The Beginner's Guide to an Impressive Portfolio

One of the hardest things about launching your own design business (or photography business, or starting any business at all) is that you want to show off a stunning portfolio. But how can you when A) you don't have a lot of experience and B) you don't have work that you would call "good enough" to attract your ideal clients?

That's what we'll be going over today. It is possible to create a memorable and impressive portfolio even if you don't have a lot of work.

I have several suggestions for you and also how to present your work in a way that looks professional and enticing. So let's dive in.



How to Get Content for Your Portfolio:

Getting quality content for your portfolio can be tricky. You don't want to fill your work with "personal projects" and not have any experience with working with actual clients with real life problems. But the truth of the matter is, potential clients want to see what you can do. That's the major takeaway. They want to know if you have the confidence to deliver what they want and to know you actually can deliver it.

1. Make Up Your Dream Projects

When I first started out I hired a business coach. I told her my struggles and insecurities because my portfolio was so small. And she told me something that has stuck with me. She told me to make up my dream projects, ones that I would like to actually work on so I would attract people who want what I can do.

She said it's important to not be deceptive, but also be confident in the work you can do. So that's what I did. Two of my major portfolio pieces are for a fictitious client but they are some of my best pieces that I am so proud of. I focused on solving the problem of my ideal client, not on the fact that I hadn't done it before.

Your product or service is the answer to a problem. So make sure to articulate the problem and how you help them solve it with your work.

2. Work with People for Free

I feel like a lot of people have a lot of opinions about this. I've heard some people say that you should never do anything for free always charge what you're worth, but the truth of the matter is, you need experience and in the beginning, you're probably still perfecting your skill. 

So, it is my suggestion that you work with several people for free. This gives you the opportunity to solve real problems from real people and it also has you working within the restraints of someone else's opinion and desires.

A business coach I admire says that you should have worked with 5 clients for free before you start charging competitive prices. I think it depends on your skill-set and also how long you have been doing what you're doing, but the point is, working with actual people gives you a good idea of how the process works and it also gives you something far more valuable, feedback.

Don't turn you nose down to experience. Having real life experience is very valuable, especially as a brand new beginner.

Arranging Your Content

After you have some quality pieces for your portfolio it's time to lay them out on your website. 

NOTE: I do think it's super important to only show work you're proud of and work that may get you more of the same type of work. So if you're a newborn photographer and you want to start shooting engagements, don't make your portfolio all babies. It's important you show what you want to attract.

1. Find a Style

As you're arranging your work, you want it to fit in the construct of your brand and website. It's important that your portfolio looks like a piece of your branding. 

This way, even if you don't have a lot of work to show, it looks well thought through, planned, organized and pleasing to look at. 

So whether you're choosing a dark overlay (you can look at my portfolio for inspiration :) or black and white, or a combination of what you've made, make each portfolio piece look like they go together.

A brand designer I love, shows her work in plain black and white. It aligns with her branding and also shows a sharp and professional look even though she's worked with many different clients.

Salted Ink / Branding Portfolio


2. Lay Out Your Work Cohesively

If you have sections for your portfolio, lay them out accordingly, branding in one section, logos in another. When your ideal client comes to your site you want them to immediately see what you've done and look at what they want to see.

If your work is a jumble all over the place, it won't look very inviting, or thoughtfully structured.

Here is another portfolio of a designer I love. Her work also looks cohesive even though it's showing many different brands.

Elle & Company / Branding Portfolio


3. Fluff Your Work

If you don't have a lot of work, I'm guessing that laying out your work may not be the biggest issue.

Say you only have 3 pieces, do a photoshoot for each piece. For example, you have a set of business cards you designed. Show 10 different angles and layouts of the same card. A close up of the logo, two stacks of cards, cards up against a wall showing a shadow... show multiple ways of viewing the same piece of work.

This way people have a greater understanding of the piece, while also, they are taking their time to look through your work, the details, and your thoughtfulness in the design.

If you're a brand designer and there are multiple facets to your finished product and take advantage of that by showing details of all the different items. If you did a large scale branding project with multiple collateral items, show all the different items and don't be shy about having a lot of photos for the same job.

It's important that people see the scope of what you can do and also the details in the work.

And finally, here is another portfolio of a favorite designer. 

Hannah Robinson Design / Branding Portfolio


Those are my tips for creating a stunning portfolio for when you're just starting out. I hope you find this helpful. Let me know in the comments!

Is having a good portfolio something you struggle with?

What's the hardest thing about having a small portfolio?

What is your biggest struggle with your portfolio?

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