How to Build a Design Portfolio (Early in Your Career)

by Alec McGuffey

When you’re early in your design career and are starting to think about finding your first design job or freelancing client, one of the most important things in your arsenal is your design portfolio. A portfolio will likely be any potential client’s first impression of you, and it’s an easy way to showcase your strengths and let clients know what type of work interests you most.

If you’re just getting started, you likely won’t have much client work to showcase in a portfolio, which is fine! In this article, we’ll give you a few tips to help you build up the projects you’ll use to create your first portfolio and share some strategies for building the actual website your portfolio will live on! If you want help along the way, check out this article about finding a design mentor or chat with an experienced Design Mentor on RookieUp about your soon-to-be awesome first design portfolio!

1. Gather together all of your existing projects and figure out your focus.

The first thing you should do is pull together the projects you’ve worked on during your design education and look at everything together. Are there any major themes or similarities between your favorite projects or the projects you think show your strongest work? You won’t be including everything you’ve ever worked on in your portfolio, so this is the perfect time to figure out what your strengths are and what types of design work you’re most interested in pursuing in the future.

To figure out what pieces you should put front and center in your portfolio, think about what aspects of design are most interesting to you and the types of projects where you generally seem to produce the highest quality work. Hopefully, a theme emerges when you consider your existing works in this context. Based on this exercise, choose several of the best pieces of work to include in your portfolio. After all, the work you showcase on your portfolio is likely the work you’ll have the easiest time selling to new clients. If a client is going to hire you, they want to know you have experience working on similar projects before.

2. Don’t have enough projects? Create more!

If you need to pad out your portfolio with some more projects, then go for it! A great way to find inspiration for new projects is to think about some problems that bother you and design solutions for those problems. Think about these problems in the context of your skillsets. For example, if you’re passionate about UX Design, think about some user experience issues you see in one of your favorite web applications and design a solution for it. For example, this design student got rejected from Apple and decided to totally redesign Apple Music from the ground up! If you need some additional project inspiration, check out these articles:

Another great way to expand your portfolio is to ask family and friends if they have any simple design projects they need help with. Not only does this give you a chance to work on a real world problem, but it also gives you the opportunity to work with a real client, practice your communication skills, and end up with a real piece of “client” work to add to your portfolio. Who knows – you might even land your first freelance client this way!

3. Organize your work and put your best work forward.

Whether or not you should provide written context and explanation of your process for each portfolio piece is much debated in the design community. If your portfolio is focusing on visual design work, your work should speak for itself and should do the work of hooking people on its own. On the flip side, if you’re a UX designer, it might be a good idea to show your process in a bit more depth so the end user understands how you think and can extrapolate how you might approach a project if they were to hire you.

Whether or not you showcase your process, you should focus primarily on surfacing your best work. Never show anything you wouldn’t be proud for a potential client or employer to see. When organizing the assets to include in your portfolio, specifically for UX/UI work, don’t just include a screenshot or image of the final product. Instead, consider showing initial wireframes or mockups and discuss how you made your initial decisions. If you can back up the justification to show that you conducted some user research, all the better!

4. Buy your domain and build your portfolio

Put your best foot forward and spend some serious time on your personal branding. Follow these steps to get a portfolio site set up quickly!

  • First, choose your platform.
    • We’d suggest Squarespace as the best platform for new creatives. You’ll be able to get a gorgeous portfolio site up in a couple of hours and can even include a blog, cover page, and contact pages on your site so people can easily read about you and then reach out if they want to work together. If you decide to build up an email list, you can include forms so that you can easily keep potential clients updated on your availability and new projects.
    • Consider also creating profiles on Dribbble and Behance. Not only are these both active communities of designers who like to give feedback on others’ work, but there’s also Jobs sections on these sites that make it very easy to apply for gigs and be found by people looking for freelance talent
  • Create a personal logo. If you feel inspired to do a bit of personal branding, a personal logo can be a great way to stand out. Having a consistent look and feel across your personal brand is a great way to seem more professional. And who doesn’t love a nicely illustrated favicon. 🙂 Look at Noun Project for inspiration and an unlimited supply of icons to get your logo started!
  • Organize your work appropriately. If you have different types of work (i.e. UX Design, Branding and Identity, etc.), group it together on separate pages of your portfolio site. Make everything easily searchable from a navigation bar and dropdowns.

5. Choose a few social channels to build out

Finally, figure out if a social strategy makes sense for you. If you are interested in getting your name out there, it can be a great idea to be active on 1 or 2 social channels. But choose your channels carefully. Don’t just create and maintain accounts for the sake of it.

  • Use Instagram if your work has an illustrative or unique visual style
  • Use Pinterest if you have a love for graphic design work that incorporates text elements (i.e. infographics)
  • Use Medium if you’re a UX/UI designer who wants a platform that makes it easy share your thoughts on user experience issues in more detail

Be sure to link to your portfolio site on your social accounts for some easy SEO value. Also announce your new portfolio site with a few individual posts to your social audiences. Whenever you have new work to show, post it on your social accounts using relevant hashtags and a link back to your site.

Building a portfolio can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Don’t worry if you don’t have any client work to showcase yet—if you create a beautiful portfolio with unique projects that showcase your strengths, you’ll be well on your way to landing your first freelance gig! And once you have your initial portfolio ready, find out how to get your first freelance design clients so you can begin building the creative career of your dreams!

Alec McGuffey is the co-founder of RookieUp, an online mentorship platform for people learning creative skills. RookieUp is on a mission to create a global on-demand mentorship platform to make high quality mentors accessible to anyone trying to start a career in creative fields like design, photography, and more!

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