How to Build a Portfolio Website to Showcase your Work

The word portfolio comes from the Italian word portafogli, which is basically a briefcase. So we can imagine that up until very recently, the idea of a portfolio was mainly about collecting your work and being able to show it to say an employer or a gallery owner.

Nowadays many people have portfolios that are just online, but the idea remains the same: a place to collect your work and be able to show it to people.

Something important to note – you might’ve thought that portfolios were only something that artists and designers use, but lately the portfolio format is beginning to replace the CV and possibly eventually resum├ęs will be displayed in this way too. We already see this with the growth of infographic-style resumes that appeal to visual thinking. So if you are in sciences or any project-based discipline, think about how you can make use of portfolio tools to showcase your work.

This post will talk a bit about what you should consider when getting ready to make a portfolio, and will list a few tools that will help you build one.

One thing to note, this doesn’t really address the idea of the ‘design portfolio’, which you can find plenty of discussion around online. The design portfolio is used by designers of different stripes (such as graphic and UX), and often has a sense of “showing off” even in the design of the site itself by being highly customized. This article deals with the general idea of your portfolio and is for people from any discipline.

Getting Your Ducks in a Row

I’m not going to pretend that making a portfolio is a joyous experience. Gathering up all the materials and documentation from your projects can be a pain in the rear, especially if you didn’t document the project well while you were working on it. I have projects where I was ready to post them, and then realized that I didn’t have any solid media. Don’t dwell on how poorly you’ve documented a project, just resolve to do a better job next time.

Be prepared to spend some time looking for images and video, in addition to resizing things in a program like Photoshop as needed. To help get your portfolio ready, consider making a spreadsheet listing your projects that has information such as:

  • Name
  • Year
  • Client/Gallery/Organization
  • Medium (photography, video, sound)
  • Type (performance, installation)
  • Testimonials/PR

It also might help to create a folder structure on your computer with the different project types, and fill them up with the various media.

An example folder structure might be:

  • Photography
    • Project 1
    • Project 2
    • Project 3
  • Sound Art
    • Project 4
    • Project 5
    • Projecy 6
  • Video
    • Project 7
    • Project 8
    • Project 9

Extra Information to Include

Depending on your industry, you might want to consider extra tidbits that can go into each item. For example, if you play music for weddings, you might want to include some testimonials from the bride and groom about how you set the tone for the perfect night. Even if you did something like an art installation, you can get a testimonial from the gallery director about how the viewers received your work.

You might want to consider adding in your work process that got you to the final product. What was your inspiration for the project, and did you make any sketches that got you to the final place? In this way we can see each work as a journey itself, that makes up the larger journey of where you are trying to go with your creative career. This approach is known as the case study, but be careful not to go overboard on this as you might lose the essence of the project along the way.

Building your Portfolio Website

Now that you have all your projects ready, putting it into a website should be much easier task to tackle. There are quite a few options for publishing your portfolio online, so I’ll showcase a few that you can consider based on your budget and what you’re looking to do.

Adobe Portfolio

Adobe’s Portfolio tool is a good choice if you are already a Creative Cloud subscriber. Because you’re already paying for the service, so you might as well start there. There are a lot of strong templates and the back-end interface is easy to navigate.

Format

Format is a great option for many recent graduates. For starters, some schools such as OCAD University in Toronto have purchased site licenses, and if that’s not the case for you, plans start at $6/month. At a price like this they surely know their audience. Similar to Adobe Portfolio, Format has a lot of great templates and has a robust back-end interface to make things easy. When you upgrade to the Pro plan at $12/month you can start to sell products on your site.

One thing to note about both Format and Adobe Portfolio is that they excel for visual artists who are showcasing a lot of photography and illustration. For people doing work that requires more content, such as placing work on a standalone page with more types of media, you might find certain limitations in this regard.

Wix / Weebly / Squarespace

Website creators like Wix, Weebly and Squarespace all have features for making portfolios. I am lumping them into one category here because each of these services is very similar from the perspective of building a portfolio website. Squarespace is known for having the best templates of the bunch, and they also have a student discount which might be helpful.

Additionally, all of these services have options for selling products, which sets them apart from a service like Adobe Portfolio which doesn’t have a shop.

Cargo Collective

Cargo Collective was one of the earlier players in the portfolio space, and certainly appeals to visual artists in the same way that Format does. CC also features more experimental templates which might appeal to art school graduates. You can either pay by the year at $99, or at a rate of $13 per month.

WordPress.org

WordPress.org refers to the type of WP site where you install the system on your own, as opposed to WordPress.com which is their hosted service with premium (paid) options. WordPress.org is likely the best choice for sticklers over details and control freaks. While this option is close to free, you still have to pay for hosting.

There are many themes which cater to people who are using WordPress for their portfolio. As a result, many themes can have dedicated sections to administer your work, as opposed to the default method which would be using the blog post tool, or creating a page and inserting a gallery.

While doing nitty gritty customizations are out of the scope of this article, I will point you in the direction of tools such as Advanced Custom Fields plugin which lets you add in fields such as year or type of work, as well as the Custom Post Type UI plugin if you want to create a dedicated area in your WP site rather than using the default Posts area. I will warn you that many of these tools work fine up until a certain point, and often require premium purchases.

If you’re crazy like me, you will dig into making your own WordPress themes from scratch which would remove the need to use almost any plugin. My personal portfolio that i’m working on is being built in WordPress using tools similar to the ones i’ve listed above, but I wouldn’t recommend this for many people as there are so many great options outside of doing custom work.

Getting it Done

By now you should have an idea of how to get yourself organized, what sorts of tools you can use to make it happen, and extra tidbits to make the portfolio pop. The only thing left for you to do is to make it happen. I suggest setting a timer for 20 minutes in order to get started with your first task, which is gathering up materials. Make an effort to do this a few times a week and you will have this project up and running within a few weeks.

Rather than getting consumed by the administrative nature of this project, try to enjoy the process and reflect on the projects you’ve done in the past. Take some time to remember what it was like to work on great projects, and the different characters you’ve come across along the way.

And the most important part after you’ve finished putting this together: Don’t be afraid to share it with your friends and past colleagues to get feedback and also let them see your work. You never know if it will inspire someone to ask you about helping them with their next project.

Additional Reading

How to Build an Impressive Portfolio Site
The Essential Guide to a Stellar Design Portfolio
The Death of Design Portfolios

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