone with a web and design background themselves, probably capable of doing the job they are hiring you for. Chances are this person is looking through dozens, if not hundreds, of portfolios. They are looking for a person who will fit into their organization, be able to jump in to current projects, be as capable as the person they are replacing, and who understands what to do.

With these factors in mind, here are four considerations when creating an online portfolio aimed at a potential employer:

1. Get to it

If someone needs to review a hundred portfolios, you can bet they will come up with some shortcuts to make fast decisions about their potential employee.

When I used to look through job applications, for the most part I would open the email and look for a link to click. My first thought would be “is this portfolio downright ugly or horrible?” If it managed to pass that simple test then I’d go straight to work samples, and only if the work was good would I consider reading an about page, blog, or doing anything else.

The obvious corollary is that you have to have some work to show. I would immediately reject any applicant who just sent a resumé with no portfolio of any kind. I was also extremely suspicious of web designers with no website themselves.

You should remember that a potential employer will probably make up their mind within the first half-dozen pieces you show—if you’ve got the goods, get them to the front of the portfolio so they act as a hook. Certainly when I would look through portfolios, if I didn’t see what I liked early on I wouldn’t bother going much further. And if I did go further and unearthed better work buried deep in the site, I’d inevitably wonder why it wasn’t shown early on, leaving questions about the candidate’s understanding of their own work.

The main rule here is get to your portfolio quickly and show your best hand. Only once you’ve made the cut as a potential candidate can you afford to show extra work, talk about yourself, or go off topic.

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Build a Killer Online Portfolio in 9 Easy Steps

Every freelancer should have an online portfolio. You’ve got one, right? If not, skip to the last paragraph of this post. It’s written for you.

If you do have one, you can breathe a sigh of relief. You’re halfway there.

Building your portfolio is easy. The hard part is making it good. A killer portfolio does more than just showcase your work. It transforms visitors into clients. Best of all, it’s an automatic work generator.

In this post, I want to show you how to take your online portfolio to the next level.

1. Ask the question

Online portfolios tend to come in one of three shapes: a blog, a website, or a dedicated solution (something that’s just a portfolio, without any of the extra stuff).

The question I’d like you to have in mind as you read this is: how well does my site answer the questions potential clients are likely to have?

2. Focus on simplicity

Your portfolio exists to impress and persuade potential clients. If you have a blog or website, though, you might (wisely) be trying to draw traffic from other sources. Maybe you’re sharing your knowledge, or providing value in other ways.

This has one potential drawback, though: you’re catering to so many people that the clear message you want to send potential clients might be getting lost in the noise.

If you’re looking for work, don’t be afraid to say it simply and boldly. Stick a ‘Hire Me’ button, link or section on your site.

Simplicity is the key to good web design. Potential clients will have one key question: where do I go if I’m thinking about hiring this person?

Give them the answer, as simply as you can.

3. Optimize your ‘About’ page

The importance of a good ‘About’ page can’t be overestimated. It’s the place potential clients will visit when they want answers to some essential questions:

  • Who is this person?
  • What qualifications and experience do they have?
  • Do they seem trustworthy and reliable?
  • Are they looking for work?
  • Can I see some examples of previous work?

You can answer the trustworthy and reliable question in two ways. You can include testimonials from previous clients, or you can emphasize the ways in which you’re a decent, normal person: you have a family, hobbies and so on.

For the last question, I think it’s important to link to a page containing examples of your previous work and nothing else: the portfolio in its most traditional form. It will allow potential clients to get to know what you’re capable of without any distractions.

4. Provide a clear means of contact

It can’t hurt to put contact information at the bottom of your ‘About’ page, but this isn’t the only place you should make it available.

Website usability is conversational. If a potential client wanted to get in contact with you, would they ask you to tell them about yourself? Probably not. It doesn’t really make sense. They would instead ask: how can I get in contact with you? A prominent ‘Contact’ page is a clear and simple answer to that question.

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