The Painless Portfolio

So you’re a budding designer looking caught in the classic catch-22 of freelance work: you need to show work to get work, but you need to get work in order to show it. The typical thinking is to lower your costs and advertise until someone takes you up on that offer. The line is usually something like a “Young Designer Looking to Fill Up Their Portfolio, Will Work for Cheap!” sort of thing. There’s a number of huge problems with this approach that are pretty much going to make your life hell. For starters, by lowering your price range, you’re de-valuing your work in your clients’ minds as well as your own. It’s enough of an uphill battle selling design work, so stop making it harder for us (and your future self). Second, the clients in the lower pay ranges are usually full of hot air and sky-high expectations for their small budget. They don’t like spending money and they sure as hell don’t like you. Working with them is largely not worth the money you get for it, and since it’s basically self-initiated suffering, you’re not getting any good karma for it either.

But there’s another way! Think of it like this: when you freelance, you are making yourself your business. A business needs investments, usually in the form of money, which is a physical form of value. The fun thing about having a skill is the ability to convert time into value. As designers, a smart investment of time in the right places can pay off great dividends in the form of a professional portfolio with meaningful work, sharper design skills, real client experience, better self-value, and you don’t have to screw anybody over or compete for the jobs. What’s the catch? Well, you have to take on the cost in terms of time uncompensated by money for a while and look elsewhere for monetary wealth. But only for a little while.

Okay, ready? Here’s the Fritz Five-Step Plan for making an awesome portfolio that will have clients coming to you asking for work.

1. Start Building A Website

Your Behance page is cute and all, but it drastically lowers your value to potential clients. If you can’t brand yourself and design your own portfolio, why in the world would I hire you to handle any of that for me?

So buy yourself a domain name and hosting, design that site, and print out some matching business cards. Make them look good, because you’re a designer and there’s no excuse for a crappy card*.

*VistaPrint prints some really crappy cards no matter how you design them, so pick somewhere else to get those done. Low quality prints further lower your perceived value.

“But I don’t have any good work to put in my portfolio yet!”

Yes I know, we’re getting there. There’s no reason why you can’t make up a few wireframes and start mocking up the template. Get a leg up on this now and figure out how you want to present yourself before you put in any projects. It will help focus your work and your target audience will become clearer. Get an idea of what kind of projects you want to do in your career, in terms of medium as well as industry. Also check out other portfolios of designers and artists you admire and steal everything you like. Look into the source code and see how they structured it, what platform and plugins they used, see if you can get an idea of their mindset as they put their site together.

As a note on this point before we move on, I mean that you should have a web presence out there with your name attached to it. It doesn’t matter how it’s made, I’ve seen good portfolios made from Tumblr blogs, it doesn’t what you use. Nobody is expecting you to make the whole site from scratch in HTML and CSS. That’s not really our job as designers, and that’s something that took me a little while to realize, but it makes a lot of sense: nobody is expecting us to make our own paper from wood pulp or run the press that produces our print work, right? Those are both jobs that we leave to specialists. Designers are specialists in their own right, too. We specialize in making things work well and look good. It doesn’t matter so much how that’s done. This site, for example, is made with the Twitter Bootstrap framework because making a website without some sort of framework and/or CMS with today’s web is a very daunting task and it’s only going to get more difficult. You could even make it in the built-in website designer that comes with your hosing account for all it really matters. (Don’t actually do that, it’ll look awful)

2. Brand a Nonprofit

You’re not going to get any money out of this one, but it’s going to be the center of your portfolio and a piece of which you’re particularly proud, if you pull it off. Start by looking around your community for small nonprofit organizations that need design help (Hint: they all do). Call or visit their office and offer your services in sprucing up their logo and branding in exchange for a letter of recommendation and a nice review for your website and LinkedIn page. Land yourself a pro bono client.

If that fails, you’re in a remote area, or you just don’t want to get off the couch, you can also make a quick post at /r/nonprofit explaining your situation and offering your services for a nice testimonial. Remember to get that testimonial! Otherwise the piece you end up with is only half as valuable. It’s certainly not the end of the world, but you can’t go wrong with a glowing recommendation!

The great thing about working with a nonprofit to get portfolio work is that they’re grateful for the work and you get a lot more creative control than most projects. This gives you a great portfolio piece for a great cause with a lot of meaning, and gives the nonprofit a really great brand unsullied by too much client input. Start them off with a mood board and take them through your whole design process. Make sure you get approvals ahead of time and wrangle boards and committees as best as you can. This is practice for the real world, but it also gets to see the light of day. It’s really kind of beautiful to be able to put something out there that you’re really proud of. I’ve found my nonprofit work has the most heart to it, out of my whole portfolio. It’s also a great confidence booster to have good work under your belt.

3. Personal Projects

Another great way to show off your chops is to do a personal project. Brand your hometown and surrounding cities into a county or state-wide logo system. Make new covers for your favorite books. Do a series of something, make a really great illustration piece. Check out design and inspiration blogs for what’s popular and steal what you like to make it your own. Are you interested in lettering? Do a series of quotes from an author in a style that you like. Make a new movie posters for all the Tarantino films or redesign all of the Beatles’ album covers. Make a comic. Make a video in After Effects explaining something that you know a lot about in under two minutes. Take things you like and incorporate them into your work and use them toward a personal goal. You can display that work as a testament to your skills as a designer. And someone has to make all those beautiful pictures we see on FromUpNorth and Abduzeedo, right? Why not you?

4. Fake Brands

Have you ever came up with the best, punniest name for a company, or a really fitting logo for a particular industry, but don’t have anybody to give it to? Invest it in yourself! Make up the rest of the brand and show it off as a portfolio piece. Make the logo, website, and business cards. Most of it can even be in lorem ipsum, but bonus points for witty copy rife with jokes and puns. For example, when client work slows down, I have plans to make logos and a website for the fictional Axi-Dental Insurance Co. Little things to amuse myself and keep my skills sharp. If it turns out well, it could be a nice little portfolio piece and a mini site I can show to potential clients in money-based industries like insurance and banking.

5. Redesign Ugly Things

There’s a lot of really ugly things out there. As designers, ugliness hurts us just a little bit more than regular people and that drives us to have standards for our work. Because why would you make something ugly? Find work out there around you that looks like utter crap…and bring it up to your standards. Do you have an app on your phone that serves an important function, but it’s ugly? Make a new interface! See a particularly bad advertisement? Redesign it. Is the packaging for your Do the illustrations or font in a book really rub you the wrong way? Illustrate it anew and reset the type for a few pages. Just remember to mention in your write-up on the project page that it’s a concept project and was not actually commissioned by, or affiliated with, the company you’re using. Other than that, it’s your work to use as you please: self promotionally, as a portfolio piece.

Alright that’s the Fritz Five-Step plan for building your portfolio. Take the pieces you’ve made and put them into your site with little write-ups about everything. You don’t have to work for peanuts and you don’t have to undercut any other designers. Once you have your portfolio set up, you will have better ground to stand on when pitching and bidding for projects, and some clients will even start coming to you. Which is a strange and wonderful feeling that I hope all designers get to experience in their careers.

If you’d like some tips on explaining the value of design work to clients as well as dinner ideas, check out my article on Design and Pizza.

Also check out my blog on why a great logo costs more than $50

If you’re looking for some design work yourself, let’s talk.

Or just check out my work.