Whether you’re looking for freelance work or a full-time gig, getting an employer’s attention–let alone a job–can be tough. We’re talking sending 50 plus emails in a week and following up your follow-ups with follow-ups tough.
But if you put in the work and really showcase your talent, a portfolio site can be the great equalizer. Unlike most other jobs, your resume isn’t as important as getting people to look at your book (the shorthand for portfolio because four syllables are three too many).
When they finally click on your book, trust me, they’re not taking the time to soak it all in. Odds are they have hundreds of books to look through each week.
You’re going to want to separate yourself from the herd, and make sure your prospective employer sees some killer work. So let’s start standing out in the ever growing crowd.
Go Brand Yourself
Not literally though, we would never suggest that you sear your flesh for a career opportunity.
This may seem like common sense, but the assignment of creating a portfolio is much like any other creative assignment. You have a brand—yourself, and a target the employer.
You’re a brand.
And as a brand, you’re going to need two things every brand has–a brand personality and a logo. Both should be integral parts of your website.
This sounds like a big task, but if you’ve been working on creative pieces thus far, you probably have a grasp on the style and voice that you gravitate towards. This is the essence of your brand.
Now to get your logo, you just need to boil it down to the short and sweet. But if you’re having trouble (as I did), you might find this exercise useful.
And if you already have a logo, you’ll probably find the exercise below a bit useless but maybe still interesting.
Creating a Personal Brand – The Exercise
Start by writing down ten adjectives that you think others would use to describe you. Be as honest as possible. Put tallies next to the three that describe you the best. Then ask five friends to choose their favorite three. If you want help finding words try this Visual Thesaurus to get your mental juices flowing.
Now that you have your three words, you’ll need your color palette. Unless you have one in mind already, I’d start the same way.
Pick 20 shades of colors that you like. Then print out a bunch of three color combinations, pick your favorites and ask friends/colleagues for theirs. For hints, look no further than your own closet. Most of us already have a preferred color palette.
If you are new to Color Theory (Colour theory if you are in the U.K.) you should try the Adobe Color Wheel. Actually, try it even if you are an expert designer because it is a very useful tool. Start by picking a color and try the difference color recommendations. They offer color recommendations by:
- Analogous – Groups of three colors next to each other on the color wheel.
- Monochromatic – Think tints, tones, and shades of a particular hue.
- Triad – Finds two other colors that are evenly spaced on the color wheel.
- Complementary – Essentially these are opposites, i.e. they cancel each other out when combined. They create the strongest contrast.
- Compound – A variation on the complementary color scheme which includes adjacent colors to the complement.
- Shades – Darker versions of your color, oposite of tints which are lighter versions of a color.
TIP: Alternatively, if you have an image that has an inspiring color scheme upload it to Adobes image tool to extract a color scheme.
Once you have a color palette and some words, this can go one of two ways. You can try sketching out 50 logo ideas and pare these down to your favorite options. Which is time-consuming and tough but can produce exceptional and personal results.
Or, if you’re a writer, you can search your LinkedIn network for a designer friend or colleague that might be willing to do you a favor or trade you some copy for some art.
At this point, some of you might ask, then why even bother with the first part?
Well, my interrupting friend… Because a designer isn’t going to know you as well as you do. And you’d probably have a pretty hard time explaining a direction to them when you haven’t done any exploration yourself.
Once you’re finished, you can not only use this for your websites’ masthead, but also for business cards, post-interview thank you notes and a letterhead suite if you want to get fancy with your correspondences.
If you did all this and want better results, try again but this time use Google image search to look at the visual themes around your ten adjectives. Dharmesh Shar, the creator of Hubspot, wrote an article on personal brand adjectives that should give you some inspiration.
Okay, you have yourself an adjective and a logo, what now?
If you thought taglines were annoying, you’re going to love this. And since my keyboard doesn’t have a sarcastrophe, yes that was sarcasm. Finding a URL you like, that isn’t taken, is short enough, and can be easily remembered, is an important task.
I wish there was an exercise for this one, but sorry. You’re on your own. For the best results try to make it fit your brand, and see if you can squeeze your name in there for extra brandability.
For example, my student portfolio site was thepriceiswriter.com because my last name is Price, I’m a writer, and my theme was borrowed from the popular game show The Price Is Right. I also purchased the other spelling thepriceisrighter.com and redirected just in case there was any confusion.
Prepare many, many choices, then go to a website like hover.com or godaddy.com and start plugging in your options. Try not to get too attached before you do this or be ready to have your soul crushed. Once you find one that’s available, go to a site like hover and buy it for a year. It’s only $15, and they offer auto-renewal and an email address @yoururl.com for a tiny bit extra.
The Site Before the Site
Unless you’re well versed in coding or WordPress you need a template-based website builder. My personal favorite is Squarespace, but I’ve heard great things about Cargo, Virb, Wix, Weebly and a variety of others.
I’ll weigh in on a few below. Also, try a few on your own. Most of these sites offer a free trial where you can get in there and figure out what you like best.
What’s not to love? Okay, so I’m biased. Everything is spelled out for you. You start out by picking a template you like and you can see examples of finished sites using the template.
Then, you go in and delete the pre-set pages and start dragging and dropping your own content. With 28 templates, and 8 in the Portfolio category you will surely find something to match your personality.
That may sound oversimplified, but really it’s not. Everything about Squarespace is user-friendly. There’s a button for almost everything. Even when you’re resizing margins, changing fonts, changing colors, etc, there’s a very handy toolbar you can access by clicking the paintbrush button.
As an aside for you Pinterest lovers, Squarespace is the first website platform to enable Pinterest Domain Analytics and Rich Pins.
Additionally, if you like displaying data and you want it to be responsive (looks good across mobile, tablet, and desktop), SqaureSpace features Chart Blocks.
Essentially, this functionality enables you to create line, bar, and pie charts easily and customizable with various color palettes.
To view a sample of this feature check out Infographics via Chart Blocks.
- Adobe Typekit and Google Fonts Integration
- Easy Site Title and Tagline Editing
- Custom CSS (Using this feature may break your site, if you don’t know what you’re doing, and could limit the help you can get from the 24/7 support team)
- Easy Favicon Image Upload
- A favicon is also called the browser icon but is also used when people save your site as a bookmark on tablets and mobile.
- Site Logo Image Upload
- Social Sharing Logo
- The Social Sharing logo ensures that your brand image is brought to social networks. This helps when others are sharing your content. Also it ensures that there is a visual element to shared content if there are no images in the URL.
- Customizable Lock Screen
- Create a custom design for URLs that are behind password protection
- Easy Template Swap
- View your content with other templates
- Ecommerce Integration
- Customizable Checkout Page
- Customizable color for the background.
- Customizable title, and button – with an option for transparency percentage.
- Option to display or hide site logo.
Free 14-day trial, 24/7 customer service, and no credit card required. Use the GIMME10 coupon to save 10% on an annual plan. Additionally, the 24/7 support is via live chat and email with a promise to reply to emails in less than 1 hour no matter the time of day.
The above list of features are the ones I felt were worth highlighting, to get the full list of features and documentation visit the SquareSpace suport page.
Billing options are month-to-month or annual.
Other packages are:
- Unlimited – $18 dollars per month billed annually ($216 total per year) or $26 month-to-month
- Business – $26 dollars per month billed annually ($312 total per year) or $36 month-to-month
When considering pricing, it’s important to remember that a self-coded option or the better WordPress option will require paying a hosting premium. Granted, that WordPress.com hosting is free but isn’t as full featured as the WordPress.org version. If this is confusing for you or you don’t know the difference between WordPress.org and WordPress.com check out the linked content.
You might be thinking, “template-based?…I don’t know… I want an original website”. The fact is, SquareSpace is highly customizable and you will likely be surprised that the following websites are hosted on SquareSpace:
- And others on the SquareSpace clients page
Many view SqaureSpace as a very affordable alternative to paying a designer thousands of dollars to create a design just for you. In case you were wondering squarespace.com is powered by Squarespace, after all, would you use a website platform that uses a different platform themselves?
Much more customizable. With Cargo, you can create a site that doesn’t feel so cookie-cutter (which is really the only negative I’d say about Squarespace).
If you know code or have a friend who does, or can Google what you’re looking for (because sometimes it really is that easy), Cargo might be right for you.
However, it definitely takes more time to learn the ins and outs. And if you’re not looking to devote that time, I’d stick to my above recommendation.
I have not used Virb, but from what I’ve been told, it’s a slightly more difficult Squarespace alternative. A lot of the same functionality, but no drag-and-drop content building like Squarespace (which is amazing for lazy file hunters).
They also don’t have any price differentiation- you get all of their features for 10$ a month. And they have more template options and customizability than Squarespace. So there’s that. But I won’t be switching anytime soon. Other options to check out on your own:
The Work, The Work, The Work
Your brand draws them in, but it’s the work that will get you the job. So what do you put in there and how much? Answers may vary.
When I was at portfolio school (the Creative Circus to give them a well deserved, shameless plug), the consensus was about 8-10 really great things. Though if you can narrow that down to 8, or even 6 if you’re feeling really really confident about those, you’ll do just fine.
I’m talking about really great things. I’m talking about integrated campaigns (and maybe one or two really well thought out activations or app ideas).
If you’re reading this, you’re probably a junior or just about to be. So what you put in your book is still allowed to be spec work. Whether you made it in college, went to a portfolio school, or just did it on your own, it doesn’t matter. As long as you have a good, simple idea that hasn’t been done before and can show a bunch of cool ways to blow it out, you’re in good shape.
Make sure to vary the types of projects and brands you show. It’s important to be funny, but if you can, try to put something more serious or emotional in the mix.
Make sure you have products and services, traditional and non-traditional, etc. And if you’re struggling to get professional pieces in your book, check out our article on creating a freelance portfolio.
Stand Out From the Herd
This is the thing that will really set you apart. Something that is even more specific to you than your advertising ideas–your side project.
In today’s world, there is a ton of advertising creatives out there and it’s a demanding job. Future employers want to know that you eat, sleep and breathe creativity.
That when you’re not at work, you’re getting your creative jollies some other way. They want to know that you have more to bring to the table than just a clever wit and a replaceable skill.
My fellow students have started podcasts, created songwriting personas on SoundCloud, become web-comics, started parody charity websites, etc. The sky’s the limit.
Just try to do something that hasn’t been done before (harder than it sounds), make it fun, and make it yours. Hopefully, if you do this right, it will do as much for your personal brand as your work samples.
Looking For The Culmination
Making your creative portfolio starts and ends with you. Brand your personality, make sure it comes through in your work and make sure that you show more than just advertising. Show who you are, and do it honestly.
And one last piece of advice–bookend with your absolute favorite pieces. Because people rarely look at every page of your book and sometimes skip to the end before looking at the beginning.