Ah yes.

The age-old chicken and egg scenario that has newbie web designers all over the world collectively scratching their heads…

“Which came first? The portfolio or the client?”

“And how the heck am I supposed to get one without the other!”

It’s true.

It’s pretty hard to land paying clients if you have zero proof of actual design talent.

And strategically building your portfolio can truly make the difference between becoming highly sought after for your services (can you say premium prices? ) or getting lost in a sea of designers scrambling to find their next client.

It’s not something you can just put off until you “have more experience” so it’s literally one of the first things I cover with my students in my Square Secrets Business course (the one that teaches you how to turn your Squarespace skills into a killer design business that actually supports a life you love).

So without further ado, it’s time for post #3 in the “Web designers speak out: What I wish I knew about…” series!

P.S. you’re going to notice some prettyyyy strong recurring themes…but also some surprising contradictions!

Which just goes to show you that there is no “one way” to go about building your portfolio!

Every business is unique and what works for one may not be ideal for the next, so take the bits and pieces that resonate with you, and focus on implementing those to start!

Web designers speak out:

What I wish I knew about building my portfolio

“It never really occurred to me when I started my business that someone who invested in a website would go and ruin the beautiful design that you created, but it does happen!

So that you can still use the design in your portfolio, I’ve always found it helpful to take full-page screenshots with the Full Page Screen Capture Google extension as soon as I finish a project before handing it over.

That way you can still use the website in your portfolio even if your client changes it.

These screenshots can also be used to create some promo graphics that you share with your clients so they can promote their website launch as well.

It’s a nice unexpected bonus for them, plus it encourages them to share about their new website, which could spark even more interest in your services!”

– Jessica Haines, Jessica Haines Design

Website | Instagram

“You can (and should) build a portfolio before you have clients.

If you don’t have clients yet, create what I like to call “conceptual projects”.

These are quite literally fake clients that you make up, and create work designed for them.

So if you’re a website designer and your dream is to make a website for a skydiving company, create a fake skydiving client and then make them a website!

Then showcase it in your portfolio as your creation.

I also want to clear up one common concern about this, that just because they’re not a “real” client doesn’t mean you’re being dishonest by showing the work.

You still created that website/brand/design/social media post, and that work shows your skills and abilities.

So rock it, and show it off!”

– Corinne Pettit, Heart & Hustle Studio

Website | Instagram

“Your portfolio is your highlight reel, so make sure it showcases your best work and the types of projects you want to do more of.

I use my portfolio as a sort of sales page/case study so it includes a bit of text with SEO keywords and a call to action at the bottom so that if someone is reviewing it there’s a link right at the bottom prompting them to reach out.

I use Instagram as a secondary place to share my work that maybe didn’t make the cut for the portfolio, but I still want to share.

And before I had any real clients I offered to do some pro bono projects for friends and family specifically to use as portfolio entries.”

– Lindsey Anderson, Six Leaf Design

Website | Instagram

“I learned this the hard way. When I started I designed for literally anyone that would allow me to!

When I posted ALL the things in my portfolio it looked random, confused and just a mess!

After MANY years I learned “laws of attraction”. Put out into the world what you want to attract.

If you want to design for avant-garde brands, then show that in your portfolio. If you want to work with female entrepreneurs with minimalist style, show that!

It doesn’t matter if you have 20 projects that show dude brands! It’s totally okay to omit!

If you want to work with high fashion brands, show that you have the chops to do it!”

– Malena Southworth, Southworth Design Co.

Website | Instagram

“I faked it til I made it!

I was honest, but I showcased “pretend projects” that were things I wanted to work on.

For example, I made a whole website for a photographer that was just for fun. It showed my design abilities and also let me get some practice.

Just make sure to state that the project is a dreamy idea for something you’d like to do more of down the road vs. a real client site.”

– Kali Edwards, June Mango Design

Website | Instagram

“When I moved from WordPress to Squarespace, I only had one Squarespace client site in my portfolio!

The other two were Squarespace sites I created for fictitious companies, and I replaced those as I landed other jobs.

As my business grew I was able to pick and choose portfolio pieces that reflected the types of clients I wanted to work with moving forward.

I’ve set up my portfolio using a blog page, so each thumbnail links to a more detailed page about the project, including a link to the live site.

I create mockups with the site on a computer or iPad, then share those images on my portfolio and on social media.”

– Christy Price, Christy Price

Website | Instagram

“I wish I knew to not be afraid of sharing my work. That is one of the main ways to attract new clients!”

– Aline Hoss, Aline Hoss Design Studio

Website | Instagram

“Yes, yes, yes, and yes!

Your portfolio is the key to making sure the clients who are investing in your services are a good fit.

Before I jump on a call with any lead I make sure they see my investment page AND my portfolio.

Time is one of my most valuable resources and if I’m out of a lead’s budget it is not my job to “talk them into working with me.”

I also want to make sure they know what they’ll be getting when they work with me.

While each website I design is custom to my client I believe each designer has their own sense of style.

If the lead has a totally different design style in mind it doesn’t serve either of us to work together.”

– Erin Neumann, Be Aligned Web Design


“Present the work you’d like to get more of.

I’ve followed this mantra since the start and I continue to attract my ideal clients.

When someone comes to your website, they want to know “can they do that for me?”

If your portfolio is a mix of all different styles, businesses and so on, it’s not going to connect with anyone.

At the start, I used personal projects and free work I did for friends because the designs were more aligned with my niche.

Curate the work you show to target your dream client.

Also, I’ve started styling my portfolio as miniature case studies to put the reader in my client’s shoes.

Adding context to your work is so helpful and helps the reader understand the intention behind the design.

Use images and mockups of the design but also add copy to answer questions like:

‘Why did the client feel like they needed a brand & web design?’

‘What was the process like for them?’

‘How do they feel now that it’s completed?’

I intentionally ask these questions during offboarding as part of my client experience survey so I can use my client’s words in my portfolio”

– Vanessa Bucceri, Vanessa Bucceri Creative

Website | Instagram

“First of all, NO ONE is going to know if you built a “real” site or a “fake” site.

You built it. That’s what matters.

So in the beginning, if you have a friend who needs a site, build one for free. But let them know that you fully expect an (honest) review that you can use on your site.

But if you don’t know anyone who needs a site, build some examples! It’s still your work.

And frankly it’s going to be great because it’s fully your creative vision without the input or direction of anyone else.

And then promote the heck out of that site. Tell everyone you know. And be darn proud of it.

They don’t need to know for a second that it’s just an example.

Once you get further along you can replace those sites with client sites if you want. But the important thing is to feature MORE of the type of client and the type of site you enjoy building.

What you put out into the universe is what you attract back. People who like your style and your vibe will find you, as long as that’s what you’re sharing!

Go out there and do your thing!

I stalled for a long time because there were “so many other designers” and people who had been doing this longer.

But guess what? No one is going to do it like you.

No one will have your ideas. No one will ever build the exact site you’re going to build (unless they straight copy you, of course…)

Imperfect action is always better than perfect inaction.

So go ahead. Launch your business. Don’t wait.

If it isn’t perfect, great… no one is. You’ll adjust and learn along the way. Expect mistakes. Expect to learn. Just take the leap.”

– Becca Wood, Alto Design Co

Website | Instagram

“If you’re just starting out, think about who your ideal client is, and curate your portfolio accordingly.

Don’t have real clients yet? Make up the dreamiest of projects for your dreamiest of clients.

Instead of including every project you’ve ever created, only include the type of work you’re really proud of – this should reflect the types of clients & projects you’d like to land in the future.

The same should be said about the projects you didn’t love – if logos aren’t your jam, don’t include them in your portfolio.

The type of work you put into the world is a direct reflection of the types of clients you’ll attract.”

– Rose Lindo, Bittersweet Design Boutique

Website | Instagram

“I wish I had taken full-page screenshots of my portfolio pieces before handing the projects over to clients…

(who then tend to make updates over time, so it’s hard to accurately capture your work months down the road).”

– Melissa Stephenson, Five Design Co

Website | Instagram

“To start with I was really shy sharing my work!

I am not a “seller” and felt so awkward saying ‘look at me – look what I’ve made!’.

But it’s SO important. Have confidence in your work and be proud of it!

Posting recent projects on social media and on your website shows that you’re active in your business, gives potential clients an idea of your style and shows that you CAN do it.

You only need one portfolio piece to get started so if you can find that family/friend client, use that!

But if you need to pitch to your first client and showcase your skills then creating a personal project or “mock-up” is a great way to do this.

Once you’ve got a good selection of work for your portfolio, the best thing to do is to only show the ones that you’re most proud of, that are most reflective of the standard and style of your work or the ones that are in your niche.

Creating a blog post for each new piece is an effective way to tell interested prospect clients a bit more about what you could do for them, and it’s always a great way to boost your website SEO!”

– Steph Bisson, Colour & Love

Website | Instagram

“My portfolio are like case studies but I just niched down to coaches so I’m currently rebuilding my portfolio with websites that match my target audience.

Before I had a portfolio, I offered super cheap websites and logo design.”

– Michanae Edwards, Michanae’s Designs

Website | Instagram

“Work on personal projects and free projects for friends!

That’s how I started building up my portfolio – I was up front about the fact that there were conceptual projects in my portfolio but you don’t need to say if it was a free project or how much the client paid for it!

I’ve never had a potential client mention a conceptual project in a negative light – in fact, some of those personal projects are what clients mention inspired them to reach out to me!

I also like to share not only graphic elements on my Instagram and website but mockups!

It makes your portfolio more well-rounded and professional, and helps potential clients picture what a professional brand and website could look like for them.”

– Jen Davis, Hello June Creative

Website | Instagram

“You don’t have to include every project you’ve worked on in your portfolio.

Only showcase your favorite projects and the ones that you want to have more of in the future.

Also, using mockups and different tools can make a project shine, don’t forget about having fun with them.”

– Maru Ramirez, Studio Mer

Website | Instagram

“You don’t have to do free work to build your portfolio!

I WISH someone would have told me this. I was busting my butt, working for free, and honestly getting taken advantage of in the process.

Build your portfolio and charge for the quality and experience level you have.

It’s okay to give discounts but working for free will often times be counterproductive in the end!”

– Hannah Phillips, Dear Brunch Design

Website | Instagram

“You don’t need HEAPS of sites to prove your worth.

At the beginning, I was doing way too much free work to build my portfolio. Looking back I only needed 3 or so sites to showcase my design style.”

– Cherise Vecchio, Joelle Studio

Website | Instagram

“I wish I knew that you can totally fake it til you make it.

Perhaps you want more of one particular client but are only getting another. For example, you’d like to attract lifestyle bloggers but you are only getting physical shops interested in your services.

take some time to work on a couple of personal projects to add into your portfolio in the style of your dream clients.

This way, when you start sending these ideal clients to your website, they’re going to see what magic you can create for them.”

– Eleanor Stones, Eleanor Stones

Website | Instagram

“I wish I knew to share more of my portfolio on social media more often. It’s the way the people know what you do and if you do it well!”

– Emma Hall, Retro Marketing

Website | Instagram

“Having a portfolio of work is so important for any designer. It’s by far the most viewed page on my a website.

Having a portfolio of the work you WANT to do is so helpful because you’ll find clients that want that style of work.”

– Jackie Elefante, Jaks Digital

Website | Instagram

I learned pretty quickly that one of the best ways to build your portfolio when you are starting out is to create imaginary projects!

This was super helpful, and it can be a great way to create projects for the types of brands/businesses you want to work with.

Mary Kiser, MK Design Studio

Website | Instagram

“Do concept projects within your ideal niche to help attract your ideal clients.

You don’t need a portfolio that showcases other niches, only a portfolio that targets your exact dream clients even if your skills go beyond that.

Starting a blog is very helpful for building SEO and providing value to your audience in addition to just sharing tips on social media.”

– Mackenzi Green, Kenzi Green Design

Website | Instagram

“I built some friends and family amazing websites to start building up and clients started to come from seeing and loving their sites.”

– Jaime Lawson, by Jaime

Website | Instagram




Web designers speak out: What I wish I knew about building my portfolio