Print to Web Series: 3 Attention-Grabbing Portfolio Strategies.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of Patrick McNeil’s Print to Web series, which explores the similarities between print and web design and shows how print designers can transition into web design. Read other articles in the series:

There’s one thing all designers are familiar with: the portfolio. Every designer—web, graphic, product, environmental, whatever—has to assemble a portfolio. And though the means of delivery may have changed over the years (and in fact continuing to change), the fundamental objective has stayed the same: You put the finest work you have together in such a way that the combined impact of the work is as powerful as possible.

A new approach to online portfolios

A portfolio is a view into a designer’s past. But what if it could be forward-facing? What if the portfolio could reflect what you could do, given the chance. After all, would you rather get more work exactly like you’ve already done, or strive to get new work that pushes you?

I know I’m the first to observe this opportunity; in fact, I’d like to share some examples of great website designs that exhibit this sort of forward-facing portfolio approach. What might surprise you is that none of the websites I’ll show you here remotely resemble the traditional portfolio. This is a huge step forward.

Remember when you were just getting started as a designer and you didn’t have a body of work to build your portfolio on? One common piece of advice in those situations is to just go design something—anything—just to have work that showcases your talent and style. The portfolio websites I want to share here take that “just make something” approach.

Online portfolio strategy 1: Make something new

Tobias Van Schneider portfolio website homepage

Designer Tobias van Schneider developed a concept for how email could work better; he called it .Mail. Visit the designer’s website and check it out. Essentially, he describes the problem he sees with email and presents his solution to that problem. Even better, the entire presentation is beautifully designed, and the design of his email app concept is nothing short of stunning. Let’s face it: Most designers well into their career have no need to create fictional work to fill an interactive portfolio. And yet here we have a successful designer, one who’s clearly extremely talented, doing a concept piece with nothing more than a cool idea he wants to share.

I have no idea about Tobias’s motivations, but the end result seems clear. You can build an online design portfolio stuffed full of all sorts of great work. And people may find it, may even consider hiring you. But, with this email concept, he created something new and exciting for people to talk about. And people are talking about it on blogs, sharing it on Twitter and Facebook, discussing what he put out there. When was the last time you did a portfolio piece that generated buzz? And Tobias’s online portfolio was successful: His concept is being turned into a real application.

Let’s consider some of the key things this bit of side work does for Tobias:

  • It shows he’s motivated and able to push to the finish line
  • It demonstrates his ability to spot a problem, form a solution and clearly communicate it
  • It shows that he can look at things with fresh eyes and find creative solutions
  • He has spotted a problem most of us never really thought about existing, much less solving
  • It points to the work he could do and emphasizes his potential instead of his past
  • Best of all: it’s worth sharing.

Online portfolio strategy 2: Share an idea

John O'Nolan Ghost platform website homepage

In my second example, John O’Nolan takes a stab at what he describes as WordPress-lite alternative that is exclusively focused on blogging. He calls it Ghost. On this micro site for John’s proposed content platform, we find a lot of similarities to .Mail. The designer presents a problem, proposes his solution and demonstrates the idea with visuals that fully communicate the concept.

In this case the designer shares a bit of what happened after he posted it: In the first 5 hours after he posted it he had 35,000 page views. John is already well known, and already has a following, so I doubt he did it to get attention. But let’s face it: Most of us don’t get 35,000 page views to our portfolios. (In fact, I went to check my stats to see how far back I had to go to get 35,000 page views; from March 2010 to January 2013 I received 35,000 page views.) If you could put a one-page idea out there today that drove that much momentum, wouldn’t you? The point is, a single-page website like this can drive far more interest and momentum then years of time for a standard portfolio.

Online portfolio strategy 3: Redesign something

Fred Nerby Facebook redesign on Behance

Next up is a Facebook concept from designer Fred Nerby, which he posted in his online portfolio on Behance.com. While John O’Nolan retooled WordPress in the concept website we reviewed above, Fred confronts the Big Kahuna—Facebook—and presents a massive redesign. There’s a subtle difference between the two approaches: John proposed a new twist on an existing product, while Fred calls Facebook out for its design failure. That’s a little risky, and we’ll address that more in a moment. But look at the traffic stats: As of this writing, Fred’s presentation on Behance shows 264k+ views and 620 comments. That is freaking awesome.

Dustin Curtis American Airlines website redesign

Another example of a designer seeing a problem and proposing a solution came several years ago, when writer and web developer Dustin Curtis published his proposed revamp of the American Airlines website homepage. I doubt many would disagree with the problems he sees, but you have to keep in mind that someone somewhere built and designed the site. And sure enough he received a response from an AA employee who’s part of the design team. Though the conversation is polite, this exchange shows that there’s a risk in making such a public critique of a major brand’s website design.

Andrew Wilkinson proposed redesign of Zappos website

Here’s another example: Web designer Andrew Wilkinson offers up a full-on assault of the Zappos website design. And his ideas are sound. But again, there are real people behind the website he’s critiquing, and real business issues involved that he’s not privy to. We all wish the brand websites we patronize were just a little—or a lot—better.

Here’s the thing: If you really want to create some attention for yourself, you can focus your concept on an existing company, website or product. Just realize the potential pitfalls of doing so. Be respectful in the way you present your criticism and in how you describe the situation. Something as simple as stating, “I just wanted to see how I might design this,” can go a long way to diffuse any backlash.

Before you embark on such a project, I encourage you to read the negative feedback collected here in a blog post titled Unsolicited Redesigns.

There’s a ton of potential in creating a concept or proposing a website as a portfolio exercise. Just approach it with caution. Understand who will see the work and plan the response you want, and you’ll set yourself up for online portfolio success.

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