For creative professionals, a successful online portfolio will become your most powerful marketing tool. It exposes your work to countless potential clients worldwide who are looking for someone just like you. Follow these ten steps and you’ll build a portfolio that takes your career to the next level.
With tens of thousands of creative portfolios in the Format.com community, we’ve seen the triumphs and tribulations of portfolio design. That’s why we wanted to share the best practices of our top portfolios from around the globe:
1. Curate your work.
Let’s be honest—you might not be the best judge of your own work. We all have a blind spot when it comes to projects we care deeply about. Either our emotional attachment gets in the way of objectivity or we’re paralyzed by perfectionist tendencies.
Both ends of the spectrum will result in a weak portfolio. The Cherisher will overload their site with mediocre images that distract viewers from the real gems. The Perfectionist will struggle to find images and give up on their portfolio before they’ve even started.
“Every image should make you think, ‘Wow.‘”
How do you avoid the fate of The Cherisher or The Perfectionist? Become your toughest critic. Step outside of yourself and imagine that you’re a potential client looking at the work. What grabs your attention? What do you quickly scroll past?
Every image should make you think, “Wow.” If you find yourself having a conversation in your head about whether or not an image has impact, let it go.
2. Think about your clients.
Many photographers, illustrators and artists are under the false impression that if you show a specialization, you’ll box yourself in too much. For most creative professionals, it’s actually the opposite. By showing your preference or skill towards a particular type of work, you’ll attract the right clients to further your career in the right direction.
For example, if you’ve been shooting a lot of wedding photography, but you’d like to get more into fashion, set up a portfolio that shows off more of your style-centric work. A fashion industry client wants to hire a photographer with a fashion portfolio, not a wedding photographer that shows a slight interest in style editorial shots.
“By showing your preference or skill towards a particular type of work, you’ll attract the right clients to further your career in the right direction.”
Clients will only consider you for the job that you actively seek out. If you don’t have much professional experience in a certain field of area that you’re interested in, consider creating a gallery of your personal projects to highlight your varied skills and interests.
Brainstorm 5 “dream clients” you’d like to work for one day. Consider the kinds of photos they shoot — then structure your portfolio to reflect the same.
3. Organize your galleries.
Your portfolio design needs to host multiple galleries. This will help you sort your work by type, clients or creative series. It should be as straightforward as possible for visitors to navigate your portfolio. If they’re hunting around too much, you’re in danger of losing their attention.
Here are a few different ways that you can sort your portfolio using galleries:
Keep your work organized by creating separate galleries for different types or genres of work. Visitors can easily switch between “Fashion,” “Travel” and “Portrait.” It will show your multifaceted interests without being too confusing or overwhelming for your portfolio audience.
If your portfolio is mostly client-based work, you can create galleries for the specific campaigns. It will keep all your client’s work in one section that’s easy to scroll through. A list of galleries that are named after high profile clients can also be a quick way to get commissions from new clients. New companies will want to get on your gallery list.
If your portfolio is comprised of only creative work, organize your galleries to reflect the individual projects and collections. This will help your audience see the progression of your work and the spectrum of your creativity.
4. Follow the rule of three.
There’s something magical about the number three. It’s no coincidence that it shows up in famous speeches, fairytales and catchphrases. Even that last sentence follows the rule of three—”speeches, fairytales and catchphrases.” Things just work better when they come in threes.
Here’s why: our brains process information by identifying patterns and three is the smallest number to create a pattern. It’s the quickest way to delight your audience.
When you’re ordering your portfolio images, keep the rule of three in mind. The first image creates an expectation, the second image establishes the pattern and the third image should break the pattern. Just when the viewer thinks they’ve caught on to the pattern, you surprise them with something different that creates a memorable thrill in their brain.
5. Caption your images.
Although nothing compares to the visual impact of a stunning image, captions can add some much needed context. There’s a story, a place, a moment that will create a powerful connection for your portfolio’s visitors.
Captions are also an opportunity to show credit where credit is due. This is an opportunity to highlight the other talent that made your image possible, from models to art directors. Make sure you double check the spelling of names and places.
If you’ve used specific materials or manipulations to achieve your image, including those details could make the viewer’s experience more profound. The industry standard for visual art captions is: “Artist Name, Image Title, Year Created, Material, Size.” This will help the view visualize your work off your portfolio screen and onto a wall. When media describes your work, they will often use the captions you’ve included so make sure you’re happy with them.
“There’s a story, a place, a moment that will create a powerful connection for your portfolio’s visitors.”
Alt descriptions are captions that are not displayed on your website. When they’re added, they embed in your portfolio’s code and allow search engines to “see” the images. It can be a crucial factor in achieving good search engine results to don’t forget to include them! On Format’s portfolio image uploader, they’re easy to add and update.
6. Choose the best portfolio theme for your work.
There are endless possibilities when it comes to portfolio web design. By working with a customizable, yet professionally-designed theme, you can pick a look that will do your work justice. With the right portfolio platform, you won’t have to struggle with code or worry about losing all your work if you want to switch themes in the future.
If you’re a perfectionist when it comes to your portfolio, you’re on the right track. Design works on a subconscious level.
People will be impressed by the design of your portfolio, even if they don’t immediately recognize all the thought that went into it. This can be especially important for portfolios with clients in mind.
“A study by Stanford University revealed that 46% of respondents consider web design an important fact on how they determine the credibility of a business.”
Here are some of the different types of portfolio website themes:
Horizontal-scrolling galleries are great for smaller collections of images. Images are displayed side-by-side, uncropped.
Full-screen themes ensure your images always fill the dimensions of a browser window. These themes look best with high-resolution images in landscape format.
Slideshow themes display images onscreen one-by-one, with the viewer navigating between images one-by-one. Ideal for galleries of stand-alone images or smaller images.
Galleries with large quantities of images look best in tiled themes. A visual overview with thumbnails of every image makes it easy to navigate through many images.
Vertical-scrolling themes display images one on top of the other—similar to a blog. Images that work together to form a sequential narrative are suited to this layout.
7. Treat yourself like a client.
When you begin to customize your portfolio theme, remember that it should match your other branded collateral including business cards and resume. For many creatives, designing a portfolio is the first step towards a long career in building editorials, lookbooks and collections for clients.
Treat yourself like your first client and pay attention to the bigger picture that you’re creating. Show that you have the skills to think on a grand scale while paying attention to the details. When you step back and look at your branded material, is it telling one cohesive story? Will your audience get a sense of who you are and what you’re about?
It might help to think of your site as a brick-and-mortar location. If you saw your portfolio as a storefront, would you stop in and take a look around? It should be easy to see what you’re selling (hint: you and your work).
8. Make sure your portfolio is web-ready and mobile-friendly
If you’re going to direct people to your site, it should always be active and available across all browsers. And, more and more often, people access the web via their smartphones, laptops, tablets — anything with an internet connection and a screen, really — so your portfolio needs to look as good at their fingertips as it does on your 30” desktop monitor.
Consider brilliant, front-and-center high-res images for your laptop/desktop website layout, and a portfolio layout that people can quickly and easily browse through on their mobile devices.
From start to finish, your portfolio should create an experience that is easy and natural. The more time someone spends trying to figure out how your site works and how to navigate it, the less time they’re actually spending looking at your work.
9. Make it easy to contact you.
It might seem obvious, but your contact information should be easy to find on your portfolio. It can be added to your “About” page or you can opt for the more direct “Contact” page. If you’re not comfortable with making your personal email address public, create a contact form for visitors to submit questions and comments. All emails should be responded to within one business day. If you’re unresponsive, clients will assume that you’re difficult to work with.
When you’re building your portfolio, don’t forget that it’s important to include a well-written About page. For Format users, their About page is the #1 visited link on their portfolio. It explains who you are and what you do.
As much as you like to think that your work speaks for itself, the average person needs a little dose of background information. There’s a story that needs to be told and you’re the main character.
“For Format users, their About page is the #1 visited link on their portfolio.”
Four tips for your About page:
Write in a confident, personal, friendly voice. Imagine you’re introducing yourself at a dinner party. Don’t be too formal or aloof.
Share information about your professional background, expertise, education or accolades.
Add personal details or anecdotes. When people feel like they know you, they’re more likely to remember you. Do you like mushrooms on your pizza? Are you an avid collector of antique dolls? Do you have a spouse, kids or pet? A sentence or two is enough to leave a lasting impression.
Post a portrait of yourself. We already know that a picture paints a thousand words. Choose a profile image that communicates your personality and/or your work.
10. Keep updating your portfolio.
Your portfolio should be an evolving website that continues to showcase your new work. In fact, the ability to update your portfolio quickly is one of the benefits of an online platform like Format. As a creative professional, you should be careful with your time and money. Avoid a situation where you have to pay someone else to update your portfolio and you don’t see the result for months!
“If your portfolio hasn’t been updated in a long time, you could be communicating that you’re inactive or not committed to your work.”
If your portfolio hasn’t been updated in a long time, you could be communicating that you’re inactive or not committed to your work. Try sticking to a schedule where you update your portfolio every month with new images. Set a challenge to update your blog with fresh work and you’ll be rewarded by the results. It’s also a great opportunity to share your talent on social media for everyone to see.
Used by tens of thousands of photographers, designer, illustrators, artists and models in over 149 countries, Format features:
Beautiful, responsive themes professionally designed to showcase your work on all devices and browsers
Flexible pages and layouts with customizable options
Powerful image-based blogging built right into your portfolio
Fast and friendly 24/7 support
Format Success Stories
Within 48 hours of posting images to his Format portfolio, photographer Michael George was contacted by National Geographic. The series “Portrait of a Pilgrim” was printed in the magazine, and the rest is history. In a few short years, the Brooklyn-based adventurer has documented stories from London, Brussels, Tel Aviv and across the USA. His work has been featured in Wired, Popular Mechanics and Inc. Magazine.
“Everyone raves about how seamlessly 'Portrait of a Pilgrim’ on my Format portfolio mixes photos, text and video. I’ve had so many people tell me that they love how it’s set up. I don’t know how in the world I would have designed it without Format. That series was published in National Geographic and they discovered it on my website.”
Atlanta-based makeup artist Veronica Sitterding has been using Format since 2012. She believes that when you’re in a creative industry, you shouldn’t leave your website in someone else’s hands. It’s important to be able to make changes instantly and frequently. A clean, simple design creates a lasting impression on potential clients.
“Format has changed my presentation, changed my business and changed my life! I immediately fell in love with the user experience and how easy it is to make edits to your content. When you are in a creative industry like I am, it is imperative that you are able to make changes instantly and frequently. My work is constantly changing, and I am constantly changing as an artist. People are constantly commenting on how great my site looks, how clean and easy to use it is and how much they love the simplicity. That is everything I wanted in a website.”