Do you really need a portfolio website?

TL;DR: yes. But not just because hiring managers like them.

John Moore Williams
March 13, 2018
Web design

Many influential designers, including the likes of Dann Petty and Jared Spool, have argued that requiring a design portfolio from candidates places an unnecessary burden on hardworking creatives whose time would be better spent on … you know … actual work.

A screencap of Jared Spool tweeting from Nov 2, 2016: If you're trying to hire designers & require a portfolio, you're not gonna get top talent. The best designers don't have them. Too busy.

And as far as making it a requirement goes: I agree. I am, after all, a card-carrying member of team “haven’t updated my portfolio since four jobs ago.”

But I still think every designer needs a portfolio website. Especially if you're a web, UI, or UX designer.

Why? Because your portfolio presents an exciting creative challenge for you — and an invaluable resource for hiring managers considering you for a role.

As someone who looks at designer applicants daily, checking out a portfolio is one of the first things I do. I can get a sense of that person’s experience very quickly based on the project mocks they provide and how they present their information.

–Sergie Magdalin, Chief Design Officer, Webflow

Show, don’t tell

Because, in your portfolio, you can show, not tell, how you think about information architecture and the crafting of an experience.

You can show, not tell, that you've thought long and hard about how to sell your work — and yourself.

But most importantly, you're showing that you can practically apply your design chops to real-world work. Your portfolio site can demonstrate that you don’t just unthinkingly apply standard design patterns — or the templates that tend to calcify such patterns — but can thoughtfully combine design and content so that each reinforces and extends the other.

A Dribbble profile can't do that. Nor can a Behance page. A WordPress theme or Cargo Collective template … can? Ish.

For many hiring managers, such a thing might suffice:

The designer just needs some way of showing previous works without me asking for it. There are so many designers out there, if I can’t find their “portfolio” publicly I can’t reach out to them for work.

–Mat Vogels, founder, Zestful

But to truly and effectively sell you, your work, and your skills — you’re going to need something custom. Something more than just another grid packed full of lickable pixels and a full-screen photo of your sweetly smiling face.

You need something you built, from the ground up. Something you took from blank canvas to live code by hand. Something that screams you from every single pixel, hue, and syllable.

Something that shows that you, you know, get the web.

But it’s not just about the design. It’s about the content.

The thing that trips up a lot of designers when they talk about creating and updating their portfolio, I think, is the relentless focus on the design of their portfolio.

Which is totally understable! It’s vital that you have a portfolio that’s beautifully designed to present your personal aesthetic. Create it to do that, and update it as your aesthetic evolves.

But creating and updating your portfolio should really be about its content. Adding your latest design project. Updating its post-launch stats to put some proof in that pudding. Finally publishing that blog post about your illustration style you’ve been “working on” (read: procrastinating about) for months.

Not moving that box one pixel left, then one pixel right, over and over again.

Because, yes, design is powerful. But it’s slow.

Content, on the other hand, is powerful and relatively fast.

Having control over the nuances of a site that tells your story as a designer is crucial.

–Jonathan Patterson, freelance designer

You can share each and every content update, no matter what it is. And each of those updates can drive more people to your site. And encourage them to share with their friends and coworkers. And if that content is created to answer questions people actually put to Google, you could have anything from a trickle to a flood of folks coming to your site — without you lifting a finger to bring them there.  

You need that portfolio if only to act as your place to share your content. The central hub for all your sharing and personal branding efforts. The space where you have the flexibility to say and design whatever it is you want and/or need. And to design that experience to “convert” visitors, whatever conversion means to you.

A kind of archive of you, if you will. Because no one social network or publishing platform can hold it all. Nor adapt so thoroughly and quickly to your needs.

After all, you do believe that there’s a “right” design to achieve any given goal, right?

Your portfolio is a space for you

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.

― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

In an internet increasingly dominated by massive platforms with sufficient influence to directly, if unintentionally, sway the fates of nations, there’s something precious in having a place of one’s own.  

[Your portfolio] is the only place on the internet where you have full control over the medium AND the message

–Jason Marder, product designer, Gusto

As Woolf suggests in her famous essay, creators of all types need a space that they own, a space that’s private, if they are to create new worlds for others to immerse themselves in. Using Dribbble or Behance or whatever as your portfolio platform is like writing your screenplay in the local cafe — you’re performing your creativity more than enacting it.

You’re just another face in the crowd, leveraging a cliche to achieve a recognizable identity. Just another “unique brand.”  

A grid of website templates with different photo backgrounds. Each one has text overlay that reads "We are a unique brand."

We’ve got enough cookie cutters. Enough “platforms.”

What we need is more sites built from the ground up to showcase their content, not fit anything you might pour into it.

So what are you waiting for? Start building today — for free. Need some portfolio inspiration? We've got that covered, too.

Oh — and for you design students out there …

Current design students can get 50% off their portfolio site hosting for an entire year — just sign up with your school email address!

John Moore Williams

Head of Content Strategy at Webflow. Nice to meet ya. Follow me @JohnAMWill.

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