5 Tips to Creating a Killer Web Design Portfolio

May 26, 2016


Did you know, 16.9% of freelancers find the majority of their projects leads through their online portfolio? That makes it the second largest source of clients (referrals are the first).

The basics of any portfolio is clear. Kayla Knight summarizes it well,

A web designer’s online portfolio should have a great style and unique design, but also user-friendly navigation, readable typography and other elements that clients will look for with their own projects.

– Kayla Knight, Founder of Webitect

But it’s not enough to stop at the basics. Web design is a highly competitive industry, and in order to succeed you need to differentiate yourself. This means going above and beyond to stand out and communicate why a client should choose you.

In today’s post, I’ve gathered clips from experts around the web. By implementing these 5 tips, you’ll be able to develop a portfolio that really shines.

Showcase Your Niche Work

If you’re just one designer or a small team, focusing on a specific market niche can be highly beneficial. When all of your clients share a common industry, it’s easier to anticipate their needs, even before a meeting. For example, if you want to specialize in a particular vertical (such as websites for apartment complexes or doctors offices), then you should highlight that type of work.

Nick Pettit, Teacher at Treehouse

Finding your niche is an important part of brand positioning. In my experience, it also makes closing sales a lot easier. When I first started branding myself as a freelancer, for example, I found a niche partnering with marketing agencies to write blog posts for their clients. By doing so, I was able to build a full-time income within 60 days.

Related: 19 Free WordPress Themes for Every Kind of Freelancer

As a web designer, you have a couple of categories which give an opportunity for specialization, namely: your design style and your client’s industries. When discussing style, I’m referring to the type of websites you design. Some examples include:

  • eCommerce platforms
  • One-page websites
  • Portfolios and showcases
  • Blog-centric websites

By becoming intimately familiar with a preferred style, you’ll have the chance to get very creative within that niche. Then once you identify what industries you prefer working with, you’ll get to hone in other aspects of your business like marketing and sales.

Don’t Forget the Ask

It’s easy to get tunnel vision when crafting your portfolio and focus all your efforts on the visual aspect of the site design. And while your visual designs should be the focal point of the portfolio, your personal contact information is equally as important. Give a little detail as to who you are, your experience, and your credentials. Just don’t get too wordy, as you want your designs to speak for themselves.

Simon Heaton, Shopify Partner Content Strategist

A lot of the time, it seems like freelancers have a difficult time with the sales process. My theory is it’s because most of us are introverts. However, this doesn’t provide an excuse not to pitch our services when the time comes. Anytime I feel nervous asking for something, I just remember what my mom always told me: “It never hurts to ask. The worst they can say is no.”

Related: Web Development Jargon Decoded: Agile Scrums, Kanban and Waterfalls

When it comes to your portfolio, take advantage of the sales opportunity. You won’t need to make a hard sell – that’s not the purpose of a portfolio. However, once your work has done the talking, make sure there’s an easy way for potential clients to start talking back. It’s as simple as including a phone number, contact form or even a live chat.

Let Your ‘XFactor’ Shine

Stamp your uniqueness all over your portfolio. In your wording, in your website’s design, and anywhere else you can. Because there’s tons of other designers with equally-pro-looking portfolios out there, so why would a prospective client go with you?

– Paul Andrew, Founder of Speckyboy Design Magazine

What makes you quirky? How can your personality traits help you stand out? In what ways can you bring something unique and interesting to a project?

It’s these personal elements which bring your brand to life. Trust me, I know how easy it is to hide behind plural pronouns in an attempt to seem larger than you are. But there’s no need to do that. If you allow your story and personality shine through, potential clients will notice and feel drawn to work with you.

A great website isn’t some cookie-cutter template; it’s a work of art. And as an artist, you’ll put a piece of yourself into every project. Let clients see who you are and they’ll want to work with you for you, not for your larger-than-life persona.

Remember, A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words

Designers need to take advantage of the visual potential of an online portfolio. Too often we see scaled down versions of visuals, visuals out of context, or visuals that don’t best support the narrative of the work. It is worth spending the time to select and present the right images to tell a compelling story.

– Ben Blumenfeld, Co-Director of Design Fund

Your work is visual, so make sure your portfolio is giving the projects a chance to shine. I like how Ben finishes his above point: it’s all about storytelling. Everything in your portfolio needs to speak to the brand you’re building.

I’ve seen portfolios where the designer spends several paragraphs explaining the project, but the image of their work is small. Instead, make the visual a focal point. You don’t need to neglect the explanation altogether. However, if you’re positioning the initial image well, the case study that follows is like a rainbow following a thunderstorm; it’s not necessary, but nice to have.

Keep Your Best Recent Work in the Spotlight

To help make your selection process easier, consider removing projects that are older than 3. A big and extensive design project, could sit in your portfolio for up to 5 years as it probably took more than 2 years to complete, but try to avoid anything past that timeframe as the work could start to look a little dated.

Brian Ling, Design Sojourn

Like anything to do with technology, web design standards are frequently shifting and evolving. It’s your responsibility to adapt and keep up with the changing times. When you’re showcasing work, make sure to keep everything up-to-date.

Also, if a huge shift in design standards happen, try to update your portfolio with new projects as soon as possible. Most will wait a while before updating their portfolio. So, if you’re actively updating, you can stand out even further. Your fresh designs will make your competition seem behind the time – even if they’re not – simply because you have a more recent portfolio.

Does Your Web Design Portfolio Shine?

Presenting a strong portfolio can mean the difference between landing or losing your next big contract opportunity. It’s worth the effort to take time polishing your portfolio.

Related: 6 Steps to Creating a Freelance Profile That Wins Business

In the digital age, it serves as a major first impression. And, as we all know, you only get one chance at those. So, make sure you stand out from competitors by implementing the tactics discussed here today.

If you have any other tips, share them in the comments below! I’m sure your fellow designers would love to hear what’s worked for you.


about the author

Freelance Contributor Chelsei Henderson is a content marketing consultant helping freelancers and entrepreneurs build successful companies in the digital world.