The do’s and don’ts of a great design portfolio

Alex Bigman

On 99designs, we equip each designer with a public profile page. At the very least, this might function as your personal home base. But it can be so much more than that. Utilize it to the fullest and your profile will be one of your biggest assets — a place to showcase your professionalism and skill to potential clients browsing the site. Here’s your chance to signal your value before even entering the contest ring.

There are five main components that you have some degree of control over, and we’re going to show you how to make the most of all of them. They are:

  1. Your avatar
  2. Your profile cover
  3. Your biography and skill set
  4. Your testimonials
  5. Your folio

Take a look at the following tips and see if you’re making the right moves!

1. Your avatar
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This little thumbnail follows you everywhere on our site. This means that even if a potential client never visits your profile page, he or she will at the very least run across your avatar in a contest or watchers list. So get one thing straight: though small, it is important.

Think of your avatar as your personal brandmark on our site, and form it with the care you would put into any client’s brandmark. You may remember we recently ran a contest, asking the community to “brand” themselves and the results were spectacular.

You don’t necessarily have to go the full nine yards like those folks did (although we would encourage it). You mostly just have to be professional and avoid certain mistakes. Here are 2 more other approaches, and things to watch out for.

Personal photo

profile-photo2

Do: Use a photograph of yourself. It will give your profile a more personal feel and help clients connect with you faster.

Do: Have a skilled or professional photographer take your photo. The awkward angles and poor image quality resulting from attempts to photograph yourself will make you look unprofessional.

Don’t: Try to look sexy. This isn’t a dating site and it will make you look unprofessional.

Don’t: Use a photograph of anyone except yourself. This is duplicitous. If it were to get found out, it would ruin your credibility.

Illustration

profile-illu2

Do: Make use of vibrant color. Get people’s attention!

Do: Keep things simple. The pixel count on these avatars is 72 by 72, so complex images will be hard to read.

Do: Showcase your personality. Even if it’s a little off-beat or quirky, this will help make a strong impression.

Don’t: Be lazy. If your illustration looks like it took you five seconds on Microsoft Paint, then clients will assume this to be true of all of your design work.

2. Your profile cover
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sign

The new profile cover is one of the most exciting additions to the profile page. Here’s where you can let your personality shine through in a visually compelling way. Highlight some of your best work, blend your profile photo and cover image together in a creative way, or create a brand new design that advertises your services and style.

Do: Showcase your individual design style. The cover photo is one of the first things clients will see – and this is your chance to wow them.

Don’t: Use stock images or designs that aren’t yours. It’s misleading and will only damage your credibility.

Do: Take advantage of the width of the profile cover. You can squeeze a lot of creativity within those margins.

Don’t: Put any important design elements to the far left or right of your cover photo. Because of the responsive design, it will most likely be cut off.

3. Your bio
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vesp

Think of this as a professional statement with a personal twist. Use these few lines of text to briefly describe your skill set while also conveying your passion for design on a personal level. The personal/professional balance is the key here; your challenge is to come across as a real person with a unique personality, as well as a skilled and reliable designer. Consider these suggestions:

Do: Get specific about your special skills, education and interests. “I’m a photographer in my spare time,” “I love detailed illustration” and “I’m a branding whiz and have done work for companies in industries X, Y, and Z” are great. “I’m a designer” is way too vague. This will not separate you from the pack.

Don’t: Just write a famous quote or token of personal philosophy. This may make you seem like a nice person, but it does not tell a client anything about what design skills you will bring to the table.

Do: Keep it fairly brief. Character space is limited, and if you run over, the end of your statement will be replaced by an ellipsis. So stay within the range.

Don’t: Write in any languages that you wouldn’t expect your clients to speak.

Do: Keep entering contests. Whenever you win, your Top Skills will auto-populate with that category.

4. Testimonials
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testimonials

Each time you win a contest, your design will appear front and center in the “Recent Wins” section alongside impressive information like how many other contenders were in the contest and how much you earned. Additionally, we give contest holders the option to write a testimonial commending you.

Testimonials are of tremendous value to your profile; they crank your credibility up to 11. So mind your behavior and ask yourself, “If I win, what will this client have to say about me?” Being communicative, respectful and prompt with revisions will earn you good karma in this regard.

In fact, while you should never be demanding, if you know a client is satisfied with your work, it doesn’t hurt to ask a client for a positive review. Bring it up when the handover is nearly settled, and explain to the client how much a good testimonial would mean to you. More often than not, clients will be happy to give one.

5. Your portfolio
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portfolio

The new portfolio design brings your work front and center. You have complete control over what to feature – so long as it’s not from a private contest.

If you’re just using your folio as a place to dump recent designs you feel like showing off, you’re looking at it all wrong. A portfolio is a design problem and how you choose to solve it speaks volumes about you as a designer.

Do: Include designs from more than one category, so that clients can filter through your designs and browse according to their needs.

Don’t: Leave it blank. Show something. Even if you’re new to the site and have not submitted anything truly golden, just submit what you’ve got. Empty folios look bad. Even if you’re not totally thrilled with it at first, be patient. It will evolve into something you can be proud of.

Do: Ask for critiques from fellow designers. Just because you like one of your designs, does not mean it is folio-worthy. Your perspective is bound to be somewhat biased, after all…

Don’t: Forget to title, tag and describe your designs. Here’s your chance to explain your creative choices and sell your smarts. Tag your designs with either the style (minimal, Art Deco, flat design) or tool (pen, Adobe Illustrator) so it will be easier to find and browse your work.

Do: Organize your designs by color or contrast, so certain designs stand out and immediately “grab” a casual viewer. You can do this by switching up the background colors in the designs you submit, and planning to add the more vibrant ones to your folio.

Do: Show your process work, like sketches or the variations of a design that led up to a final product. This can make for an interesting visual case study of sorts, and will show clients how you think and work.

Don’t: Let your folio stagnate. You should be frequently switching designs in and out to best showcase your recent activity and interests.

Don’t: Overstuff your portfolio. Brevity is the soul of wit, as they say, and this is especially true on the internet, where you cannot expect a client to spend more than a second or two scanning your work. Keeping great designs on the 3rd, 4th, even 2nd page is a waste. Don’t expect anyone to look past page 1, so keep your focus there.

What do you think is the best way to make the most of your profile?

Featured image: Fattah Setiawan

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