Portfolios 101: what you need to know to get started

Jan 30, 2015

You’ve seen plenty from us about resumes and cover letters and the importance of each. Now we’re going to tackle the big bad unknown of most freelancers’ toolkits—the portfolio.

Everyone’s portfolio will look different and have different needs according to the specialties of the field you’re in. Having trouble getting started? Here’s our Portfolio intro course, 101.

Why do I need a portfolio? Isn’t my resume enough?

Freelancers generally aren’t people looking for a task to perform. Rather, freelancers are specialized professionals offering a service to clients. Without a portfolio, how will potential clients know what you’re capable of?

A portfolio is the best way to show off your previous work in its truest form, rather than relying on a written description or promises you’ve got no evidence to back up. And a well-curated portfolio can be the difference between landing a gig and losing one!

Okay, what should I put in it?

The easy answer is, your best work! But let’s break that down.

A portfolio shouldn’t only consist of your favorite projects or the ones that were most suited to your personal style. As with stocks and funds, a good work portfolio is a diverse portfolio!

Don’t just think of your portfolio as a series of images or clips that you can rearrange however you like. Instead, think of each project as a case study. When you’re considering a project for inclusion, ask yourself these questions:

Does this project showcase my strengths as a (journalist, copywriter, UX designer, etc…)?

Does this project demonstrate my ability to solve a client’s problem? What was that problem and can I speak to it?

Am I proud of this project—or is it good work, even if I don’t like it?

Does this project diversify my portfolio?

Depending on your industry, you may want more or less pieces in your portfolio. 5-7 projects or 10-15 clips is about right. Of course, there’s no harm in including lots of previous work—just make sure that your portfolio is set up to be easily navigable.

What do you mean, easily navigable?

There’s nothing more frustrating—or disappointing—than a portfolio that doesn’t showcase a freelancer’s projects and abilities to their full potential. Ever click over to someone’s website, only to realize you have no idea where to find anything? Conversely, have you ever visited a website that was so full of information you had no idea how to begin or how to make a decision?

Don’t let that happen when future clients look at your portfolio!

The first thing potential clients need to see when they look at your portfolio is some idea of your work. It might be an image or segment of your strongest project, your branded logo, or some kind of summary of who you are and what you do. They should immediately have an idea of your style, skills, and the scope of the projects you take on.

So set up your portfolio to show off your skills. You might want to sort your work and clips by category, especially if you take on lots of different projects. Start and close with your strongest projects—this is especially important if your layout is navigated in a forced order, like a slideshow or a vertical scroll. Make sure that all the information is clearly presented, and that navigation is simple. And don’t forget to include a contact page so that people can get ahold of you!

Where should I host my portfolio?

Depending on your field and the kind of work you do, there are lots of different portfolio sites to choose from. Here are a few good choices:

Squarespace is a great option for a website of any kind. It comes with several templates and a built-in optimized mobile design. It’s $8/month for the basic plan, but Freelancers Union members get a 10% discount!

Contently is a nice free option for writers. It displays your published clips in a sleek default layout and highlights your top-level social stats. You can also apply to be a candidate in Contently’s freelance marketplace, which is free to join but takes a 15% cut of whatever projects you land. And Clippings.me is another, slightly more sophisticated portfolio site that allows for more customization.

For more great portfolio sites for writers, check out our post on it here.

Carbonmade is a simple, clean portfolio site for visual artists, especially illustrators. Portfoliobox is another good option. And Behance offers a professional tier alongside its default free portfolios.

For those who’d like more customizability, check out a platform like Wix or the aforementioned Squarespace. For more portfolio sites for visual artists and designers, check out our post here.

How can I grow my portfolio?

Sometimes, no matter how great your portfolio is, you’re still not getting the clients you want. As you grow and change career tracks and add new projects, you’ll want to update your portfolio to reflect your most recent work.

It’s important to keep a diverse and fresh portfolio, because the kind of work you show is the kind of work you’ll attract. If you’ve been a graphic designer but want to segue into UX design, for example, focus on the mockups for a project and different interaction questions you solved, rather than on graphics and layout. Or if you’re a blog writer trying to get into magazine writing, highlight your longform pieces instead of your shorter, fun stuff.

Show the kind of work that you want to do, not just the work that you have done. If that means doing a passion project or two to boost your portfolio, by all means do so! Personal work is also a great way to gain experience doing a particular kind of project before you pitch it to a client.

Okay, I got it down! What else should I know about portfolios?

Having a custom domain name is a really great way to increase name recognition, boost your credibility, and up your SEO. Instead of “yourname.site.com,” you can just have “yourname.com”—way more professional, right? Even if you’re not a coding whiz, it’s a snap to connect a custom domain to any of the sites mentioned above.

Whether you like it or not, your portfolio is an extension of you—and it’s a bigger part of your brand than, say, a resume. So the best way to maximize your use of your portfolio is to use it as a personal branding tool. Update it frequently, add your new work, remove outdated things, and keep it fresh. And if you ever need a second pair of eyes (or a third, or fourth, or fifth!) check out our Hive: Post your portfolio, website, or resume for critique!

Freelancers, got any other tips about building and branding your portfolio? Let us know in the comments!