This article was excerpted from the 2017 Artist’s and Graphic Designer’s Market. Original article written by Luke McLaughlin.
Less Is More
The first and most important rule of a great portfolio is to use as few images as possible to show the best work you can do. A common mistake beginners make is putting all of their work into their portfolio. At the beginning, this might be because they only have enough completed work to make a small portfolio, but as your body of work grows, it’s important to make your portfolio concise. You need to get your message across quickly. A bloated portfolio that doesn’t communicate the strengths of your business quickly and effectively will result in missed opportunities.
Another problem with larger portfolios is that any below-average work in your portfolio will lower the quality of the entire portfolio. People will judge your ability based on the worst work in your portfolio. Having a single bad image can turn your portfolio from an asset to a liability and cost you business. This is why you should keep it simple; showing six to ten images of your very best work is a great place to start.
When people look at your work, they want to know what kind of work they are going to get if they hire you. Most successful creatives have a niche, a particular style or area of expertise. You might be able to do all sorts of jobs, and it may be that once people gain confidence in you as a professional, they’ll ask you to work outside your comfort zone. But it’s far better to be the best at one thing rather than average at everything. Make a portfolio that showcases the kind of work you do best. Show why you’re better than your competition.
Now that you know the basics, it’s time to size up the competition. Try to find other people who have a business similar to yours and take a look at their portfolios. Your goal should be to make your portfolio at least as good as the portfolios that you find. If you find a competitor with a great portfolio, bookmark it and compare it to yours later to see if you have achieved your goal.
Dos and Don’ts
- Do use high-quality images. Always use high-quality and high-resolution images for your portfolio. If you use watermarks on your images, make sure they are not distracting. It’s easy for a watermark to completely ruin the visual impact of an image.
- Don’t use huge files in your portfolio. While you need a very large file size for printing, if you use print resolution files for your portfolio, it will take longer to download and may not display correctly on some devices. (Hint: At the moment, the HD standard of 1920 × 1080 pixels is a great size for files that will be accessed digitally. Eventually, the 4k standard of 4096 × 2160 pixels will replace it.)
- Do look at your portfolio on a wide variety of devices. You want your portfolio to look great on computers, tablets, and phones. Ask your friends to look on their devices and let you know if they have any problems viewing your portfolio.
- Do watch people looking at your portfolio. Which images do they spend the most time on? If your best work is at the end of your portfolio, try moving it to the front. If people are struggling to navigate your digital portfolio, change the formatting or gallery to make it easier to view.
- Don’t have two images with the exact same subject. Although you don’t want an inconsistent and confusing portfolio, you also want to avoid duplicates. Try to avoid having any two images that are too similar to each other or feature the same subject.
Formats for Digital Portfolios
Your website portfolio should be the first thing people find when they search for you online. It should either be on the home page of your website or just one click away from the landing page. Use meta tags on your portfolio page to describe the subject matter of your portfolio in general terms so that people searching for those things will have a chance of finding your portfolio in an image search. You can use a variety of gallery plugins for the CMS (content management system) that you use to make your portfolio, but the key thing is to make it easy to use and intuitive for the viewer. Once you have your portfolio set up, watch some people using it. If they struggle to navigate, use a different gallery or change the settings to make it more intuitive.
Use cloud services like Dropbox and Google Drive to send clients specialized portfolios based on the type of images they are looking for. By using a cloud service, you can quickly create a folder containing the images you want your prospective client to see and send it to them instantly without changing anything on my website or web portfolio page. (Hint: If you send someone a link to a folder with a cloud service you can correct mistakes or alter your portfolio even after you have sent it.)
PDF portfolios are the happy middle between an online portfolio and a print portfolio. You can keep a PDF of your best work on your tablet or phone to show people when they ask you what you specialize in. This way you always have a professionally presented portfolio in your pocket. It’s easy to make a PDF of your portfolio. You can use Adobe Acrobat or you can convert a web page, a Word document, or a Powerpoint to a PDF. PDFs are also ready to print. If you have a great PDF portfolio that you have had success with showing clients in person, why not use it as the basis for a professionally printed portfolio?
Originally, portfolios were selections of printed work that you would show your clients in person, but now people often have their work available to view only online. When online portfolios first became available, having an online portfolio made you stand out because it showed that you were different. Now that everyone has an online portfolio, you can stand out by having a professionally printed portfolio once again. It costs more, but it gives you an opportunity to show someone your portfolio in person. While you can e-mail a client a link to your online portfolio for free, showing someone your work professionally presented in a print portfolio can really set you apart.
Review Your Portfolio at Least Once a Year
If you are busy, you might not realize how long it has been since you last looked at your portfolio. When you first make your portfolio, put a reminder in your calendar for the next year to remind yourself to update your portfolio. A great idea is to always update your portfolio in the first week of a new year or the week of your birthday. Updating your portfolio is a chance to assess your progress and see how much you have improved.