The Elements of a Great Portfolio
If you’re a freelancer, what would you say is the single most important factor when it comes to clients deciding whether or not to give you a project?
Having a great portfolio? A lot of experience? Being familiar with all the latest tools? Wrong.
Now don’t get me wrong, those all count for something. But the most important factor is trust.
A Question Of Trust
When a client is hiring you, they want to know that you can be trusted. Trusted to deliver high-quality work, trusted to meet deadlines, and above all trusted not to take their money and run.
Think back to the last time you had to pick between two pairs of shoes, order at the restaurant, or any similar situation when you had to make a choice.
In those situations, we do our best to persuade ourselves we’re picking the right option, and we look to any clues we can to help us feel good about our decision.
Understanding Client Fears
Similarly, when a client is looking to hire a designer, they want to know that they made the right decision, and your job is to help convince them that they did.
Clients are afraid they’ll pick an incompetent designer, that you’ll be the wrong person for the job, or even that you’ll try to scam them. Make these fears go away, and you’ll most likely get the job.
And once trust is there, the rest naturally falls into place. The first version of the project isn’t good enough? The client will trust that you’ll do better for the next one. Want to try a new, edgy look? The client will trust that you know what you’re doing. Missed a deadline? The client will trust that you had your reasons, and did your best.
Yet when I look at designer portfolios, very few of them are optimized to show trustworthiness. Every single designer I know will obsess over what font, color scheme, and layout to use for his personal portfolio site, often scrapping multiple versions before pushing out something.
I’d be willing to bet that if even one tenth of that time was spent thinking about showing that clients can trust you, you’d probably get a lot more people contacting you.
So how do you communicate trust? Let’s take a look at a couple key elements.
Your work itself is the first step to demonstrating you can be trusted. It shows that other companies have trusted you in the past, and hopefully that they were right to do so.
Just don’t forget to put the company name forward. A lot of designer organize their portfolio by type of work rather than by client. This is a missed opportunity, especially if any of your previous clients have some name recognition.
If your past clients were happy with your work, let them say so on your site.
I’ll tell you a secret right now: no client is going to say you made them a crappy logo, because that would be admitting their logo is crappy. So unless you were a complete jerk to work with, most clients will be happy to provide a glowing testimonial.
While browsing through designer portfolios, I found very few of them who featured client quotes prominently, and I think that’s a mistake.
Instead of using a vague generic tagline such as “I design beautiful and usable sites that blah blah blah”, wouldn’t it be much more powerful to display an actual quote from a satisfied customer?
What else would make somebody who doesn’t know you trust you? How about links to profiles on Twitter or Dribbble, to show that you’re a respected member of the online design community?
Including your photo and a short bio can also make people feel like you can be trusted. And if you work primarily with local businesses, maybe a phone number and address would be a good idea too.
But Famous Designer XYZ Doesn’t Do That!
Lastly, I want to warn you against taking inspiration from the sites of established designers. These designers have built a huge network over the years, and have job proposals dropping in their inboxes like clockwork. They couldn’t care less what their portfolio sites look like.
In fact, I’m willing to bet that more than a few well-known designers intentionally hide away their work in hopes of stemming the tide of unwanted client inquiries.
Designers are first and foremost problem solvers. So let me put it this way: if you want to land projects, the first problem you should be solving is not “how do I make my portfolio look beautiful”, but “how do I make myself look trustworthy”.
From freelancing to consulting
If you work with clients, the single most powerful way to increase your revenue is to stop freelancing and start consulting. And there’s no better outline to follow than Draft, a one-man interaction design consultancy in Chicago.
Draft is decidedly not a freelance business. Despite the fact that it’s only one guy, Nick Disabato, he positions himself as a consultancy owner. As you’ll see this is a subtle but powerful difference.
And there’s no reason you can’t do the same. Let’s take a look at how you can follow his outline and create a website that positions you as a high-value consultant.
Let’s start with what you see first… the words.
It’s clear when you land on the site, the focus is words. Usually freelancing websites feature big photos of the freelancer or screenshots of their work but here we’re seeing something else. A totally a pared back design.
Instead of the website touting something generic in it’s headline, Draft focuses on the client’s desires. This is unusual for agency websites to do:
This headline talks directly to what clients are struggling with: leaky revenue. It points at people struggling with this (his ideal clients) and talks directly to them.
But wait a second, why does he do this?
Choosing one person out of the crowd means he’s losing everyone else. Nick is okay with that. He’s decided to turn away people who aren’t right for his services to focus exclusively on the right buyers.
If you are advertising corsets, men and children don’t interest you. If you are advertising cigars, you have no use for non-smokers. — Scientific Advertising
Does ignoring everyone but your ideal client sound scary to you? It shouldn’t. Reaching one person isn’t risky.
The real risk is reaching no one.
A free offer tailored to Draft’s ideal client
Next, Draft does one of the best things you can do in business, teach potential customers with a free offer: an email course on A/B testing.
This free course positions Draft as an expert in the A/B testing space. It also helps clients see why they should hire him in a risk-free environment. Doing this over email (which is typically 1-to-1) also makes the relationship feel personal despite that it’s scalable. Clients can respond at any time to ask him a question.
Wondering how to go from jack-of-all-trades to specialist? This is it.
Next, Draft presents curated specialty services
This is probably the most unique thing Draft does. Instead of listing out every generic skills and service Nick has, he’s packaged his expertise into a few profitable productized offerings:
Each one is unique, custom-branded, and builds off of each other. Suddenly, you’re no longer dealing with just a “designer,” but an individual who clearly understands how to make a business more profitable with A/B testing.
His products and services range in cost between $49 and $3,000+. Think about the difference in strategy between listing off your skills and creating a service with a specific outcome, timeline, and price.
Which one would seem like more of a sure-thing to your client?
A call to action on every page
Personal websites often make the mistake of forgetting to include a next step on every page. That leaves visitors alone in deciding how to move forward. Most will just leave your site completely.
Now you might be thinking it’s easy to create a call to action on buy page where you’re selling something, but impossible on other parts of your site like your homepage. Well, Draft has a call to action here too.
By doing this he’s decided what comes next so you don’t have to.
After all, who’s more qualified to make this decision? You, who knows every inch of your website, services, and skills intimately, or your visitor who knows nothing about your work?
Don’t make clients think. Just tell them what they should do next. Do this on every page. It’s one of the biggest wins for the least amount of effort. Every page a specific next step.
How to talk about your work
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Nobody cares about your portfolio. It’s boring, your work looks just like every0one elses, and unless I’m trained in your area of expertise I can’t tell why it’s any good.
That’s why I love how Draft talks about past work.
Nick doesn’t talk about the service he offers, past projects, or even what you get (atleast not right away). He starts every page by talking directly to his ideal clients about what they’re struggling with. Then he goes into how Draft can help.
Throughout the site he talks in terms of improvements he can make in the client’s life. This approach requires no screenshots of past work and yet does a better job than a portfolio ever could.
Pricing that highlights value
It’s impossible to know how valuable a service is unless you know the price. That’s why defining price does the client a favor. It allows them to think about value. Most agency websites ignore pricing completely.
Most agencies require a consultation before they can provide any type of price quote. I think this is out-dated. If you specialize in a certain area (as you should), you’ll have recurring themes in your work. There will be projects you do again and again.
That means you can create a package for these services that include a timeline, price, and scope of work. This allows clients to shop for the right package for them like at the store. It allows client’s to see exactly what they’re paying for, how much they’re paying, and what they’re getting.
A small nitpick…
I chose to review Draft’s website because it’s honestly one of the best examples of a personal website I’ve ever seen. There’s not much I’d change at all. However, one tiny area I think could be improved is the contact form. Mostly because there isn’t one.
Last but not least, thinking past the sale with great onboarding
Now here’s a little inside baseball. As a client of Draft’s I can talk about the awesome job Nick did onboarding me to his services.
He does this with primarily through a great welcome packet:
Onboarding is an art that gets lost on freelancers and service providers. However, it’s here that you create your true profits as a business.
Great onboarding creates repeat clients so it’s one of your best marketing tools. Draft’s welcome packet is a simple example because it answers frequent questions, tells you what to expect, and a ton more.
It even manages your expectations in terms of his availability. You have no idea how refreshing it is to not be left in the dark as a client.
It the first step towards truly delivering on every promise he’s made on his site. It shows he’s thought deeply about delivering on what he’s promised. The mark of true value.
The best part is anybody can copy it.
Here’s a question I get a lot from Folyo members and it’s a good one.
I run a small studio. Should I present myself to clients as a freelancer or as a studio?
The short answer is: it’s usually better to present yourself as a freelancer.
80% of the projects on Folyo are looking for an individual.
Quick disclaimer: that DOESN’T mean they aren’t open to working with a studio if that’s an option, but it does mean they have a picture in mind of what they need and, usually, it’s an individual.
The longer answer, more nuanced, answer is: it depends on the company.
For example, one exception to this rule is: RFPs. You can safely assume that any RFP I send is looking for a design agency, unless otherwise noted.
Some projects are going to specifically say they’re looking for a team while others an individual.
In those cases I don’t think there’s anything wrong with tailoring your message to what they’re looking for. For example, if you’re a studio but a client says they’re looking for a freelancer, I might just apply anyway.
Then I would have the conversation about whether this is a true requirement when it came up naturally. As opposed to leading with it in my first email.
Ultimately, they want a problem solved and if you can solve that problem for them – why would you emphasize something about yourself that isn’t irrelevant to their problem? It just hurts your chances and if you’re the best for the project, it hurts the client too.
I would never hide the fact that you’re design studio or a freelancer, but also wouldn’t lead with something that puts up a roadblock between you for no reason.
So it’s important to remember that most clients are usually looking for a problem to be solved, and some don’t even care whether you’re a studio or a freelancer at all. If you’re within their budget and can do the work, they’re interested.
That’s why personally, I try to speak in the first person as often as I can because it feels natural to me and I think it feels more personal to the person I am speaking to. So I use “I” instead of “we” in my emails regardless of my team size.
In the end, a client cares less about how you see yourself, and more about how they are seen, how they are presenting themselves, and how they are coming off. Focus your communication around this – and you will do fine on Folyo, whether you’re a freelancer or studio.
This was written for members of my design referral newsletter. With this email they also receive an MP3 featuring Paul Jarvis, Kurt Elster, Nick Disabato and more, explain how they write client-focused emails. Sign up here.
How to create a portfolio that gets you clients example
Your portfolio exists for one reason. To help you get clients. Yet most freelancer portfolios are actually pushing away clients without realizing. To make sure you don’t do that you need to know what a client wants when they come to your site.
You need to show you can handle their project. Doing this gives you a huge advantage over 99% of freelancers. So how do you do that? The list below will help you, guaranteed.
- Realize portfolios are boring, and no one likes them.
You might think that the point of your portfolio is to talk about you. But the people visiting your portfolio don’t care about you. They only care about themselves. Just because you think your work is amazing doesn’t mean clients want to read a 10,000 word case study about it. They just want to know how you can help them. Everything in your portfolio should be about them, not you. It needs to talk about how you help clients become more awesome.
- Make your headlines talk about the results your clients want.
We know designers design beautiful, intuitive websites. You don’t need to tell us again in your headline. Instead, talk about your clients. What result are they looking for when they come to you? How do you provide that result? What are the benefits of working with you? This is how you make your headlines effective. Focus on the people who matter: the clients that will be reading them.
- Pick the most relevant portfolio piece and send only that.
The biggest mistake you can make is sending clients to a portfolio that’s not focused on the project you’re looking to get hired for. A client doesn’t have time to sift through your entire work history to find the one portfolio piece that’s relevant to them. Just send them the portfolio piece that’s closest to the project they have and stop forcing them to hunt it down on their own. Be explicit.
- Minimize the screenshots and instead tell a story.
A portfolio isn’t about the work, it’s about the decisions and outcomes that happened as a result of the work. When did you work on this project? What did you do exactly? How did your work impact the company? Was the client happy? These things are more important than screenshots. If you can create an atmosphere around your work, it will be 10 times easier to sell your work.
- Don’t worry about traffic, focus on quality.
Here’s the good news: you don’t need thousands of clients. So focus on the effectiveness of your website, not the volume. Remember: all you need is a a few hundreds interested prospects coming to your site to get enough client work. If you that’s not enough to get you work, you need a better portfolio. If you don’t have that much traffic yet — it’s easily attainable in a few simple steps (go to the bottom of this post for more info on this).
- Make it easy to get a hold of you with a nice big contact form.The more complexity you add to your portfolio the harder you’ll make it for clients to hire you. So keep it simple. Keep your entire site to one page if you can and tell clients exactly where and how to contact you. Tell them the exact information you need. Don’t just let the work speak for itself — you have to ask clients to contact you.
When we help companies find a designer, we review hundreds of portfolios to present the best matches for a project. As a result, we seen and collected dozens of the best freelance UX portfolios on the web.
This is something I wish I’d seen when I was starting out as a freelancer. So below are some of our favorite UX design portfolios. Pay special attention the video walk-throughs.
Each one is a video that we sent a client and ended up winning the project. Enjoy!
US Air Force project by Kevin Chang
This walk-through won Kevin a freelance UX contract with an awesome UX agency, Guidea. Watch how he presents the thinking behind his work, not just the work itself.
Genomelink Redesign by Stas Kulesh
This walk-through won Stas a freelance UX gig for the startup RexPay. He tailored the portfolio walk-through to the client’s needs and specifically showed a healthcare related project..
Government Alert app by Jes Albro
This walk-through also goes into detail about the thinking behind the project. Jes walks through a complex UX while maintaining her ability to explain it simply. This walk-through resulted in a large UX contract as well.
Target and BCSBS website UX design by Brant Day
This portfolio walk-through resulted in a freelance UX project for Brant. Look for how he presents professionalism, while presenting work for companies that are house-hold names.
Why do these portfolios work?
The difference between a freelancer and an in-house UX portfolio is that client’s are looking for more than just design. They want professionalism, great communication skills, and the ability to talk through the thinking behind the design.
These skills are also way under-emphasized.
As a result, finding a freelance UX designer can be difficult. These portfolios stand out because they prove they will not only produce results for the client but also be able to present their work professionally.
Folyo is my free newsletter that sends 8,700 freelancers and counting the best client opportunities every day. We help you make more money whether you had time to do marketing this week or not.
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