Portfolio Mistakes to Avoid Like the Plague!

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As a designer, your portfolio is one of the most important things you can develop since it gives potential clients and employers a glimpse of what you can do and how (and if) you can help bring value to their organization.

However, there are some pretty common mistakes that you can make with your portfolio that can lessen its impact. Avoid these like the plague!

1. Burying Your Work Under A Bunch of Clicks

You create visuals for a living, and so it stands to reason that you’d want your work to be the first thing a potential client sees, right?

A disturbing trend I’ve noticed lately is that more and more portfolio sites tend to bury their work under several clicks. What I mean is that you visit the designer’s page and instead of seeing their work front and center, the front page has some sort of nondescript stock photo with an attempt at trendy type on top that describes a little bit about who they are. Ok, but what about what they can actually do? Oh, there’s a navigation link that says “Work” or “Portfolio.”

You click on that, and it takes you to a new page. Sometimes the work is sitting here ready to be seen, but in other cases you can be treated to categories of work.

So you find one and click through to that, finally coming to a page that (hopefully) has a bunch of work to browse through. Of course, you just happened to pick the category that is mostly filled with personal projects or Instagram photos, so that’s not really helpful. You have a momentary lapse in memory and click the home button to go back to the front page, forgetting that you have to click through a  bunch of things again to get back to where you went wrong.

The moral of this story is that your work is your bread and butter and is what potential clients want to see. Make sure it is front and center, easy to navigate and to, you know, see! If you require more than one or two clicks or force the viewer to figure out where your work is hiding, you’ve already lost them.

2. Neglecting Social Media Links

I was perusing my portfolio the other day and realized that I had somehow forgotten to ever put up any links to my social media platforms. Oops! There are all these ways for potential clients to connect and interact with me, and I was being stingy. Too be fair, for whatever reason the WordPress template didn’t have a social media widget right out of the box, so I had to go to the extreme hassle of typing in “social media widget” and activating it.

My suffering knows no end, obviously.

In all seriousness, providing more ways for your clients to connect is nothing but a good thing. It can be a surreptitious way for clients to vet you beyond your portfolio (so be good on social media!) and get to know you a bit more. They can also see how you interact with others (especially other clients) which can help them determine if you’re a good designer to work with.

This doesn’t mean you need to be on every possible social media channel and glut your site with icons. Instead, if you have a few that you normally interact with or have experience with, double-down on those some more. Expand your influence there and make sure it carries over to your portfolio site.

3. Too Much Information

Another rather obnoxious thing that a lot of portfolio sites have tended to accumulate is personal information. This is often tied into #1, in that the designer’s passions/goals/whatever are put front and center rather than their work.

Don’t get me wrong- there is nothing wrong with making your portfolio personal or adding touches of who you are to it. You actually should be doing that. But your portfolio is first and foremost about your work, and only secondarily about your life.

I know that there are all these buzzphrases and marking terms about telling your story, but to be honest, no one really cares that much. I don’t intend that in a mean way, but rather that your portfolio isn’t necessarily the place for that. When I am browsing someone’s work, I’m not particularly interested in their life story, which might make me a bad person, but the reality is that it’s more a question of time and priorities.

And the thing is- too much information can backfire. I’ve seen too many portfolios that are long on the personal side of things, full of talk about passion for design, the journey into it, how someone wants to help me tell my story, blah, blah, blah. But then the portfolio itself is slim on content, which all comes together to make me think that someone is trying to sell me something that doesn’t match up with what is being said.

It’s ok to have some personal content on your site, but remember what your portfolio is for. Your potential clients are mostly there to see, and only secondarily there to read.

4. Too Many Personal Projects

I get it- starting out one doesn’t have the largest portfolio, and it can be tempting to pad your portfolio with personal projects to seem like there’s a bigger body of work than than there actually is. This can be especially egregious when the personal projects consist of Instagram photos or something that you kind of sort of do anyway.

Well, stop it.

Don’t get me wrong- sometimes personal projects can be the ones you like the most or that give the best representation of your abilities. And sometimes those pictures of your cat can look very artistic.

However, potential clients want to see what you have done in a professional capacity. In other words, they want to see that other people have paid or otherwise contracted with you to create something before. Even better, they want to see work that largely coincides with their own market, so they can have an idea of what you can do specifically for them.

Keep your portfolio largely limited to professional work. It is obvious when a designer is padding their portfolio with personal projects, and it can come across as rather off-putting. Instead, focus on what you do well professionally, even if it limits the amount of work you have to display.

If you really do need more items for your portfolio, there is nothing wrong with creating personal projects with a professional focus. This differs from moody pictures of your cat in that the goal is to demonstrate your abilities by means of projects that are the type of things your potential clients might be looking for. You might think of these as concept pieces, as if you were creating something for a potential client that they might use in some way. In fact, you might actually create something pro-bono for a client you’re trying to woo, just to give them a taste of what you can do.

5. Too Many Projects

On a similar note, it is definitely possible to overstuff your portfolio, even with professional projects. It seems on the surface to be a good idea to have as much work for potential clients to view as possible, but at some point it becomes counterproductive. There is only so much time for viewing anyone’s portfolio, much less having to sift through 50-100 pieces or more.

You need to take up the art of pruning. Go through your site with a fine-toothed comb (metaphorically, of course!) and weed out anything that isn’t the best of the best. There will likely be some heartache involved as there will be those projects you loved and thought were really cool, but maybe just didn’t end up working that well. Banish them anyway!

You want to put your absolute best foot forward in the briefest amount of time possible with the least amount of friction for someone coming to your site. The goal is to immediately hit them over the head with your best work, so that they can see within seconds exactly what you do and what you are good at. The more they have to sift through lots of projects, the less impact you will have.

Avoid these mistakes to help make your portfolio as awesome as it can be. And with that, it’s time for me to go check out mine and see how badly I’ve run afoul of my own condemnations!

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Jason Watson

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