A Comprehensive Guide to Effective Portfolio Websites

The web/graphic design industry is highly competitive. With so many designers out there competing for clients it can be difficult for freelancers and independent designers to find enough work to stay busy and to pay the bills. The level of design ability and experience doesn’t always correspond with the amount of success in running a freelance business in the industry. There are plenty of talented designers that struggle to find enough clients. Likewise, there are plenty of freelancers with lesser design skills that are more effective at running their business.

One of the keys to success for most freelancers is their portfolio website. Most potential clients will visit the website of a designer before hiring him or her, and often times the portfolio site is actually how the client finds the designer in the first place. Essentially, the online portfolio acts as a salesperson for the freelancer. An effective portfolio site can be invaluable to a freelancer, so it’s important enough to warrant plenty of time and attention for designers who are looking to be able to land more clients.

In this article we’ll take an in-depth look into the topic of portfolio websites. We’ll start by looking at keys to effective portfolio sites. Then we’ll move on to look at the options for creating your own portfolio site. And we’ll finish by providing some tips for getting more exposure to your portfolio site. If you’re interested in getting more out of your own existing portfolio site, or if you’re planning to create your first one, the details covered in this article should be able to help.

Keys to Effective Portfolio Websites

Simply having a portfolio site where you show off your work is not enough. In fact, even having a great-looking portfolio site isn’t enough. In order for the site to be effective it must bring in new business. Simply looking good is nice, but looks alone will not produce any revenue. So with that in mind, let’s start our journey into the topic of portfolio sites by first discussing what will actually determine the success and effectiveness of the site.

Clear Purpose

Not every portfolio site will serve the same purpose. Some freelancers use their portfolio as a way to get attention for design agencies with hopes of landing full-time employment. This can be a very effective approach for finding a job because a well-designed portfolio site is a great advertisement for your skills. Other designers, however, will use the portfolio site to land new clients. Most portfolio sites would fall into this category, and we’ll be approaching this article to provide information for designers that fall into this category.

It’s important that you consider your purpose before creating your own portfolio site, because it should be a driving factor in decisions that are made throughout the design process. If your purpose is to use the site to land more clients you want to be focused on creating a site that will do just that.


Shows Only Your Best Work

Your portfolio site doesn’t need to include work samples from every project that you have ever designed. In fact, it should only showcase your best work. If it is early in your career you may have a smaller number of items to showcase, but that is ok. As your skills develop and improve the quality of your work has also improved, so those projects from a few years ago may not be the most accurate representation of your current skills.


You also may want to leave out projects that show design trends that look outdated. You may have had a client a few years ago that wanted a particular style that was trendy at the time, but now it looks dated. If that is the case, avoid showcasing this item in your portfolio.

If you’re coming across the problem of not having enough work to showcase in your portfolio, which is a common issue for new designers, there are a few options. First, consider showing more details from each project. For example, if you are a web designer, instead of simply including a screenshot of the homepage from your best web design project, include multiple images. Use a close up to show a section of the design in full size. Show other pages from the site in addition to the homepage. If you also did a custom logo, icons, or other custom graphics for the site, showcase these in detail as well. By showing more detail and a broader view you can showcase only a few projects and it will still give the visitor a good idea of your quality of work.

Another option if you’re struggling with not having enough work samples would be to do some design work for fictitious businesses. You can demonstrate your skills by designing something that isn’t intended to actually be used in the real world. I would recommend mentioning in your portfolio that it was just a personal project and not for a real client, and I wouldn’t recommend taking this approach at all unless you don’t have other ways to get items for your portfolio.

An alternative to creating something for a fictitious business would be to offer your services at a discount or for free to an actual client for the purpose of having something from the real world that you can use in your portfolio. And one last option would be to design a template or theme that you can sell. This way you would be getting something that you can add to your portfolio, but you could still make some money from it by selling it at a marketplace like ThemeForest or Mojo Themes.

Includes a Call to Action

If you want your portfolio site to be effective at helping you to land new clients you’ll need to lead visitors to take action. Usually this will involve encouraging visitors to contact you through a form on the site. Some designers and agencies entice visitors by offering a free quote or estimate. The visitor then enters some information about their project into the form, which is a great lead generating system for the designer.

Make sure that when you are designing your site you consider how you will include the call to action. Some designers use a button with a call to action that links to their contact page or to a page with a free quote request form. Other designers will include a small form right on the homepage somewhere. And other designers will come up with a creative way to lead visitors to the action that they want.


Easy to Navigate

Usability is important for any website. If you want visitors to be able to check out your work sample, find information on your services, view testimonials and case studies, and fill out a form to contact you, they need to be able to easily navigate the website. Many designers want to create a portfolio design that is truly one-of-a-kind, something that will really stand out to visitors. Unfortunately, sometimes this leads to navigation that is difficult to use. You certainly don’t have to avoid creative designs for your portfolio site, but make sure that you are not sacrificing usability in the process.

Is Seen by Your Target Audience

A portfolio site can look great, include all the relevant information, and have a really effective call to action, but if the right people aren’t seeing the website it really won’t matter. The ideal visitor for your portfolio site will be someone who is looking for the type of services that you offer. Most designers love to browse portfolio sites for ideas and just to see what other designers are doing. There’s nothing wrong with have other designers as visitors to your portfolio, but ultimately you’ll need to get the right visitors as well if your site is going to be effective at helping you to land new business. Later on in this article we’ll go into more details about some specific things you can do to get more exposure for your site.

Includes Testimonials or Case Studies

Testimonials from past clients can be very effective at encouraging visitors to consider hiring you for their own project. Gathering testimonials from your clients is a good habit, even if you don’t use them all on your website. Every time you end a project with a happy customer be proactive and ask if they would be willing to provide a testimonial for you. Keep them all somewhere handy, and when you’re working on your portfolio site you’ll always have some testimonials available. If you haven’t made an effort in the past to keep track of testimonials, take some time to go back and contact a few of your past clients to ask for a testimonial. When you’re displaying on your portfolio site in can be especially helpful if you can include a photo of the client along with their testimonial. The photos help to make the testimonials feel a little more real and personal to most visitors.

In addition to testimonials, another option is to include more detailed case studies. Instead of just showing the visual design work that you did for a client, a case study will provide some context and details of the project. It may include information about the client and the challenges that they were facing with the project. The case study will show how you approached the project, your solution for the client’s challenges, and the end result. The most effective case studies can show how your work directly impacted the clients. Ideally this will be something measurable like a percentage of revenue growth or traffic growth through the redesign of their website.


Shows Your Unique Skills and Abilities

One of the problems with portfolio websites is that there are just so many of them. There are countless designers out there, and in order to get a potential client to contact you about their project you will need to stand out from the crowd in one way or another. The most effective way to do this is to communicate the skills, abilities, and experience that make you a great choice. Simply offering the services in need isn’t enough. There has to be some reason that the visitor should contact you instead of just moving on to the next portfolio.


There are countless different ways that you can go about accomplishing this. The case study approached mentioned above is a great option. If your work has had real, measurable impact on your clients that is a great selling point. If a potential client feels that your work will have a positive impact on their bottom line you’ll have a much better chance at landing the project.

Options for Creating a Portfolio Website

Now that we’ve covered the keys to having an effective portfolio website we’ll move on to talk about the different options for creating your own portfolio site.

Custom Design

If you offer web design and development services, chances are you will probably design your own website. It just makes sense that a web designer would design his or her own portfolio. However, not all designers do web design. So if you mostly design logos or for print you may need to hire someone if you want a custom design.

Custom designs are preferred for a few reasons. One of the most important is that your portfolio site will need to represent you, and many portfolios showcase the creativity of the designer through the design of the portfolio site itself.

The downside of custom designs is that they take time and/or money. A lot of designers wind up neglecting their own site because they get busy with client work and don’t have time to work on their own site. But if you’re looking to get more business out of your portfolio site you may have some down time in your schedule until you’re able to build up that client work.

Customized WordPress Theme or Template

Another option that many designers choose is to use a template or a WordPress theme as a starting point for their portfolio site. If you’re using a template it’s possible to customize it to give it your own touch so that it has a unique look. Starting with a template can drastically reduce the amount of time that you spend on the site when compared to the time requirements for a custom design. And for designers that don’t offer web design services or that do not do their own coding, templates may be necessary.

There are a lot of good options out there, especially when it comes to WordPress themes. If you’re looking for quality portfolio themes the first place I would recommend is ThemeTrust. They have a number of different themes available for portfolio sites, and they all look great. They typically use an elegant minimalist style that works great for portfolio sites. This style is also a good choice if you plan to customize the theme because it serves as a nice starting point.

Here are previews of a few of the themes from ThemeTrust:







Another quality option is the Genesis framework from StudioPress. It’s general in nature and not geared towards portfolio sites, but it is an excellent framework that will give you a solid foundation that you can build on. Many designers use Genesis as a framework for all of the client sites that they design. There will be a bit of a learning curve if you haven’t used Genesis before, but once you get some experience with it, Genesis can prove to be a very valuable resource in your own work. One of the great things about Genesis is that the license allows for unlimited use, so with a single purchase you could use Genesis for your portfolio site as well as for an unlimited number of client projects.

ThemeForest is a popular marketplace where you can find hundreds of different portfolio themes. As a word of caution, the quality of coding and customer service that you will get from a purchase at ThemeForest can vary drastically from one seller to another. Be sure to do some research before making a purchase. You can read comments left by other users to see how responsive the seller is to customers.

One of the reasons that a lot of designers are choosing to use a template, or at least to start with a template and customize it, is that you can buy a high-quality template for less than $ 100, and in many cases less than $ 50. When compared to the amount of time that you would need to spend on a custom design of your own, a template can make a lot of sense financially.

Hosted Options

Aside from a custom design or a template, another option is to go with one of the many different options that offer a hosted portfolio. Each of these options is a little bit different in terms of the specific features, but typically you will pay a monthly or yearly fee that will include web hosting and you’ll either be able to choose one of their templates or they’ll provide some system for designing your own site. Here are a few of the leading options.

Behance ProSite

ProSite from Behance costs $ 11 per month or $ 99 per year. They’ll host your site for you and you can use their drag-and-drop editor to create the design of your site. Or, if you prefer you can code the HTML and CSS for the site.



Dunked is a new option that just launched within the past few months. You can create a site with limited features for free, and paid plans start at $ 49 per year. With Dunked you won’t create your own design, but you will be able to use one of the professionally-designed templates that they offer.



Virb will host your site for $ 10 per month. You’ll be able to choose from their selection of professionally designed templates, and you can customize some elements of the template to suit your own needs.


Getting Exposure for Your Portfolio Website

After you’ve got your portfolio designed and online the next step is to actually get it in front of people. This can be the most difficult part of the process, so we’ll cover a lot of details in this section with tips and suggestions for getting your portfolio site noticed.

Create a Quality, Unique Design

If you have a portfolio site that looks great you can get a lot of traffic and links as a result. There are countless web design gallery sites out there (examples: CSS Mania, Best Web Gallery, SiteInspire, CssDsgn) that exist for the purpose of showcasing great web design. You can submit your site for consideration and if it gets approved you can get instant exposure and links. The traffic that you get directly from these galleries will mostly be other designers who are browsing the galleries for inspiration. Despite the fact that these visitors don’t fall into your target audience this can still be a helpful thing because it can be a way to get valuable links to your site that will eventually help for search engine optimization. Also, many of the sites that get showcased in these gallery sites will also be showcased on various design blogs as a result, leading to even more links and traffic.

In order to get links and traffic from gallery sites and design blogs you’ll need to create a design that is very high quality. So take your time and don’t rush the design. When it comes to submitting your site it can be a time consuming process to find the various galleries and to fill out the submission forms. If you don’t mind spending a few dollars to save many hours of your own time you can pay for a service like GalleryRush or the CSS Gallery List.

Daniel Filler

Include a Blog

One of the best ways to get traffic to your site is to include a blog. If you’re using WordPress as your CMS the blogging functionality will already be included, so it doesn’t need to require a lot of work to get it set up. Blogs are great for building traffic from search engines and also from social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Pinterest.

If your approach with the blog is to use it to attract clients you should consider the types of keywords and phrases that your target clients will be using for searches. Then you’ll want to write blog posts on these topics and include the keywords and phrases in your page titles. For example, if you offer blog theme design services you could write blog posts with titles like “how to start a blog”, “how to build a blog”, and “how to find a blog designer”. Since this is a very popular and broad topic there will be a lot of competition for the top search rankings for these phrases. You may want to consider blog posts that target specific industries or niches. Blog posts like “how to start an online jewelry shop”, “characteristics of good church websites”, and “examples of good travel websites” may not reach as large of an audience, but you may be able to achieve higher search rankings while attracting some very targeted visitors. Of course, somewhere on these pages you’ll want to include a call to action for the visitor to contact you.

Blogs are also great for building traffic because they tend to attract links. If you make an effort to publish content on a regular basis to your blog you should be able to attract a decent number of links over a period of time. You can include social sharing icons and buttons on your posts that make it easy for readers to share the link through their social profiles. The are also several design-oriented social networking sites where you can submit your links. Some of the best of these sites include The Web Blend, Design Bump, Design Float, and Design Newz.

Each blog post that you publish will have the ability to attract new search engine visitors. Most of the visitors that reach your website will not enter directly through the homepage. If you have an active blog on the site most visitors will arrive to a specific post, either through a search or a link from another site. While not every post that you publish will be a big hit that brings floods of traffic to your site, with some consistent effort you can certainly build up a blog that attracts more visitors than your portfolio site could without the help of a blog.

Write for Other Blogs

In addition to publishing blog posts at your portfolio site, you can also get some exposure and links by writing posts for other blogs. Many blogs accept guest post submissions in exchange for an author bio that can include a link to your own site or blog. This is a good way to gain exposure in the industry and to start to build some links to your site. The links can lead to some click-through traffic to your own site, and they can also help for SEO if the links are coming from blogs that have some authority.

You can find plenty of blogs to write at simply by visiting a directory site like Alltop or by doing a search for design blogs. Many blogs will have a link in the footer or sidebar that says “write for us”, “contribute”, or something similar. Always look for these pages first before filling out a contact form as they may give you all of the information that you need to submit your blog post.

By writing for other design blogs your writing will mostly be seen by other designers, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t help you to land more clients. The links that you build through those guest posts can help to improve the search engine rankings of your site, so they can indirectly help you to reach more potential clients through better search rankings.

Another option aside from writing for other design blogs is to write for blogs in other industries. For example, you could pick a specific industry and write and article that would be relevant to that audience as well as to the services that you offer. You can write a blog post of tips for non-profit organizations on how to have an effective website even with a limited budget. That post might be published by a blog that covers topics related to running a non-profit organization. It would be a good fit for the blog’s audience and would allow you to reach an audience that might lead to some new clients. Another example would be if you write a post for a photography blog about how to sell photos online. Some of the photographers reading the article may be interested in selling their photos from their own website, and they may contact you to inquire about your services for helping to accomplish this. There are all kinds of possibilities, but you’ll need to use your creativity to think of some ideas for good posts that could help you to reach the right audience.

Build it to be Search Engine Friendly

When it comes to search engine optimization, I tend not to obsess over the countless factors that play into the rankings, but I do aim to create websites that are search engine friendly. Your site should make it easy for the search engines to crawl the site and to know what your site is about. Using clean code is a good first step. In today’s environment you’ll also want to set up a Google+ account an incorporate Google authorship into your site’s coding. You’ll also want to use effective page titles, and use subheaders correctly.

Link to Your Portfolio from Your Social Media Profiles

Social media and social networking sites can be a great source of traffic for your portfolio site and your blog. The first step is to make sure that you have linked from your social profiles to your site. Most social networks allow you to link to your site from somewhere in your profile, so take advantage of this opportunity. You probably already have several social profiles, and you can always create profiles at other sites as well.

In addition, you can share links to your blog posts and to new portfolio items through your social profiles. For example, whenever you publish a new post you can tweet a link to the new post, and also publish it to your Facebook profile or page. You can encourage visitors to share your posts by including buttons and widgets on your blog posts to make sharing easy.

Offer Free Resources

Another way to gain some exposure and to build some links to your site is to offer free resources to other websites. This is especially popular in the design blogging industry. Many design blogs give away free resources that their readers can download. This includes things like icon sets, vector sets, Photoshop files, website templates, textures, and more. If you’re willing to use your skills and your time to create some free resources you can contact some blogs to see if they would be interested in publishing your free resource.

This is another approach that will mostly put your work in front of other designers, but it can help with building links to your site. Again, you can customize the approach to get in front of a more targeted audience if you’d prefer. As an example you could create a basic template/theme for a photography website and offer to give it away at a photography blog. Some of the photographers that download the template/theme may want to hire you to customize it, or they may want to hire you to create a completely custom design for their own site.

Pay for Advertising (AdWords, Facebook)

So far we have mostly looked at approaches to get exposure without spending any money. While they may not cost you financially, they will require your time, which is also highly valuable. Another option is to pay for some advertising. When going this route you’ll want to be very careful. Set up your campaign so that it won’t spend more on a daily basis than you can afford, and also do plenty of testing and tracking so you’ll be able to know which advertisements are working and which ones are not bring in any business.

Two popular options are AdWords from Google and Facebook ads. Both can be effective even with very limited budgets, and you can set up the campaigns to target very specific audiences. For this reason they can be good options for designers who don’t want to break the bank. You can also start and stop your ads, so you can run them when you need some new clients and then pause or stop the campaigns when your workload picks up.


The portfolio website is one of the most important assets for any freelance or independent designer. Take your time with designing and setting up your portfolio because it could pay huge dividends done the road. With the right approach you can get enough exposure to your portfolio that most of your work will come from clients that are contacting you, meaning you won’t have to do any aggressive selling or chasing of clients.

If you have any tips of your own regarding effective portfolio sites, please feel free to share in the comments.

Vandelay Design Blog

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