How to Make a Portfolio that Clients Crave

Lauren Bonk
August 27, 2015

Portfolio

We’re guessing you’re not the type of person who would go camping without packing supplies, or show up to a final exam without ever cracking open a book… but would you apply for a creative job without a portfolio?

If success in a creative field such as web design or photography (or any other profession that amasses a body of work which can be showcased in some way) is what you’re after, then a portfolio (or lack thereof) can make or break your chances of landing the job you dreamed of when you quit your 9-5. (Maybe instead of ‘getting hired’ use ‘landing the job that you know you deserve’ or something sappily empowering…)

Competition is often fierce in these fields, and if you approach the hiring table with nothing more than a twinkle in your eye and a healthy dose of confidence, one of your competitors is sure to outshine you. In this cutthroat world of creative tech, a developer or graphic designer portfolio (or whatever you’re freelancing in) should be one of your first orders of business.

Think of it as a PTA or office potluck. Would you show up to the event without bringing food?

If you did, chances are you wouldn’t get turned away, but the people in charge will definitely make note of the fact that you weren’t prepared. You don’t want to be that person. You want to be the star of the evening… the unexpected highlight of everyone’s macaroni-salad-and-veggie-tray-filled night. Consider your career portfolio your blue-ribbon-winning green bean casserole.

Basically, you’ve got to learn how to make a portfolio that causes mouths to water and leaves potential clients longing for more.

Why do you need a portfolio?

Let’s say you love your green bean casserole so much, you want to get it proudly tattooed on your forearm. You walk in to a tattoo parlor and explain your idea to the artist, who nods intelligently at you and seems to get what you’re saying. He looks competent… but something’s missing.

His shop is completely devoid of previous work examples. There are no photos on the wall of happy customers with mermaids on their chests, no books of designs to choose from, not even visible tattoos on his own skin. This leaves you to rely on his word that he can handle the challenge of the glistening crispy-fried onions and army-drab green of the canned beans.

Would you sit down in that chair and trust some guy with a needle, simply because he’s told you that he’s talented enough?

It’s becoming common practice in creative and freelance fields to have a portfolio at the ready.
This means that, if you apply for a job or throw your hat in a potential client’s ring, it’s highly probable that your fellow candidates will have one. Can you imagine reviewing four web-design candidates, three of whom have presented graphic designer portfolios of their work, and one who has simply presented you with a resume and a list of rates? Most employers would toss the lone resume in the trash and move on to the applicants who put forth the effort.

What should go in your portfolio?

Let’s go back to that casserole.

In both job-hunting and potluck-preparation, it helps to do a little research.

Do your fellow PTA members choose to use Miracle Whip instead of mayonnaise in their salads? Is there a preferred brand of green beans amongst the group?

What about your industry? Has a new technology emerged, forcing you to adapt to the changed landscape of your work? If so, you’ll want to include examples that showcase your abilities to problem solve and diligently maneuver through the transition.

What are other people in your field including in theirs? This is a perfectly legitimate thing to research as you’re learning how to make a portfolio, as it shows you what your peers are currently valuing, as well as key elements they might be missing.

Let’s just assume you’re not the only one bringing the green bean bake. What are you going to do that helps your dish stand out? Maybe you add extra crispy onions, or even some fresh herbs that no one can quite put their finger on.

You want to add depth and details to make this showcase of your talents an unforgettable final product.

This is where it gets tricky as far as material goes. A typical portfolio can vary with each field, and only by research on your part can you find the specifics. Some people choose to use their portfolios to tell a story of development and growth, including earlier projects in addition to their fully developed, more recent ones. Others reserve their portfolios for only the best of their work, leaving no question of their skill. Both of these options are viable, and can be transformed from “viable” to “dynamic” with one secret ingredient:

Context.

A picture of a married couple on their wedding day is a great way to show off a photographer’s skills… but it doesn’t specifically show a prospective client how he or she works or solves problems. A simple bit of text explaining the goals of the photo shoot and any client concerns (that were met and alleviated by the photographer) could be the kicker that stands out among a sea of smiling couples in wedded bliss.

If your previous clients are willing to release numbers or proof of how your services helped their businesses grow, their testimonies can have a huge impact on a reviewer.

Results speak louder than flowery descriptions.

The person going over your portfolio inherently has a problem that he or she needs solved, and will take great comfort in proof of performance.

How should you present your portfolio?

You’ve researched the crowd, you’ve collected all your ingredients… what’s the best way to present your casserole masterpiece? Do you break out the antique decorative dish, or would that be too much? Would a disposable foil pan be scoffed at? Ease-of-use and pleasing presentation mean different things to different groups of people, so it’s a good idea to be aware of the options.

A digital portfolio is the most obvious and currently relevant option. Here at ApproveMe, we recommend starting out with a solid and comprehensive online portfolio that you would be proud to send anyone to view. Whether you’ve decided to tell a story of your professional development or put all of your best work up for display, having your own website to which you can direct viewers will look professional and give you control over what gets seen.

Luckily, WordPress has an extensive library of themes that will allow you to easily build your own digital portfolio. The beauty of these WordPress portfolio themes is that they have been expertly built and tested, allowing you to expend your time and creative effort on your strong suits, rather than stumbling through the process of trying to build a website.

After you’ve got a solid home-base portfolio, you can start having fun with the other options.

Certain sites such as Behance and Dribbble allow portions of your work to be displayed in a more social environment. These can be great platforms (for visual designers) to bring new users to a more fleshed-out portfolio.

Another enhancement option is print-media. As we said before, it’s practically assumed that you’re going to have an online portfolio, and you should definitely have one… but if your industry is built for it, print-media can have a surprisingly strong impact. If you get the chance to actually present your portfolio in person, having a few tangible pieces of printed work will add a tactile facet to your presentation that other candidates may not have brought to the table.

Printed portfolios can also be a huge asset at networking events. By creating a “mini-portfolio” in the form of a small booklet or postcard, you’re able to let your work speak for itself without having to open up the browser on your smartphone. Businesses like Moo, with their quirky formats and card sizes, let you turn your entire business card collection into a portfolio all while creating a fantastic conversation piece.

Showing up to a potluck without any food presents an image of unpreparedness and a lack of respect. Marketing yourself to clients and employers is no different. Scrambling to gather up past work or asking someone to hire you without proof of skill makes you look unprofessional and disorganized.

Someone else is going to get hired while you’re copying links into a Word document.

Gather your work together, find a solid WordPress portfolio theme, and create a foundation for yourself that will showcase your skills and carry you throughout your career.

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By Lauren Bonk

is a freelance copywriter and editor who's been wrangling family life and words since 2010. She loves a damn fine cup of coffee, 90's music, and the smell of rain.

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