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Your portfolio may be the first introduction potential clients have to you: it tells them what type of projects you do well at and what kind of work you want to land — even if that’s not the message you intended to convey. At the most basic level, the people who view your portfolio will assume that you don’t do anything beyond what is included in that portfolio.
As a client gets to know you, he may ask if you take on projects further outside the realm of your portfolio, but it’s rare that any client will want to try something far beyond your portfolio’s limitations the first time you work together.
It’s crucial that you craft your portfolio with this fact in mind. You need to focus in on the type of work you want to land and showcase your abilities, which means first, you’ve got to figure out what type of projects both appeal to you and will be valuable for your clients.
Choosing the Core Projects of Your Portfolio
If you tell a client that you’re a freelance web designer or a freelance writer, she’ll have a general idea of what you do — but it may be so broad that she’ll offer you work that is far from what you usually take on. But if she looks at your portfolio, ‘freelance web designer’ may translate to ‘designs blogs’ and ‘freelance writer’ may translate to ‘writes sales copy’. That transformation isn’t just for the client’s benefit. If you narrow your portfolio down to the type of work you specifically enjoy, you’ll land a lot more of it (provided, of course, you’re doing some marketing in that niche).
But that does mean culling a lot of your other work out of your portfolio. I wouldn’t suggest removing everything that is not exactly the type of project you want to ideally show — having a little breadth in the work you’ve done in the past can help you keep the client roster full — but a good portfolio has focus.
Top-Notch within Your Chosen Niche
Having focus isn’t enough, of course. You may start out your freelancing career with some fairly basic pieces in your portfolio that don’t exactly knock potential clients’ socks off. Student work is usually very identifiable. But while we each start with less than perfect portfolio pieces, it’s important to get those items shifted out of your portfolio as soon as possible.
Your portfolio should make a client drool with just how beautifully polished each item is.
Replace them with amazing work. Your portfolio should make a client drool with just how beautifully polished each item is. You may not have such gems already created for your clients, but with some focus, you can build up that aspect of your portfolio fairly quickly.
Of course, you want every project you complete for your clients to be portfolio-quality, but if you need to fill out your portfolio until you land more client work, doing projects you assign yourself can give you a couple of pieces. You do want to swap them out as soon as you have actual work though. There are a few details to keep in mind as you create your own projects:
- Make up clients, rather than using new businesses. It’s appropriate to tell prospective clients that these projects are thought-exercises, but you don’t want to make it blatant.
- Take the opportunity to do more experimental work that will be harder to sell a client on, provided that you can execute it beautifully.
- Treat the project seriously. Just because you’re the client, it will tempting to slack off and get around to the work later. But there’s a direct connection between finishing the project and bringing in more work, so you need to finish these projects — and finish them well.
Provide a Portfolio Structure
Once you’ve put together a selection of projects to include in your portfolio, you need to provide a structure for potential clients to view your portfolio through.
Don’t just pick a website design and slap what you’ve got into a theme that’s supposed to make your work look pretty. Every detail of your portfolio can and should be used to up your chances of landing the client. Something as basic as what order your portfolio pieces are in can have a major impact (as people look through your portfolio, both online and off, the first and last pieces they look at are the most likely to stick with them).
Test out different arrangements of your portfolio pieces, even after you’ve made your portfolio live (or started handing out print copies). Don’t assume that one arrangement will translate to other formats: if you post your portfolio to creative sites with the intention of sharing your work more broadly, you’re going to need to test out new orders for your work.
Design Your Portfolio
Your portfolio should be a part of your professional website. You may post a few pieces to those sites that allow you to create free portfolios, but every other place your work appears should point back to a website you control and update frequently.
Whether or not your skills lie in the area of web design, your website needs to look good.
Whether or not your skills lie in the area of web design, your website needs to look good. Having a free website or using a very common theme is like showing up to a client meeting in your sweatpants: it’s something that has been done more than once, but every time it’s guaranteed that the freelancer in question has lost face with the client, if not losing the client entirely.
You want a site with the following:
- A content management system that lets you update your portfolio, along with the rest of the site, as easily as possible
- A clear navigation strategy that allows visitors to go through your portfolio easily — which can be handled through plugins in many content management systems, so that you don’t have to pay for completely custom work
- A unique appearance that matches your overall branding, so that your business cards and portfolio both recognizably belong to the same family
Paying for a great site design is a worthwhile investment in your business. If the freelance web designer who you hire seems pricey — because that’s probably the easiest option if you aren’t up to putting together a site yourself — remember how your own prices break down. You can always ask anyone you work with to walk you through their pricing, so that you understand what you’re getting.
You may also be able to find some alternatives to straight-up paying for your website design. As a freelancer yourself, you may know a few other freelancers who are willing to trade or barter work, rather than looking for cash payment. You may be ale to swap your skills for those that you need.
Testing Your Portfolio
Even when you’re happy with how your portfolio looks, you should continue to think about how you can improve it. At a bare minimum, you need to get feedback from individuals who fall into your pool of ideal clients.
If you can sit a few such people down at the computer and see how they interact with your portfolio, tracking such details as when they get bored browsing through it, you can tweak your portfolio and eliminate potential problems.
But you can take testing much further. If you have the time to invest, it’s worth doing some more technical tests. Split testing your website to see which portfolio pieces are most likely to land you work will take time, especially if you don’t already have high traffic on your professional website, but it can be very worthwhile.
If you use Google Analytics or a similar package on your website, you can set up split testing very quickly. The more data you can collect, the more you can optimize your portfolio to appeal specifically to the type of clients you want to attract.
Continue to Improve Your Portfolio
There will never be a day when your portfolio is completely finished. You will hopefully have plenty of new work to consider adding in the years to come, and new clients to ask about how they responded to your portfolio.
It can be tough to keep up with improving your portfolio if it’s already doing its job pretty well — being too busy with client work certainly isn’t the worst problem to have. But if you don’t keep up, there will come a day when your portfolio is out of date and you’ll need to scramble to catch up.
It’s a lot easier to set aside some time every month or every quarter to check what’s working and update the pieces you’re showcasing for prospective clients.