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!”
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!
“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.
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.
– Jessica Haines, Jessica Haines Design
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
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
“I learned this the hard way. When I started I designed for literally anyone that would allow me to!
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!
– Malena Southworth, Southworth Design Co.
“I faked it til I made it!
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
“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.
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
– Aline Hoss, Aline Hoss Design Studio
“Yes, yes, yes, and yes!
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.
– 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.
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?’
– Vanessa Bucceri, Vanessa Bucceri Creative
“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 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!
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…)
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
“If you’re just starting out, think about who your ideal client is, and curate your portfolio accordingly.
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.
– Rose Lindo, Bittersweet Design Boutique
(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
“To start with I was really shy sharing my work!
But it’s SO important. Have confidence in your work and be proud of 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.
– Steph Bisson, Colour & Love
“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.
– Michanae Edwards, Michanae’s Designs
“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 also like to share not only graphic elements on my Instagram and website but mockups!
– Jen Davis, Hello June Creative
“You don’t have to include every project you’ve worked on in your portfolio.
Also, using mockups and different tools can make a project shine, don’t forget about having fun with them.”
– Maru Ramirez, Studio Mer
“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.
It’s okay to give discounts but working for free will often times be counterproductive in the end!”
– Hannah Phillips, Dear Brunch Design
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
“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.
– Eleanor Stones, Eleanor Stones
– Emma Hall, Retro Marketing
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
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
“Do concept projects within your ideal niche to help attract your ideal clients.
– Mackenzi Green, Kenzi Green Design
– Jaime Lawson, by Jaime