Ask a Designer #10: How Do I Create a Portfolio Without Any Real Client Work?

Published

February 1, 2021

Author

Nika Simovich Fisher

Illustrator

Graphic designer, educator, and writer Nika Simovich Fisher (@labud.nyc) is our resident advice columnist for our Ask a Designer series, where we aim to get real, get deep, and get practical with your most burning questions about life and career in the creative industries. Today, Nika advises a self-taught designer on how to create a standout portfolio without any paid work.

Dear Nika,

As a self-taught graphic designer with no paid jobs or briefs, how do I go about creating a portfolio? What do I need to include, and what skills and software are necessary to learn?

Signed,

DIY

Hi DIY,

Thanks for reaching out and asking such a relevant question. While the AIGA 2019 Design Census highlights bachelor’s degrees as the most common educational background at 32%, the survey expanded the options for this question to better reflect the changing nature of the design industry. According to the survey, 17% reported online learning as their background while 12% were “born this way”.

Coming from a self-taught design background can be both an opportunity and an advantage because you bring a new perspective to the field. Additionally, design is always about something beyond design, so coming from a different academic study or the school of life makes you an expert in things recent design graduates are not. Being self-taught also shows that you’re a self-starter and passionate about design, which is also important. Though these are some of the advantages, I can understand why getting started with a non-traditional background might be overwhelming, and I have a few ideas for how you could use your background to an advantage. You’ve asked a three-part question so I will answer each one.

How do you create a portfolio?

There are several valid options for creating a portfolio site, each with its pros and cons.

Create your own website

The first option is to code your own website. This is my top choice because it provides an opportunity to fully design how you’d like your website to look and continue learning how to program something. This sense of ownership and authorship seeps into the design of the site and can make it feel special – a thoughtfully crafted window into your practice. Creating a website from scratch is often a bit slower, which can encourage you to think through the content and parameters over how your work should be experienced. I’m a strong believer that this way of working helps you develop a better relationship with the technology and also makes you a better designer because you learn how to create a system for your work and how to program it.

A little goes a long way for custom websites – you don’t need to rely on fancy effects to tell a story.

A strong typographic treatment and carefully selected content goes far! Additionally, static websites using native HTML and CSS are lightweight and have a smaller carbon footprint.

The cons of creating your own website are that you are limited by what you’re able to technically execute. Personally I think of this as a motivator to keep learning, but realistically it does take a little time and practice to have your own website up and running, working the way you intended. It can also be a little slower to update and will require you to edit the HTML any time you want to change things.

To create your own website from scratch, you would first design it and then program it using HTML and CSS. I use Sublime Text but any text-editor will work, including the SuperHi Editor. Once you have it working how you like locally, you upload it to a server such as GitHub. GitHub offers GitHub Pages which is a great free resource with plenty of documentation that allows you to publish your work quickly and even add a custom domain. Alternatively, you could host your website on a more traditional server, such as DreamHost, where you would upload your files via FTP.

Use a website builder

Another valid option for creating your portfolio is to use a website builder. Website builders are tools that use a content management system and templates to create a website for you. This is a great option if you’re not savvy with HTML and CSS. Website builders include websites like Cargo, Squarespace and Format. Each of these websites is distinct but they all include templates that can help you get something up and running quickly. Some of the templates can be customized either through their interface or by adding in custom HTML and CSS.

While these website builders are quick and accessible, there are a few drawbacks to using them. Because these tools are built on existing templates, you’re working within someone else’s system and it can be hard to override this. Some of the tools allow for more control over the templates, while others are more fixed. Additionally, because these tools are so widespread, you might run into another designer’s website that has the same structure and look as yours. This is not necessarily a problem as your work itself will look different and there are unifying factors between all portfolios, however, I tend to think a website is an opportunity to visually express yourself and it could be slightly more challenging to do that within an existing template.

Build a custom theme on an existing CMS

For designers who are more familiar with programming, you could design a custom website and host it on Kirby, a file-based content management system, or on WordPress. Kirby is a flexible option that you can fully customize and Wordpress can be used the same way with custom themes. Both of these options provide the benefit of using a content management system for your projects, while allowing for full customization on the frontend. The downside is that it’s a slightly steeper learning curve for individuals who are just getting started.

What do you include in a first portfolio?

Once you understand how to create a portfolio, the next question on what to include is bound to come up. This will be different for everyone, and it’s especially connected to what type of design you’d like to be doing. When you first get started, you might have a limited selection of projects to choose from. In this situation, you should highlight what you do have to the best of your abilities but continue to edit the selection to be more focused as you develop more work. Sometimes editing means only highlighting types of work but I see it more as highlighting a visual approach or process, which can curtail several types of design. Until you get to this point, you can develop a style on your portfolio and think about developing a consistent visual treatment for the projects you have.

Even if your work is not professional, it’s still design and it’s still representative of your process and visual language.

Using the work that you currently have, consider how you can present it in a way that communicates the best parts of it quickly.

Sometimes this means creating a new asset that abstracts details of the project, for example, the typography, or an illustrative motif. For projects that require more explanation, develop case studies that highlight the different types of assets you created as well as a little about your process.

If you don’t have any work, it’s important to start developing it. Develop projects for yourself – they don’t need to be “professional” but they do need to highlight your process and visual perspective. A couple strong projects can take you far and as soon as you start getting design work it’s easier to build out your portfolio.

Lastly, if you don’t have a lot of work, I’d also suggest adding details to the site that feel memorable and specific to your interests. This doesn’t necessarily mean adding complex autobiographical content but showing a little about yourself and your outside interests can be helpful. Your resume and social media websites can also be additional tools that highlight what you’re interested in and take your portfolio outside of the context of your site.

What skills/software are necessary to learn?

Skills and software are pretty different from one another because software comes and goes, while skills are indicative of a thoughtful process.

Which software to learn depends on what facet of design you’d like to move into. The industry standard is the Adobe Suite (InDesign, After Effects, Photoshop, Illustrator) for most types of print or motion work, while Figma and Sketch are favorites for digital design.

Understanding how to edit your content and communicate a clear idea is a skill that takes time to develop but will outlast the shelf life of any program.

By starting your journey in design and developing a portfolio that highlights this, you’re on your way to understanding this skillset. On that note, design can be an iterative process where you learn by trial and error.

Best of luck!

Nika

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About the author

Nika Simovich Fisher is a multi-disciplinary graphic designer, educator, and writer based in New York. She is currently a partner at Labud, a design and development studio she founded in 2018 and teaching at Parsons School of Design and the University of Pennsylvania.

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