Crafting a client-wowing portfolio is a critical part of freelance success (opens in new tab) – whether it's a beautiful online showcase, or a carefully curated piece of print.
Unfortunately, not everyone follows the golden rules, and many fall foul of some common portfolio mistakes (opens in new tab)– such as lack of context, too much or too little work, or a basic lack of purpose.
If you want to land your dream job in design, you need to drive potential clients wild with enthusiasm, not mad with rage. Read on for eight portfolio pitfalls to avoid...
01. It's a real challenge to get in touch
Picture the scene: a potential client stumbles upon your website, genuinely likes your work, and wants to commission you. They look for the 'contact' or 'about' section, and there isn't one.
In fact, there's no email or other contact details listed anywhere – just a few social media buttons. The client doesn't want to send a public tweet, and they definitely don't want to befriend you on Facebook.
You are literally shooting yourself in the foot if your contact details aren't very clearly labelled, easy to find, and brutally simple. Don't be clever or coy about it, and don't make people work any harder than they need to – it'll drive them mad.
02. You take credit where it's not due
Context is key in any design portfolio. You don't have to write an essay about every project, and nor will anyone expect you to – people don't have time to read loads of supporting text. But supporting captions are a minimum requirement.
Explain who the client was, and a bit about the brief if you can – and crucially, what your role was (and by a process of elimination, wasn't) on the project.
Don't make bold claims about taking the lead on a big campaign, or imply it by not saying otherwise, when you were brought in for a day or two as a shift worker. It'll come back to bite you, in many different ways. Be honest.
03. Your biog goes over the top
When it comes to your About section, personality is really important – you need to stand out, after all – but there's really no need to drone on about your entire life story. Be punchy, and keep it relevant to avoid sending potential clients to sleep.
It's about getting across what people can expect if they hire you. That's partly about your style and approach, and partly about you as an individual. A bit of humour is great, if that's your personality, as it implies you'll be fun to be work with – but don't force it, or pack it with one-liners. They're hiring a designer, not a comedian.
Another common mistake amongst young designers starting out is to share their age. Literally no one cares how old you are; they care how much experience you have. It just makes you look like a rookie.
04. You have too much confidence (or too little)
Your professional portfolio is all about selling yourself and your skills, so it's not the place to be self-deprecating and overly humble. If you don't have confidence in your own abilities, why should anyone else?
However, check yourself if you're pushing it too far the other way. If you come across like a self-satisfied, preening peacock who thinks you're God's gift to design, that'll set off alarm bells. Clients want talented collaborators, not smug prima donnas.
It can be a fine balance to strike, as you need people browsing your portfolio to come to the conclusion that you're amazing, without singing your own praises too overtly. Be confident, but not cocky.
05. Your site falls apart on mobile
We've covered this before in our list of common portfolio mistakes (opens in new tab), but if it's worth saying once it's worth saying again.
You can't assume that potential clients and employers will be enjoying your carefully curated portfolio in HD widescreen, giving it their full attention as they snack on a box of popcorn.
More likely than not, they'll be on a train, or in a meeting, or grabbing lunch somewhere – and viewing your portfolio on a mobile, or if you're lucky, a tablet.
Most popular portfolio templates (opens in new tab) come with responsive design baked in, but always, always test your site on a phone to make sure the thumbnails make sense, and any links or buttons are a suitable size for finger tapping.
If it becomes too much work to navigate – or breaks entirely, so they have to scroll sideways for miles to view an image, for instance – you'll lose them.
06. Your spelling and grammar let you down
Let's be realistic: designers and illustrators are (primarily) paid to design and illustrate, not to write. It comes easily to some, and painfully to others.
You might be dyslexic, say, or just more comfortable communicating visually rather than verbally. And that's fine – no client worth bothering with will discriminate against you because you can't write sparkling copy.
But that's not to say that glaring typos and grammatical errors don't make your portfolio look unprofessional. The solution is simple: ask someone to check it for you – pull in a favour from wordsmiths amongst your friends or family if you can, or if you have the budget to invest, consider calling in a professional copywriter.
07. You mix business and pleasure too much
As we covered above, a bit of personality in your About section is great. Alongside your work, it'll help make you more memorable and compelling, especially for someone who's spent a few hours scrolling through identikit portfolios.
However, there is such a thing as too much personality. When linking out to – or feeding content directly in from – your various social media accounts, beware.
Unless you have separate accounts set up, most people's social media accounts are a mixture of work and play. As a rule, LinkedIn is a place for business contacts, whereas Facebook skews more towards personal. Twitter and Instagram are likely somewhere in the middle.
Be wary about how you come across on public channels that potential clients can see easily, especially if they're directly linked to your portfolio. Save the compromising pics for closed personal networks.
08. Too many confusing links and dead ends
We're finishing off with a cardinal sin for any website. If potential clients are met with misleading navigation and a flurry of 404 errors as they try to browse your work, it'll drive them up the wall.
Keep it simple and intuitive. Guide people through your portfolio in a logical way – you might split your work by discipline, or style, for instance, rather than just a chronological list. Consider how related case studies can link together.
Ultimately, you have two main goals: impress people with your work, and encourage them to contact you. Pare things back with those things in mind. Do you need separate Contact and About pages, or can you roll them into one to minimise the steps they need to take?
Most of all, check for broken links and missing images. Regularly. Nothing drives potential clients mad more quickly than a portfolio that simply doesn't work.