If you're just starting out as a designer, the best place to begin is with a portfolio. You may not have much work to show yet, but don't let that discourage you. Your portfolio isn't about the work you've already done, but the work you want to do next.
If you recently graduated from design school, you probably created a portfolio for one of your classes. But chances are you did the minimum required to get credit, added a few class projects, turned it in and haven’t touched it since. We can do better than that.
Here are a few ways to make a standout portfolio as a brand new designer
State clearly what you want to do
Until your work speaks for you, you can’t afford to be vague or artistic with your website content. Just write a straightforward introduction about who you are and what you offer. Add this to the top of your homepage and on your About page. If you are looking for internships or a job, say “currently open for new opportunities” or “currently seeking a product design position in New York City.” Leave no question for your website visitors about what you’re after.
Curate for the job you want
It’s tempting to put every piece you’ve ever created in your portfolio just to make it seem full, but that will only do you a disservice. It won’t tell a cohesive story about who you are, what you offer or what you want. As I said at the beginning, your portfolio is not about what you already did. It’s about what you want to do in the future.
If you want to get a UX design job, don’t add a bunch of poster projects or package designs to your portfolio. It’s fine to show a range of work, especially if it’s work that makes you proud, but if you’re seeking a digital design job and you’re showing mostly print work, your viewers will be confused.
Don’t worry if you only have two or so projects at this point. That’s expected when you’re new to the industry. And a spare portfolio is better than a portfolio filled with mediocre, disjointed work that doesn’t fit your goals.
Add your design experiments
Until you have client work to share, you need to show your potential somehow. Design experiments are the perfect way to do that. These not only help you hone your skills and learn new tools, but they reveal something about your attitude and motivation.
I am always impressed when I see designers pushing themselves to get better on their own time. Design a prototype or a single screen for a fake app. Challenge yourself to create posters along a specific theme. Try to create something inspired by a piece of art or another designer you admire. You can add your experiments to an “Experiments” page on your site, or link us to your Dribbble page where we can browse through them. Just be sure to give credit and ask permission where it’s due, and make it clear that these are not client projects.
While I’m all for experiments, I recommend against doing too many unsolicited redesigns. These only call attention to your inexperience, especially when it’s the easy go-to brands like Nike or Ikea. Find a unique angle, make something of your own and prove you can think originally.
Share how you think and approach your work
Before you have the experience and seasoned skills to show, companies are taking a risk hiring you. They hire you based on your potential and hope it pays off as you grow. So help them see your potential and envision you on their team.
I can’t stress the importance of case studies enough here. Write thoughtful, brief case studies for your projects that explain why you approached the work you did, what your process was and how it all turned out. Include details, but don’t write ten paragraphs about your UX research and empathy map. Just tell us the challenge, how you approached and what the outcome was.
Most importantly: Don’t try to impress with flowery language and "insider" language. Write professionally, but conversationally. Show some personality. And have a writer friend read and edit your writing – big opportunities are lost to small typos every day.
Create a memorable About page
As we all come to find out, being a nice person who people enjoy working with is just as important as actual skill. And when you don’t have much experience or skill yet, it counts even more.
For that reason, your About page is the most important page on your site. It’s not about being a “culture fit,” but rather showing that you will add something special to the team. Aside from the expected details (name, email, social links), try to do something different and unexpected with your About page – whether that’s cracking a joke or sharing a self-portrait you illustrated of you with your pet gerbil, Frankie. Briefly share your professional and personal interests (product design, gerbils) and what job you are looking for. Add your loveliest, most professional, high-quality photo of yourself.
Give recruiters, who go through dozens of portfolios a day, a reason to remember yours.
Add your side projects
The best advice I can give to new designers: Don’t let ego get in the way when you are trying to get your foot in the door. Look for opportunities in small places, like side projects.
Whether you’re creating a brand for your sister’s jewelry company or doing a small project for a non-profit organization, side projects are stepping stones to bigger projects and can even lead to a full-time job.
Take on as many side projects as you can afford, and add those to your portfolio. Side projects show your drive and your interests, and prove you’re a motivated designer who enjoys what they do enough to do it off the clock.
Don’t use a template
Nothing reveals your inexperience more than using a bland, fill-in-the-blank template for your site. It’s so easy to create a personalized website these days, a template makes it clear you didn’t try too hard and don’t care very much.
If you need a tool for your portfolio, I recommend trying out Carbon. They just released Carbon 4 and it’s incredibly easy to use, with lots of customization options. You start with a base layout and can customize it fully in just a couple hours with drag and drop. (Full disclosure: We worked closely with Carbon on Carbon 4 so I’m biased here, but I truly believe it’s the best tool out there right now for beginners who want a beautiful, personalized site.)
Find examples of beautiful portfolio sites made with Carbon right here. And for portfolio building tips, design inspiration and more, keep reading here.