This week, I released an episode of the Illustration Hour podcast that addresses a common challenge for visual creatives: how to create a compelling, practical portfolio. In this short episode, I shared a strategic approach to building portfolios based on my experience as an illustrator and what I’ve learned from interviewing dozens of successful designers, artists and art directors on the podcast.
To supplement the episode, I collected the tips here along with a checklist of questions to ask yourself and references.
Tips for creating a great portfolio
Here’s a quick recap of the tips.
DO YOUR RESEARCH AND RESEARCH YOURSELF
Research the industry and specific niches you want to get work in and understand the needs of the people doing the hiring for those jobs.
TELL A SPECIFIC STORY
Explain what makes you unique, what work you want and provide proof (in the form of work) that you can bring value to clients. More about finding your voice in my interview with NYT art director Hannah K. Lee.
MAKE IT EASY
Your portfolio has to be clear and easy to navigate. At a minimum, try to have a few thumbnails linking to high resolution images of your work with an explanation of what you did and your approach. I would also urge you to consider a solution that is mobile friendly (lots of people will look at your website on mobile). The simplest solution is to make a Behance page, which is free. You could also make a Squarespace site, which is slightly more involved. For a clean, beautiful site that is super easy to navigate, I recommend a Wordpress.org site linked to a personalized domain from Bluehost and coupled with the great plugin and portfolio builder Semplice (what I currently use and recommend if you want a truly customizable website with zero coding knowledge necessary). More on clarity and keeping it simple in my interview with Spanish illustrator Magoz.
GRANT YOURSELF PERMISSION
You don’t need permission, affirmation or confirmation from anyone to start creating your portfolio. Don’t wait for the right number of likes, comments or followers. Don’t ask others for permission. Just start now and don’t delay putting yourself out there. (See my interview with illustrator Allison Filice for more on this topic.)
MAKE IT BEAUTIFUL
Aim to create a portfolio that is enticing and delights visitors. Make it impossible for someone to visit your portfolio without clicking on any of your projects. Think about every choice you make from your thumbnails and the structure you use to present each project to the background color.
If you don’t have a portfolio yet or are in the midst of revising your portfolio, make sure to listen to the episode to get a more detailed overview of these tips as well as practical examples of how you might apply them.
Checklist: Questions to ask yourself as you create a portfolio
Have I clearly explained who I am, what I do and what my unique value I can provide for client?
Do you mention your location on your home page? (this can really help you with SEO)
Do I have a an about me page?
Is the structure of my website logical?
Is it hard to find my work (more than two clicks required)?
Can clients get a quick glimpse of all my work easily?
How easy is it to find my contact info?
Did I provide more than one means of contact (email spelled out, contact form, footer, navigation)?
Does the website perform well and look good on mobile devices?
Does the website load fast enough? (see resource guide below to learn how to measure this)
Do the typography and colors I used adequately communicate my personality and the type of client I’m looking for? (casual vs. refined, playful vs. serious)
Does each project contain a clear and succinct explanation of what the project is, who it was for, and what the process was?
Do the images present the project well and with enough context? (i.e. not just a digital png of an illustration but the illustration used in context)
Does the project thumbnail make you want to click to learn more (i.e. does it have context, does it tease the viewer, is it sort of unclear what it’s for, does it look good)
If the project is not an actual client project, do you make that clear?
Does every project represent a project you would actually want to work on in the future?
Do the projects support the claims made in the about/intro section?
About page questions
Does this section include a photograph that adequately communicates my personality? (not too stiff, not too casual, nice smile)
Do I clearly and succinctly explain who I am?
Is the story I’m telling compelling (arc, content, tone)?
Do I explain why I do what I do and what I love about my work?
Do I highlight the type of work I want to do in the future?
Do I have a clear call to action (for example, let’s talk!) at the end of my about me section?
Did I provide links to all the relevant content (ex: newsletter, shop)
If I have press coverage, did I list out articles clearly?
If I have awards, did I list them all out?
Final/bonus step: Ask a friend to look over this page and then ask them to answer these questions. Do you trust this person? Would you hire this person? How would you describe me to someone based on this about me page?
Further Reading: Useful references on portfolios
About me pages
Presenting your work
Building a website
I recommend a Wordpress.org site linked to a personalized domain from Bluehost and coupled with the great plugin and portfolio builder Semplice (what I currently use and recommend if you want a truly customizable website with zero coding knowledge necessary).
Speed and optimization
Test your site’s speed with Pingdom
If your website is very slow and you have a lot of images, try to reduce the size of your images with something like TinyPNG (which doesn’t degrade the quality of your image).
Search engine optimization (SEO)
For Wordpress, Yoast is a great SEO plug-in.
Monitoring and tracking
Disclaimer: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, meaning I may get a small commission from purchases made through them (at no additional cost to you). This helps to support the Illustration Hour podcast and website.