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Opinion and Insight

It’s Not About You: Rethinking the Creative Portfolio Website

Iris WorldWide, 2 years, 6 months ago

Iris Worldwide’s Joseph Szala on why creatives and designers need to take their own advice about brand building

It’s Not About You: Rethinking the Creative Portfolio Website

You know that friend in Crossfit who tells everyone he’s in Crossfit all the time? It seems that’s what the designer’s portfolio has become. It seems we designers have defaulted to the “Hello, my name is _______ and I make _______.” followed by highlights from our portfolio with a contact form and some social links at the bottom website strategy. It has become so common that you can find hundreds of nearly identical themes available for most popular Content Management Systems. As I was embarking on redesigning my own website the question hit me: is this really the most effective way of marketing ourselves, or are we simply parroting a poor strategy?

When it comes to promoting ourselves we tend to do the opposite of what we’d advise our clients. We tell our clients to put their customers first. We make them answer the question, “What’s in it for the customer?” Yet, here we stand not taking our own advice. Taking our client-facing approach with our own websites would see us towards a much different direction. That direction would be more effective at engaging with our current clients, potential clients and potential partners giving us much better opportunities for building our business freelance or otherwise.

I put myself through the very same process I use for my clients and came out with five ways to get your head straight so you can create a more successful creative portfolio website experience.

Establish your REAL audience. The fact is that a lot of traffic to a creative or agency website comes from other creatives. That’s not to imply said creatives don’t offer opportunities to hire you for work. Instead, it’s a reason to define whom you really want to be speaking to with regard to the content you create. For instance, if you’re a designer looking for freelance work, the way you write and the content you show should be focused on the types of agencies and firms by which you’d like to be hired. If you’re running a small studio, the way you talk about content should shift more towards how your services and work helps a client. Those are two very different stories to tell. I suggest crafting a persona for the audience you want the most, then use that persona to direct the content, tone and design.

Tell a relevant story. Right now most creatives put the focus on pictures of their work. It makes sense since we spend so much time crafting our final product. The problem isn’t with the images as much as it’s with the images being the beginning and the end of the story. The work that went into that end result is usually expansive and detailed, so only showing the final work doesn’t tell that story. Furthermore, the project description is rarely over a few paragraphs on average. Remember, this website is meant to attract more work from current or new clients. Therefore the way you describe and showcase your work will set a precedent in their minds. A few photos of the final product with a short description devalues the strategy, thought and skill it took to create it. Each project you showcase is an opportunity to tell a story that is relevant to the audience. Doing this will entice the viewer, set an expectation, and position you as not just a maker of pretty pictures, but a solver of problems. The good folks at Push do an excellent job of telling a deeper, detailed story in each of their case studies.

Think beyond the portfolio. If you look at common Google Analytics reports on a creative website, the portfolio section gets the most traffic more often than not. That would imply this is the most important part of the site. Although our work may seem most important, it isn’t the only content viewed by site visitors. Everything matters when it comes to creating a brand, so it only makes sense to put more focus on the pages that seem superfluous. Your “about,” “services,” and “contact” pages are all opportunities to inject your tone of voice, and more relevant content. These pages should be written with your audience’s wants and needs in mind. Do not just throw up a form and a quick paragraph about how you design things. The reader should get an idea of who you are and what kind of personality you bring to the table. Mucca, a studio out of NYC, presents their approach and team member profiles in a fresh, engaging way.  

Offer something valuable. Remember, it’s not about you. Even on your own website. If you put the focus on your audience, you’ll get a lot more traction. Therefore, I say offer something valuable for them. This thinking led me to write a book on restaurant branding for the startup restaurant owner. That small book created a huge amount of opportunities for new clients while further establishing me as an expert in the restaurant branding and marketing world. A book may not be in the cards for most creatives, but that shouldn’t stunt the thinking. What could your key audience receive from you that would further establish you as a potential candidate for a project? What would benefit them? If you can answer those questions with a unique, stellar solution, then you can successfully start separating yourself from the many other creatives out there.

Optimize for search. Learning, or at least understanding, the basic of Search Engine Optimization is an invaluable move for any creative. Without natural, or “organic,” search placement you leave your site at the whims of your personal brand awareness. That means that potential employers or clients will only find you if they know you. Your site has the potential to come up in search results much better if you plan your content accordingly. Learn the basics of how to optimize your site and you’ll never regret it. Just for some motivation, my studio website and blog hold some of the top positions in search for the term “restaurant branding.” That’s by design, not by chance. 

In general, we seem to have a chronic case of the Cobbler’s Shoes conundrum. Because we’re so involved with our work, it’s often difficult to get our heads focused on how we present our brands. I’ve seen so many brilliant creative portfolio websites, but it’s rare that I come across one that impresses me with their content strategy. The work is commonly excellent, but the content usually lacks severely. Let’s hope this article sparks a change.


Joseph Szala is a senior creative in the Atlanta office of Iris Worldwide and author of "Fire It Up: Building Restaurant Brands That Blaze."