Building Your First Professional Portfolio: Thoughts and Considerations

by on 26th November 2010 with 11 Comments

After graduating from college, how you present yourself to the job market can have a huge impact on your future career. If you’re sending potential employers to a portfolio website, you want to make doubly sure that you’re putting your best foot forward.

Today we’ll be looking at a real portfolio site and trying to see how we can improve upon not so much the design but the strategy in place to leverage the resource. You can use these lessons to analyze your own portfolio site and gauge whether or not you need to make any changes.

The Project

Today we’ll be looking at the personal portfolio of Keith Greer, a graduating marketing student and designer from New Mexico.

Keith sent us a message via our Design Dilemma page where we provide free advice to designers on real world projects. Keith told us that as he graduates and enters the business world, he wants some advice on developing a professional website. He has been searching for solid inspiration but hasn’t been able to find much.

Here’s the homepage of the site that he currently has in place:

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Let’s dive right in and see what we can do to improve Keith’s chances of landing that perfect job.

Who Are You?

Keith didn’t explicitly say it in his email, but all of my advice today will be hinged on the assumption that this portfolio site will be something that potential employers and clients are sent to see when considering Keith for a job. If you’re simply building yourself a fun portfolio to show off, the strategy can be quite different than if you actually want something to come from it.

First of all, let’s look at the main graphic on the homepage. This is the very first thing someone sees and will define the ever-important first impression. Here’s the graphic Keith has chosen to represent himself to the world:

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I can see where Keith was going with this idea. Tag clouds make for a cool graphic and tend to be fairly informational. However, as the main message about who Keith is, I find this quite vague. I pick out words like “marketing” and “communications” but this only puts me in the general ballpark of what Keith does and what sort of career he is pursuing.

To be honest, even after reading Keith’s resume, I’m still not entirely sure what sort of career he is looking for. Is he a designer who pursued a marketing degree as a practical alternative to an art degree? (That’s what I did!) Or does he want to pursue more of a brand manager role that really leverages that marketing experience?

Ideally, you’d knock visitors over the head with it as soon as they hit the page. Don’t beat around the bush and make your users search for or interpret what it is that you do, simply tell them! Check out this simple, straightforward message on Sean O’Grady’s portfolio.

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“Hi, I’m Sean & I design websites.” Within a second of loading the page, I can see that Sean is a web designer. He knows who he is and what he wants and he’s going right for it. Don’t repeat these words exactly, just make sure that your homepage makes it just as clear who you are and what you do.

Displaying Your Work

Another issue along the same vein is prominently displaying the work that you’ve done. It’s great to have a dedicated portfolio page on your site, but that content needs to trickle over to the homepage.

In this job market, the employer is king. By this I mean that potential employers are likely sitting at their desk with a mound of fresh resumes, giving them much more freedom to be picky and you a much smaller chance of being chosen.

Since employers have so many candidates to choose from, they’re going to focus on those with a strong level of experience. They’re not going to read your life story, sift through your blog or check out your Facebook page, they’re going to look at your work. If they don’t see it right away, they’re likely to move on to the next guy or girl in the stack.

This can be rough for someone coming right out of college, but fortunately Keith does have some strong content that he can show off, including a sizable media plan for Kashi. Keith needs to move samples of this content over to the homepage and display them loud and proud.

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The Acme Creative website below is an excellent example of this idea in practice. There’s no lengthy introduction, you can instantly interpret from their company name that they are a design company and their beautiful work is the first thing you see. Several examples are shown on rotation to make for an even bigger impact.

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As further inspiration, Dan Strogiy’s website takes both pieces of advice that I’ve given so far and integrates them beautifully. The header states simply that Dan creates “beautiful websites, print and illustration.” This is followed by a large collection of Dan’s work.

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Single page portfolio’s like Dan’s tend to be perfect for job hunting because a potential employer can see everything he/she needs to right on one page without hunting around for it. Notice the ratio of Dan’s work examples to his biographical information. His “About Me” section is a mere two sentences and appears after a large and bold display of his work. Dan didn’t skip the personal touch, but he did make sure to present his work confidently first and foremost.

Personal vs. Professional Site

It’s up for debate whether or not you should go overboard with personal information on your portfolio site, but Keith did ask for advice on creating a “professional” site.

With this goal in mind I would advise taking the personal pages out of the main navigation. It’s convenient to have a site to send friends and family for information about the graduation and following vacation, but it might be better to just give them the specific page URL and hide this content from typical visitors (or wrap it all into a single blog page).

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Nothing screams “noob” like a graduation announcement. Put your graduation year on your resume and then drop it. As I said above, most employers, especially in design and marketing, want one thing: experience. I’ve seen guys with only a high school diploma beat out plenty of college graduates for design jobs simply because they have 5-6 years of real world experience under their belt before their competition even graduates from college and stops living off of their parents’ income.

Resume

My final piece of advice will be targeted at the resume page. I know I said I wouldn’t get into a design critique but I think a little advice will go a long way here.

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First of all, the flow of text here could use a little work. Remember that people in high positions of power have often worked for a long time to get there. This means that the person is often older and will be annoyed at being forced to squint to read tiny text. Keith might want to increase the body font size a little here.

Further, the heading fonts are a little strange. The subheads stand out more than the headers; they’re both bolder and darker in color. I recommend reworking this so that the hierarchy of information is better represented by the chosen fonts.

Finally, don’t think that just because the page is labeled “Resume” that it has to be boring. Again, employers are often sorting through a giant stack of candidates and you need to stand out any way you can. Actually “designing” your resume is a great way to get yourself noticed.

For inspiration, check out NetTuts’ article with 5 Examples of Beautiful Resume/CV Web Templates.

Conclusion

To sum up, some basic strategy to consider when building a portfolio site includes making it clear who you are and what you do, presenting your work prominently and proudly, keeping the content work-related and making sure your resume is just as much of a design project as every other page that you undertake.

As always, thanks for reading! If you enjoyed the article, hook us up with a tweet, Digg or Stumble. Also be sure to stop by our new Design Dilemma to have your own questions answered in an article on Design Shack!

Comments & Discussion

11 Comments

Comments & Discussion

11 Comments

  1. Tom Gladding says:

    Brilliant article, has inspired me to sort my portfolio out!

  2. Keith says:

    Thanks so much for your review and feedback on my website! I loved all the tips and suggestions that you gave and I will definitely be looking for ways to incorporate your them into my site.

  3. Emily says:

    Thanks for the tips – as a graduate student I’ve found it is intimidating to even begin build a professional portfolio. I appreciate Keith asking for help! Great resource for all!

  4. Ace Media says:

    Thanks for the great advice. I am in a process to create a portfolio and this post sounds very useful for my design.

  5. A big thing about portfolio sites is to really show your personality. This gives clients not a look at your skills and experience but who they will be working with.

  6. Angelee says:

    I’ve seen a lot of portfolio sites and all of their designs are very creative, some were serious and some were funny. Web designers are just showing their expertise and their talents… Wish I could create one someday…

  7. Waheed Imran says:

    Excellent Article. But I think you should discuss it in detail so that a beginner can get the whole concept of a personal portfolio. Anyways its a great effort and thanks for sharing.

  8. Here are a few more points to consider when creating your portfolio website.

    - It’s fine to get “inspiration” from other designers out there but I think you need to make sure that your design is unique. The last thing you want is your site looking like someone elses and this is happening more and more these days.

    - I agree with Carl. I would concentrate on trying to get some of your own personality incorporated into your portfolio because you are selling yourself as well as your skills.

    - Try to incorporate social media and a blog into your site if you can as this will boost your exposure and credability.

    :-)

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