4 Easy Ways to Make Your Portfolio Stand Out

Good work is good. Great user experience is great. But all of that is lost if we’re not truly communicating our work. We have to remember that the people viewing our portfolios aren’t always creative people like us. They’re normal people.

In late January (2018) at Paula Scher’s AIGA talk, she said something that speaks volumes to this. She was explaining a presentation where her partner Michael Bierut had made two little signs that sat in front of the presentation boards they were pitching. One had Times on it and said, “This is a serif. It has the little feet.” The other had Helvetica and said, “This is a sans-serif, without the serifs.”

She said she laughed at her friend for a minute, and then she realized that there’s nothing funny about that. “And in that moment, I suddenly realized everything I’d ever done wrong in my life,” she said with a sigh.

Our clients often have no idea about this stuff, and we have to teach them! “You’re the one that’s not normal! You know about stupid stuff like typefaces.” Since we’re the weird ones, we have to embrace that fully and take the opportunity to share our weirdness with the world. Your clients will seldom care about the differences between serif and sans serif, but they’ll probably want to know if the work they’re seeing took a month or a week.

Here are four easy ways to make your profile stand out and be more compelling.


1. Tell the story. Make your portfolio stand out with an connection.

Pathos. People connect to things emotionally, so we should leverage that. Once you’ve gotten to the real root of the client’s drive, you can leverage that to help them be successful, and you can share it in the portfolio piece. Every project should have a little summary. It should include something tied back to emotions.

Check this one out, for example. You might need to ask their permission to share something as deep as this, but it paints the picture. As you read it, it sucks you right in.

2. Make yourself credible. Explain an issue and how you solved it.

Ethos. Another way to make your portfolio stand out is to make yourself the expert. This sounds like a tough one for new designers because of the “imposter syndrome.” You’re afraid to say you’re an expert because you don’t think you really are. This confidence takes time, but nobody became an expert by doubting themselves.

One easy way to make yourself the expert without listing it on your resume is to share a little bit about the problem the client had and how you solved it. Client + Problem X You + Solution = you’re the expert, and now you’re credible.

You might have to dig through your notes a bit to get good at identifying this and explaining it concisely, but practice makes perfect. Here’s an example that I did for a friend of mine. I addressed two issues in one, both that were tied back to his budget.

3. Use data. Use reason to make your portfolio stand out.

Logos. (No, not like the symbols used to represent companies – not those logos.) Not everyone’s drawn in by emotional stories or credibility, and that’s fine. Muhammad Ali won 56 fights, but only 30 were knockouts. Everybody knows Muhammad Ali’s name, that he was a legendary boxer and equal rights activist, but those that really follow boxing know his record. This is where knowing your clients is important.

Some folks won’t be moved by the stories or the solutions you tell them about. They’ll want cold, hard proof. That’s why important to take screenshots and mark progress. Whether it’s followers on Instagram or conversions on an e-commerce site, you should be tracking some data at the start of the project, so that in a few months when you add it to your portfolio, you can show some measurable growth that you helped with.

I know in my heart that I can never take all the credit because my clients are the ones putting in the work, but I’m ok with giving myself a small pat on the back for my part in it. You should be too. The on-going work that I do for Champions Community Church is a fair example of using data to make your portfolio stand out.

4. Use mockups. People are visual. A rectangle isn’t gonna cut it.

This one’s one of the easiest to do, but it’s also one of the most overlooked. Imagine this: you did a full visual identity campaign as well as designing some advertising pieces. You’ve got 15 completed pieces to add to your portfolio for this project alone. From business cards to billboards, social media ads and flyers.

All those deliverables have 2 things in common. 1. They’re all rectangles. 2. Without some context, the clients have no idea where they’re supposed to live! SO SHOW THEM! This is similar to the serif/sans deal that Beirut did.

I guess we lose touch of the physical aspect sometimes because so much of the work that we do is digital. That’s fine. Be digital. Just find a way to make your digital stuff look more real than a bunch of rectangles!

Find some .PSD mockups, and put your work in them. Then use those mocked up images instead of a bunch of rectangles. This can help them see that the billboard is in-fact a billboard and not a FB cover photo or an image for a slider on a website. We’re visual people, so let’s prove it!

To recap, use emotions, use problems/solutions, use data and use visuals to help make your portfolio stand out.

As creatives, of course we want our work to stand out, but we need it to communicate. What good is standing out if nobody understands why? Make your portfolio stand out by communicating. If you’ve applied something else and had success, share it with me!

Anthony Gorrity
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