Improving Portfolio Effectiveness

There’s a malady that’s common in many web design portfolios. They are filled with images of the finished design artifacts, but they don’t elaborate on whether or not they actually solved their client’s problem.

In many cases, they don’t even address the reasons why each client was prompted to seek out professional web design in the first place.

Because this practice is so prevalent, designers and prospective clients alike are unaware this is a concern. But I believe it is a symptom of greater issues in the design sales process.

The Problem With Most Portfolios

How many times have you looked at a design portfolio and seen nothing more than a screenshot and a link to the website?

Probably more times than you can count.

Did you ever wonder what the design was supposed to accomplish (besides impress other designers)? I know I sure have.

Maybe it’s a case of copying what we see others doing, but this method of highlighting our work as designers seems like it could be improved on.

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Reframing The Context

Part of the issue could lie in how we perceive our roles. Generally, designers and developers are hired to create something functional that looks good. Many of us see this as the entirety of our jobs. These things are only a subset of what we are actually hired for..

Anyone involved in the design field is hired to be a problem-solver. This requires us to figure out what the problem is, find out why the client feels the weight of hiring a designer now and not later, and collaboratively finding a solution to the client problems at hand.

Hopefully, this design process exists behind all of the finished works in all the portfolios out there.

But it’s hard to tell if it’s not documented in those portfolio pieces.

Case Studies vs. Portfolio Pieces

At the minimum, a good case study outlines the problems you were hired to solve for a client, the process involved in defining and solving that problem, and the reasoning behind design decisions. (How did your design help support the business goals of the client?)

Case studies differ from simply displaying mockups of a website by focusing on the why and to a lesser degree the how. Stand-alone screenshots only focus on the what.

Ideally, a case study will walk you through the process of diagnosing and solving a problem. Case studies mitigate client risk, by showing them what your design process looks like — it isn’t a mystery how you come up with design solutions.

In the end, that’s what clients are buying from a design shop. The process.

Not their Photoshop skills or their coding skills. But their methodology for solving problems, and making sure client investments work towards improving their revenue, creating more awareness, or saving more time.

These are real-world problems that need solving. Can your portfolio offer proof that you have a system for uncovering and solving problems? Or is it simply a showcase for impressing other designers?

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Portfolios Reflect Our Process

The way I see it, anyone who contributes towards the creation of a website or digital property is part of the design process. Graphics are design. Performance and functionality is design. Words are design. Tone, voice, and interactions are all design, too.

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Let’s remember that clients aren’t buying the artifacts of our design process, they are buying the process itself.

People come to us with the hope and belief that we can help solve their business problems. To me, that’s worth documenting.


Bonus Section: Examples of Great Case Studies

Some of these case studies took as much work to create as some websites, so no one will judge you harshly if you fall short of these.

These examples give us all a high bar to aim towards when it comes to showcasing our work, and the impact it has.