Creating a portfolio with your work seems easy and natural. Every freelance designer, developer, copywriter, and any other kind has one.
It usually has some pictures, a project or a client name, sometimes a few words and maybe a list of the technologies that you have used.
This is how 99% of all portfolios look and they are almost useless. They don’t help their creators find more clients. Fortunately, it is not hard to fix your portfolio and make it work for you.
What is the purpose of a portfolio?
The obvious answer should be to help you find more work. Then why most freelancers use their portfolios to exhibit the work they are most proud of? How are they related?
Contrary to popular believe a great portfolio is not the showcase for your work, skills and potential. There is something missing here from the picture.
The purpose of your portfolio is to help you find more work. Its audience is your potential clients. As a result, your portfolio is something they should be interested in.
The next logical questions is when your clients come to you, what are they interested in?
You are freelancer. You help your clients achieve their goals and fix their problems with your great work.
Therefore, the purpose of your portfolio is to convince your clients that you can fix their problems and achieve their goals. As a result your portfolio should contain clear examples of how you will do that.
You might think this is obvious but I’ve looked at so many portfolios and it seems that for 99% of the freelancers and consultants, it is not.
Let’s look at a few examples why most portfolios out there don’t work.
The Minimalistic Designer Portfolio
This kind of portfolios contain many beautiful images with almost nothing else. They look gorgeous.
Yet, when you look at them there are so many questions unanswered.
- Why should I hire him? How does this design shows me that he is capable of helping me?
- Why has the designer made this design? What was his goal?
- Did he achieve the goals by making that?
- What was the situation before his started? Was there another design before this one?
Depending on the portfolio, there can be even more specific questions.
The Modern Technology Developer Portfolio
This one contains usually company logos and an images showing some user interface. Then there is usually a long lists showing all technologies which were used in the course of work. The goal is to show how much the developer knows and how he is capable of anything.
Yet again, there are so many questions that don’t have their answers.
- Why should I hire him? How does this project shows me that he is capable of helping me?
- What is the purpose of this long list of strange words like RoR, NodeJS and SEO?
- What was the situation before the developer came aboard?
- How was the project after his work?
- Did he achieved the goals?
By now it should be clear that the most common mistake all freelancers make is that they leave too many questions unanswered in their portfolio. Lot’s more the unanswered questions are critical like Should I hire him? How does this project shows me that he is capable of helping me?
Leaving unanswered questions requires additional work from your potential clients to figure them out. Not only they could be unable to do so, but at the end they will have no more power or desire to actually decide whether they want to work with you or not.
You have to make it as easy as possible for them to decide whether you should work together.
A more practical approach is to rebuild your portfolio so that it serves your clients. Instead of focusing it on you, it should be focused on them.
Size, does it matter?
How many examples of your work should your portfolio display? What if you have only two? What if you have a thousand?
Start with three or four examples of your work. If you have less then use as many as you can, but don’t write about imaginary projects which you have never worked on.
Show first your most high profile (big name companies) projects and most related to your usual services. The former will help you with trust and the latter will show more ability to solve similar problems.
You can show as many examples of your work as you like, but don’t show many more than 10. If your potential clients want to see more, they can always ask you.
Let’s put a common structure for each of your examples of successful work. It will have 6 parts: Challenge, Approach, Outcome, Call To Action, Images and Quote. Images and Quote are optional, even for designer portfolios, but the rest are always required.
This part sets the context of your work. First, it should describe what was the situation before it begun. It is a good place to mention the pain and problems your client was experiencing which motivated him to hire you.
Second, it should make clear what goals you had to achieve. You can even write about the process of setting those goals, if you were part of it.
This is where you describe what you have done and why. However, don’t go into too much technical details and avoid using buzz words. Otherwise you risk that your potential client wouldn’t understand it.
Try to describe everything in regards of the goals that were set in the Challenge part.
In this part you share what was the result of your project. If you have any numbers to share (% of increased sales), this is the place to put them. People love numbers and they make everything much more convincing.
When you speak about the result, speak about how you make your client life and business better.
Call To Action
This when you ask your clients to work with you. Tell them to hire you. They’ve just seen in the previous part how you help to other people like themselves, so now they are in the best situation to be convinced.
If you are a designer, you can put multiple images showing what you’ve done. If you are a developer, you can show some user interface. In all cases you can at least display a logo of the project or the company you worked for.
Don’t worry if you don’t have anything graphical to display, just omit this section. It’s the previous four parts who do the heavy lifting of convincing your clients.
A good quote can be very powerful, as it shows real people talking about how you helped them.
However, don’t put quotes like “It was real pleasure to work with Stefan”. This doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t show how you helped them.
“Stefan helped us build a solid systems on which our business relies daily.” or “After Vasil analyzed and improved our backend we have 20% more users.” shows clearly what was the impact of your work.
Those different parts are not randomly chosen. Each has a specific purpose so that at the end your clients are convinced that you can fix their problems and achieve their goals.
The Challenge - Approach - Outcome structure shows your client clearly that you can take a specific problem, solve it reliably and achieve the desired results.
This is what every client wants for his own projects. When he sees that you’ve done it for someone else, he will be convinced that you can do it for him, too.
Not only that, but this way you also answer most of your potential client’s questions. At the end the only question that he will have to answer is whether he want to hire you now or immediately :-)
Don’t worry the structure above seems very formal and maybe even “enterprise” like. You can write and organize all of the above in a very informal way.
Including your own projects
Don’t be afraid to include your own projects. If you are just starting you might not have many other projects to show anyway. Even when you do have, if you have a successful personal project it might be a better option for your portfolio.
Just apply the same structure and it will work. We’ve done that and our own projects have helped us close some very lucrative deals.
Let’s look at some examples of good portfolios.
Gorilla Group creates custom web stores for some high profile brands. They have some of the best structured examples of their work. I actually borrow heavily the structure I showed you above from them.
Their organization is very formal. They clearly separate all different parts even with separate titles. Here is an example:
You don’t need to be that formal yourself. You can omit any title and use a language more close to how your audience speaks.
Triple Magic is another company who does great job with their portfolio. Here is one of their cases:
They are less formal than my previous example, but they still manage to achieve the goals of a good portfolio.
Ethercycle is another great company. They focus on services for online stores using the Shopify platform. Look at a work they’ve done:
Their work examples are shorter and even less formal, but they have all critical parts of the process I described above.
As you see there are different ways to present your portfolio while still keeping the same basic structure which answers your potential client’s questions.
Your next step is to rework your portfolio where that is needed. It takes less than a few hours. I actually reworked our portfolio while I was writing this article, as I realized that there are place where it can be improved.
If you worry that you don’t have enough projects to show, just work on a fun side projects. This is not only a great way to fill your portfolio but it is also a great way for potential clients to discover you.
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