6 Portfolio Design Mistakes That Drive Me Nuts

by on 26th July 2013 with 23 Comments

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Your public portfolio is one of the most important things you’ll ever design. It presents you to the world and, if you’re a freelancer, tends to play a major role in whether or not people choose to hire you.

Because of my role as the editor of Design Shack, I’ve viewed a ton of online portfolios and today I’d like to walk through some of the weaknesses I see time and time again. Read on to see if you’ve made some of these mistakes.

1. Listing Your Age

Oddly enough, this is an extremely common piece of information to find on web designer portfolios. Designers feel the need to introduce themselves to make the page more personal, but can’t think of anything good to say and therefore revert to the basics: “I’m a 22 year old web designer from Papua New Guinea.”

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Only Kids Brag on Their Age

This bugs me every single time I see it. It’s not the worst mistake that you could make, but it just reeks of a rookie move. This is evident by the fact that you never see someone bragging about being a 43 year old web designer. It’s only the young folks who feel the need to wear their age like a badge. I’m surprised I’ve never read one boasting about being “twenty and a half.”

“You never see someone bragging about being a 43 year old web designer.”

You’ll find that the experienced designers brag about exactly that: experience. “I’ve been building websites for Fortune 500 companies for over 10 years.” Now that’s a number to brag about.

Who Cares?

Here’s my gripe with this piece of information: who gives a crap? Do you want people to hire you based on talent and experience or on the year that you were born? If you don’t want potential clients to judge your age, then why are you broadcasting it?

The only time that a potential client might think twice about hiring someone based on age is if they seem too young, and as I said above the only people who do this are the twenties crowd so they’re really just shooting themselves in the foot.

Just The Necessities

Skip the fluff. I don’t want to know how old you are, what type of computer mouse you use or how often you buy a new pair of Converse. Tell me what you do and prove it with some solid examples. Which brings me to my next point.

2. Showing School Projects

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Here’s another one that always gets me with the young designers. They always feel the need to show off their school projects. This ain’t your momma’s refrigerator junior, it’s a professional portfolio and clients want to see real work.

“This ain’t your momma’s refrigerator junior, it’s a professional portfolio.”

If It’s All You Have, Show It

I jumped a little bit ahead of myself with this one, let’s take a step back. If you’re fresh out of school and have no client work under your belt, then you should absolutely be encouraged to build a site to show it off. Lots of potential clients won’t mind one bit, especially if that inexperience comes with a low price tag.

Show Paid Work When Possible

That being said, once you’ve been out in the real world for a little while and have a few projects to show off, you should consider pulling down your student work. Otherwise, I’ll browse through your portfolio and think “Hey, this guy is really good! Oh wait, student work? He’s a noob, let’s move along. I need a pro.”

See how much of a double standard that is? Even if I think your work looks top notch at first, when I see those student projects, I immediately write you off as inexperienced. Does that suck? Absolutely! Is it fair? Nope. Is it how the world works. You bet.

3. Lack of Confidence

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There’s a time and place to be humble, but your professional portfolio is not it. So many times I see really talented designers sell themselves short with self-deprecating website copy and it drives me nuts.

“There’s a time and place to be humble, but your professional portfolio is not it.”

“I’m just getting started” or “I hope to one day achieve…” these things might not sound so bad as you’re writing them but they shatter my confidence in your ability to deliver quality results.

Clients Mirror Your Confidence Level

If you can’t muster up enough confidence in yourself to tell me that you’re an awesome designer, odds are I’m not going to come to that conclusion for you.

As a potential client, how you talk about yourself tells me quite a bit. If you sound hesitant about your ability, I’m going to instantly pick up on that and either look elsewhere or exploit the weakness to get you to do more work for less money.

Acting a Fool

Now, that being said, there’s definitely a point where confidence can become hubris. If all of the copy on your portfolio makes you sound full of yourself, then that’s going to turn me away just as quickly as a lack of confidence.

This is a fine line to walk and it’s not always easy to find the balance. You have to figure how to tell me how great you are without sounding like you’re bragging about how great you are.

“You have to figure how to tell me how great you are without sounding like you’re bragging about how great you are.”

Often, the best way to do this is to let your work speak for itself. If your work really is amazing, then I won’t need you to try so hard to convince me of that fact.

4. Grammar

This one is really difficult for designers, including myself. These days I write more than I design and you still don’t have to look very hard to find a grammatical error that I’ve committed.

What I’m talking about here is the big stuff. It’s not the end of the world if you dangle a participle or end a sentence with a preposition, just make sure that a reasonably intelligent person can read your sentences without wondering how you managed to graduate from high school.

“Make sure that a reasonably intelligent person can read your sentences without wondering how you managed to graduate from high school.”

What If English Isn’t Your Thing?

The designers who I personally see really struggling in this area are those for whom English isn’t their first language. This becomes pretty easy to spot when reading website copy.

This is a touchy subject so I’ll first say “kudos,” because I personally only speak one language (many Americans are lame like that). If you speak two or more languages, you’re well ahead of me.

That being said, if I were to release my professional portfolio in another language, even if I spoke a little bit of that language, I’d still drop a few bucks to have someone perform a proper translation.

“You want to get the message across that you’re a good designer, don’t let bad grammar stand in the way of that fact. ”

This is simply a matter of putting your best foot forward. You want to get the message across that you’re a good designer, don’t let bad grammar stand in the way of that fact.

5. Blog Neglect

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Here’s one that we’ve all probably struggled with at one time or another. You start up a new blog and you’re brimming with enthusiasm for how often you’re going to update it.

You’re good about it at first, but then a few months down the line you start to slack off and before you know it that blog is a dead dream stuffed into the back of the closet with your astronaut helmet.

Digital Cobwebs

The interesting thing that you probably haven’t considered though is what message you’re sending to the people who visit your site. One of the first things that I do when I visit a blog is look at the date of the most recent post, what will this tell me about your blog?

“If your most recent post is over a year old, then it makes your site feel like it has cobwebs on it.”

If your most recent post is over a year old, then it makes your site feel like it has cobwebs on it. This makes me doubt whether you’re even actively taking on clients anymore. Was the freelance thing a failed project? Did you abandon client work in favor of a full time job?

Do It Well or Not at All

A blog makes a great addition to any portfolio, but if it’s not done well, it can actually drag you down. My advice is simple: either dedicate yourself to updating your blog on a regular basis with quality, interesting content, or simply don’t have one.

You don’t have to write a post every day or even every week, but at the very least you should try getting something up monthly to keep people interested.

“You don’t have to write a post every day or even every week, but at the very least you should try getting something up monthly to keep people interested.”

While we’re on the topic, use your portfolio’s blog as a place to share knowledge, disseminate information, and maybe score some search traffic, not to post photos of your cats or rant about who you’re voting for in the next election. This content belongs on your personal blog. Keep it there.

6. Showcasing Where You Suck

There’s an interesting trend in web design portfolios right now that not only showcases your skill set, but also weighs the different items against each other. This usually takes form of some little graph or visualization like the following.

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Pretty neat right? This quickly gives me a feel for the services that you offer and the proficiency you have with each. Thanks for being so honest!

The problem of course with this method is that the way you read it and the way that I read it as a potential client are different. Here’s what you’re hoping that I see:

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Unfortunately, here’s what I really see:

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Don’t Point Out Your Weaknesses

It’s good to have strengths and weaknesses, everyone does. However, I’m not convinced that showcasing your weaknesses in a pretty graphic is the best marketing strategy.

“I’m not convinced that showcasing your weaknesses in a pretty graphic is the best marketing strategy.”

To utilize an old simile, this is like putting a gold ring in a pig’s snout. You may be trying to dress up your weaknesses with good design, but it’s likely a waste of effort because they’re still ugly.

Think Before You Design

The real takeaway from this article is to carefully consider each component of your web design portfolio, from the work you show to the copy that you write.

At every single stage, ask yourself whether you’re really improving the quality of the finished product or are in fact reducing the likelihood of someone hiring you. You’ll likely find that a lot of the added fluff that you thought was helping the page is really bringing you down.

Comments & Discussion

23 Comments

  • http://siamkreative.com/ SiamKreative

    Another great article! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • http://smithsrus.com Doug Smith

    The one portfolio mistake that drives me nuts is what I call “mystery navigation” that is so prevalent in the design of online portfolios. I’m referring to all those little thumbnails that don’t really show enough of the work to be interesting and don’t show any details until you painfully mouse over every one.

    I’ve even seen this from designers who have worked for big, well-known clients. This is a huge selling feature so write some of those details out on the page so everyone can see them at a glance! That’s part of the answer to how you can show how great you are without sounding like you’re bragging.

  • TJ

    I fail to see how displaying one’s age is considered terribly bad. Yes, I want to display my age like a badge because it is an advantage that I have over a lot of people in the industry. You personally feel that it is a negative characteristic, but I don’t see it that way.

    I’m young, ambitious, and have an unrivaled hunger to succeed. You’re right, I haven’t been creating websites for 10 years, building up a stubborn, close-minded approach on developing products like I have seen so many do before.

    Where you see drawbacks, I see advantages. If someone is going to base their decision of hiring me on my age, then they are a client that I have zero interest in serving anyhow. My work speaks for itself.

    Just my .02.

  • http://etondesign.com.br Kallew Guedes

    Hey, you forgot something! Some designers put personal photos in portfolio. You’re pretty? You’re ugly? Blonde? Blue Eyes? Who gives a crap? Will the people hire you because of your appearance?

  • N Reid

    Point #6, second paragraph, first sentence, “Prett neat right?”

    An intentional typo just to illustrate what you said in #4, right?

  • Harriet

    ‘added fluff that you though was helping the page is really bringing you down.’

    thought*

  • http://www.thowlett.co.uk/ Tom

    Interesting read. I myself get a bit annoyed with the whole “Hi, my name is…” element in large writing when visiting a portfolio site.

    I understand that it is a trend that has spread throughout the design world but it doesn’t hurt to be more individual and creative with your designs.

  • http://jasongoodwin.tumblr.com Jason

    I love this article. I have struggled with maintaining a decent portfolio for many years. Mostly because what I do is highly classified ro under strict NDA. I have resorted to more of a resume site to show myself off. And, yes, I have a dusty blog…more than one, in fact.

    @TJ – Keep in mind that many of the people who you want to hire you may not dig the “young and cocky” thing, no matter how sick your skills are. As someone who hires designers, I will always choose personality over skills. Skills can be acquired, but personality… well, that’s a tougher one.

  • http://ephereal.com Jakki

    Haha this article is totally spot on. I have to admit I am guilty at..erm…well most of these things. I’ve been in the process of updating my site for a while but really needed this perspective to formulate some ideas. Thanks =)

  • Nikzad

    Interesting and observational.

  • http://blogverize.blogspot.com Nimsrules

    I’m currently in the process of designing my portfolio and to be honest did commit the first mistake :P Shall rectify it straight away.

  • http://www.chamberlaindesign.co.uk Chris

    Really useful article.

    I’m currently redesigning my portfolio so this will help enormously. I’ve fallen into the first 3 traps so I’ll rectify that on my new site.

    Thanks a lot.

  • http://www.cetan.ca Nathan

    Can we add “Using Lightbox”. Amazing how people spend such a small amount of time on the showcase of their work.

  • http://www.wildpurpledesign.co.uk/ Creative web designer

    Great article, I thought it was just me that noticed the ‘Hi I’m Adam, 22…” thing. My own mistakes are usually grammar related! Also love how you totally shot down the skills bar graph thing – bet lots will be removed now the obvious flaw has been pointed out!

  • Abba Bryant

    1 Design Site Rant Mistake That Drive Me Nuts

    - People who write pretentious articles attempting to tell people how to do things “correctly” while leaving typos and mis-used words everywhere.

    Worst example that isn’t an obvious fat-finger typo…

    ‘self-depurating’ – so you don’t want the designer to self purify or cleanse themselves in their portfolio.

    Weird, I wouldn’t have thought you cared how the portfolio author purified themselves.

    You, I assume, meant self-deprecating. Much different meaning. Try a spell check before posting next time.

  • AntoxaGray

    Anyway, I would prefer to work with good designer and everything you write here, over bad designer without.

  • talulla

    Depurating is a word, perhaps a quick google search should have been in order. I have designed since I was “22″ and am now at the age where I wouldn’t dream of telling you. Sadly, you do need to worry about perception as much as presentation. Generally clients could care less about age when presented with a phenomenal portfolio HOWEVER if they perceive a touch of youthful arrogance they will generally move on, (unless of course you are the ‘relative’ or family friend that deserves a break).

    Don’t shoot yourself in the foot. Playing the game is essential to survival and building a broad client base. Strong client relationships most often lead to referrals. If you’re constantly trolling for work then it’s time to look at the client relationship. Phenomenal work does not necessarily equal repeat business.

  • Tara

    Just found this post – it’s a really great one, especially since I’m re-doing my portfolio right now.
    As a new graduate, I don’t have much work that’s not from school. Do you (or anyone) have any suggestions about what I can do to avoid giving off an “i just graduated and have no actual experience” feel? I definitely agree that when people see that it was a school project, no matter how great it is, the quality goes down in their minds. Any thoughts on how to get away from this (Other than showing client work – i do show the couple pieces I’ve got, but it’s not enough!)
    Also, you mention that designers can’t think of more personal statements to put up than, “Hi, my name is Tara and I’m a 22 year old designer from NY”. What kind of intros would you suggest instead?
    Great article – thanks again!

  • Derek

    Oh no! You put “Grammar” at #4 and then proceeded to use the line: “This one is really difficult for designers, including myself.”

    If you’re going to nitpick grammar, at least make sure you’re using correct grammar in your nitpicks. :-P

  • http://www.matoweb.com matoweb

    this is a really good article. I’m proud to say that i was only making one of this mistakes and that is that my blog died shortly after site relaunch :)

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