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Brennan K. Brown
Brennan K. Brown

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Establishing Your Identity

Four concepts you should keep in mind when making your portfolio.

For web developers and other creative professionals, a great portfolio can make the difference between landing the job and getting passed over.

Employers looking to fill a job opening want develop who can solve real-world challenges, be productive and creative team members, and hit the ground running.

1. Understand Your Audience

First and foremost: It’s your prospective employer’s first impression of you. It’s the first thing they’ll look at beyond your intro letter and resume. And they’ll be looking to see if it’s worth their time to talk to you.

Even the most impressive portfolio will fall flat if it doesn’t cater to its audience. Ask yourself what prospective employers need to know to make a hiring decision and do that.

Prospective employers are busy people who are trying to get through the chore of hiring someone, so that they can get on with running their business and serving their customers.

But they do want to see, as quickly and efficiently as possible, how you get results for them, and make them look good in the process.

Sweat the details. Don’t settle for okay when you could do better. Optimize the heck out of it. Make sure the pages and images load quickly. Respect your prospective employer’s time and attention by giving them relevant info and anticipating their questions.

Do this, and you show people that you care not only about how good your work looks, but how good your audience feels.

Remember, employers care more about how much respect you show for their priorities, than how cutting edge technology or sparkly your designs look.

There are four important questions you need to ask yourself when considering your audience:

  • How would you describe your dream job in four sentences?
  • When my ideal employers are trying to engage their audience, what’s the most important factor?
  • What’s the greatest value you can create for your employer?
  • What will make employers choose you over other applicants? How can you communicate that?

2. Convey Your Personality

Employers are, of course, looking for someone who can meet their needs and understand their market, but they also want to know who you are.

The perfect job isn’t just a good outlet for your skill set and your work experience, it’s also a position where you communicate well with your team, so let them see enough of your personality that they can get a sense of whether they’ll be able to connect with you.

Don’t be afraid to show who you really are. People are naturally inclined to authenticity. They can sense it from a mile away, even through a computer screen.

What are your strengths?

  • Visual Thinking: Perhaps you love to doodle during meetings and think visually, so what could you do with your portfolio to let some of that shine through? Hand-drawn graphics convey a lot of personality.
  • Humorous Prose: Perhaps you like to make your teammates laugh. By all means, allow that to infuse your writing.
  • Information Analysis: If you’re a real info junkie, consider highlighting some key facts and figures using an infographic for each portfolio piece.

Here are a few questions to consider as you’re looking for ways to infuse your personality into your portfolio:

  • “What part of my work do I love best?”
  • “What kind of stuff could I do all day and never get bored?”
  • “What do I need to experience in order to feel like a project is a success?”
  • “What do my clients and colleagues thank me for?”

Where do you want to go?:

  • What are your career goals?
  • What’s your dream job?
  • What do you see yourself doing professionally in the near or more distant future?

If your ideal career path doesn’t include a certain kind of work that you have performed in the past, there’s not much benefit including that kind of work in your portfolio because it sends mixed messages to prospective employers about where they might slot you into their team.

Focus as much as you can on the projects you were paid for and be sure to include as much of that real-world experience as possible.

3. Express Design Thinking

Good design solves problems. It’s not just decoration that is making things pretty, especially when we’re talking about commercial web development.

There are specific goals your client wants to reach. Your job is to support them in meeting those goals. Employers aren’t just looking for people with a good eye, they’re looking for people who know how to solve problems.

It’s much easier to train someone on technical skills than it is to to train them on becoming a better listener or problem solver.

Show your work! That is, walk people through the steps of how you arrived at your final design concepts. Employers want to see not just the final result, but how you got there.

When you outline the goals of the project and how you went about achieving them, you show employers that you know how to focus on the client’s priorities, and that your approach can be tailored to each project.

Potential employers can peek into your creative process and answer questions like:

  • How original were your original concepts?
  • What sorts of directions did you consider?

By showing them that you’re capable of coming up with several different concepts or approaches, you say a lot about the depths of your creative resources.

A benefit of the show your work approach is that it shows the inner details of your work process:

  • When do you like to gather feedback?
  • How do you incorporate that input?
  • Are you the kind of designer who sketches a whole bunch of ideas on the back of a napkin before refining your concepts, or do you prefer to go straight to digital?
  • Are you a content-first kind of person, or do you start with a strong visual? What kind of research do you typically do?
  • Do you thrive on collaboration, or are you more of an introvert?

The answers to these questions convey a lot of information to a prospective employer right off the bat.

When you let them see how you work, not just the final polished product, you’re giving them great insight into what it might actually be like to work with you. And you don’t have to limit showing your work to the stuff that made the final cut either.

Paths Not Taken: If there were some initial ideas or concepts that you rejected, you might consider including some of those in your portfolio.

Rejected concepts actually provide a lot of insight, both into your creative mind, and also into your problem-solving process. You can explain what you liked and didn’t like about them, what you thought worked and what didn’t. You can talk about how they were received by your colleagues and clients.

All of this is another way of showing your work because it demonstrates not only that you’re open to trying things that might not succeed, and also that you’re open to learning from those mistakes and collaborating to create something that’s more effective.

Write about any elements of these early designs that you ended up incorporating into later concepts. This is a way to show that you care enough to keep improving and aren’t content just to go with the first good idea that comes into your head.

4. Demonstrate Your Range

Show prospective employers that you’re flexible, creative, and adaptable to different kinds of projects, styles, audiences and brands. The bottom line here for prospective employers is this:

“Convince me that if I do hire you, that you can then handle anything I throw at you.”

They want to know that you’re going to be valuable to them beyond a single project, that you’ll continue to generate creative solutions and fresh visuals time and time again.

Beyond what languages and technologies you’re showcasing your abilities with, range also includes the types of clients you choose to represent in your portfolio so be sure to include projects from a cross section of client types, sizes, and industries whenever possible.

When employers, particularly agencies who are vying for contracts with different types of clients, are looking for developers, they’re going to be most interested in hiring someone who’s comfortable working with a wide range of clients and producing a wide range of deliverables.

At the same time, don’t be shy about paring your portfolio down to the projects either, in order to demonstrate the greatest contrast possible. Select your portfolio project with a critical eye, and make sure they don’t look too similar.

Top comments (1)

rickluevanos profile image
Ricardo Luevanos

This is awesome Brenna! Especially the section on conveying personality. This is what can separate a portfolio from the rest, well done :)