A guest post by Isabelle Poirier of IP Design and the Ottawa Design Club.
If you’re a creative, chances are you have a portfolio of some sort (bonus points if your portfolio lives on a website)! A portfolio is a great way to showcase your work, and can be a helpful tool to attract future clients.
That being said, a great digital portfolio involves more than just throwing pretty pictures up on a website (no matter how talented you are). A standout portfolio requires context—it should be clear and concise, and your website visitors should be able to quickly understand who you are, what you do, and what you have to offer. Essentially, a good portfolio requires a solid brand strategy.
Not sure where to start? We’re here to help—and we’ll make it fun! Below we’ve outlined 7 strategic steps that will help you build your dream portfolio website. To make it easier, feel free to download our strategy worksheets here, or you can kick it old school with a pen and paper. For each question asked in the following exercise, write down anything and everything that comes to mind. Think of it as a brain dump.
Ready? Let’s get started.
Step 1. Define who you are — It’s your time to shine!
Whether you’re a freelancer, solopreneur, or creative agency, you should let your personality shine through in how you present yourself to the world. After all, you’re probably trying to attract clients who align with your values, interests, and overall vibe. This is why showcasing your personality on your website is so important. Yes, you’re selling goods or a service, but you’re also selling yourself.
By exploring and understanding who you are, it’s easier to figure out your goals and aspirations, how to define your audience, and how to best display your content to achieve your desired results. Everything is interconnected.
Let’s start by defining some characteristics about yourself. Consider this your “bullet point bio”.
Get your aforementioned pen and paper out, or follow along with our downloadable exercise worksheets.
In your first column, jot down your answers to the following questions:
- Where do you live?
- Where are you from?
- What is your background?
- What is your education?
- What’s your personality like?
- What are some of your life experiences?
- What does your professional journey look like?
In the second column, let’s define what you do (or, what your skills are):
- What are your primary skills?
- What are your secondary skills?
- What’s your work process like?
- What results do you provide to your clients?
You’re doing great. In the third column, let’s explore your interests. We call this the “3 C’s”—culture, catalysts, curiosities:
- What forms of culture are you drawn to? (This can be aspects of pop culture, subcultures, hobbies, interests, etc. For example, maybe you love Star Wars and Neapolitan pizza.)
- What excites you?
- What are you curious about?
The fourth column is all about your dream opportunities:
- What companies would you like to work with?
- What market or industry do you want to work in?
- Where would you like to be featured?
Now it’s unlikely that everything you wrote down will ultimately make it to your website—and that’s okay! What’s important is that you feel you have enough information to work with.
Take a look at your answers and see what stands out to you. Can you make some connections between your personality, skills, interests, and dream opportunities? These connections will come in handy as you begin to create content for your portfolio.
Step 2. Define your goals — Follow your dreams!
Now, it might seem like your dream opportunities are way out of reach, but don’t worry—it’s normal to feel this way! It’s all about taking incremental steps in order to achieve your big goals. These incremental steps—or mini-goals, as we like to call them—are ways to achieve recognition, social proof, and/or work experience that will help get you to where you want to be.
This next prompt (second page, first column) is all about figuring out what your goals are—and putting them down on paper:
1. What do you want to accomplish? (For example, maybe your goal is to book art shows or to find a new job!) Write down as many goals as you like, no matter how big or small they may seem.
By defining your goals, you can then determine a clear path of action to take to achieve them. Success doesn’t happen overnight (in most cases…), but you can get there by working incrementally and checking off mini-goals as you go.
Step 3. Define your audience — Who are you talking to?
You know how in a movie, if a character is talking to themselves on the street, we might get the impression that they’re acting a little wacky? We’ve all seen this type of character cliché, but sometimes the exact same thing is happening on our websites—without us even noticing! We’re the wacky character talking to ourselves online. If you don’t know who you’re speaking to—in other words, if you don’t know your audience—you’re speaking into a void.
That’s why the next few questions are so crucial to answer (in the second column, page two):
- Who is your website for?
- Who needs your services?
- Who wants to buy your products?
- Who wants to follow your journey?
- Who is your audience?
The more specific you are when defining your audience, the better. Knowing who you’re speaking to will help guide the content (especially the copy) on your website portfolio. Try to refine your brand voice and tone to one that resonates with your specific audience. Just remember: You may not be for everyone, but that’s okay—that means you’ve found your niche.
Step 4. Define the actions you want your audience to take — What does your website portfolio lead to?
More than just a simple CTA (“call-to-action”), what is the ultimate goal of your website? Think to yourself: What do you want your site visitors to do when they navigate through your portfolio? Which actions do you want them to take on your website besides just looking at pretty pictures?
On page three, column one, we’re going to explore what you want your visitors to actually do on your website. Here are some examples to get the ball rolling…
- Is it booking a consultation?
- Is it hiring you for a job?
- Is it buying your merchandise?
- Is it filling out a questionnaire?
- Is it buying tickets for a workshop?
- Is it commissioning a piece of art from you?
By knowing who you’re talking to (throwback to the exercise we did in Step 3), it can be easier to invite your audience to take action on your portfolio website. You understand your audience’s needs, so you know when (and where) to say, “I can solve your problem—here’s how”.
Step 5. Define your content — Finally, pretty pictures! (But choose wisely)
Now for the fun part—creating website content!
Take a look at your exercise sheets and review your offerings, goals, and audience. Circle or highlight everything that resonates with you—what are you trying to achieve and attract? Look for connections that will help guide the content you put on your website.
Once you’ve selected and/or created your website content, you’ll want to think about the presentation of this content (this is just as important as the content itself). For example, if you sell pieces of artwork, you’ll probably want to photograph each piece in relation to other physical objects (so the size of the piece is easily understood), have a close-up image that shows detail, and an image of what the piece looks like framed. And don’t forget the logistical information: What are the dimensions? How do you hang up the artwork? How should you care for it? This is information your audience will expect to see.
This principle still applies even if you don’t sell physical goods. If you’re a freelancer selling your services, showcase your work by creating case studies. These case studies will show potential clients your thought process, the quality of your work, and the results you’ve achieved for past clients. Bonus points if you add tangible data that demonstrates your success!
Likewise, if your dream opportunity is to be hired by your favourite agency, showcase your work in a way that aligns with that agency’s aesthetic and/or highlight your own clients that are similar to the agency’s clients. With your portfolio, you can show—not just tell—them why you would be a rockstar addition to their team.
Seize every opportunity you have to explain how you process information, how you resolve problems, and how you find solutions. And remember, if you only showcase images of your work, you’re probably leaving a lot of money on the table—and who wants that?
Step 6. Define your site layout — All roads lead to Rome
So you have all this fabulous content for your website portfolio. Now what?
Now it’s time to organize the flow of information on your website. A site map is a great way to get started with this. Basically, you want to make sure that finding information on your website is user-friendly and intuitive. By creating a site map, you can visualize where you want all your content to live. What will the main categories—or webpages—on your website be? What information will live on each page?
When creating your site map, draw boxes for all of the webpages that will link from your navigation menu (this is the header that is normally found at the top of a website). Under each of these webpage boxes, identify the types of content you’ll put on each webpage. You can also think about what you’d like to see “above the fold” on each webpage (a.k.a. the section of a webpage you see before you start scrolling) and integrate that into your plan.
This can require some serious brainstorming, but stick with us—it’s worth it! Here are some site map examples to get your creative juices flowing:
Step 7. Own your online space — Secure your domain name
Once you’re happy with your site map, the website portfolio exercise is complete. Yay! You’re well on your way to creating a standout portfolio website.
One last thing we need to touch on before we go is choosing a name for your website—and then securing your domain name. A domain name is essentially your website’s address—this is what people will use to find your portfolio website, and it’s totally unique to you.
A cool thing about domain names in this modern day and age is that you aren’t limited to using a domain name that ends in .com or .ca—there are tons of other options available that might better resonate with your brand. If you’re a creative, there’s .design or .art. Or maybe, if you’re part of a collective or volunteer organization, .club is perfect for you (ottdesign.club is a great example of integrating your brand name into your domain name).
The options are endless, so have fun with it!
And here’s an insider tip: .CLUB and .DESIGN are on sale right now at Rebel.com!
You’re all set!
Now you have a clear roadmap to building a fabulous, on-brand portfolio website. By following this strategic process, you’ll be empowered to make good, educated decisions that benefit your career. Your portfolio website is the gateway to achieving your goals—it’s not something to take lightly. Although it can be daunting, going through all these steps can save you a lot of time, energy, and sometimes even money.
At the end of the day, this exercise is all about implementing your brand strategy. You want to stand out and offer a creative solution to your audience—and following these steps will help you do just that.
About the Author — Isabelle Poirier
Izzy is a brand designer from Ottawa, Canada. By day, she runs IP Design, a design studio focused on building community through memorable experiences. IP Design has a distinctly modern aesthetic and offers bold, conceptual strategic solutions. By night, she is the founder of the Ottawa Design Club, a community initiative with speaker events, panel discussions, workshops, and zines. The club’s mission is to bring creatives together through these initiatives and showcase all the incredible design and art happening in their communities and beyond.