How to choose the right look for your portfolio
I have been looking at a ton of portfolio sites. The good news is, I get paid to do this. I look at a bunch of portfolios, pick the ones I like best, and then I magically turn those portfolios into a monthly article. Coffee counts as magic.
I pick the portfolios on mostly aesthetic criteria. I pick what looks good to me, be it professional and familiar, or wild and post-modern. I pick these websites for how they might inspire other designers to break the mold a little, and try something new.
I also secretly judge them based on whether or not I would actually hire them for work. Many designers with a strong sense of aesthetics are lacking in the UX department, and their site is nearly impossible to navigate. Sometimes the the UI is easy to navigate, but there are possible functional problems. Sometimes they’re issues that could easily be solved with progressive enhancement, but no one bothered.
There are two reasons for this: bandwagon-hopping, and misplaced experimentation.
Following trends isn’t an inherently bad thing. Right now, trends are basically what push web design forward. It’s how we went from “Web 2.0” gradients to skeuomorphism, and then on to flat design, and beyond. People following trends, and the inevitable backlash to people following trends are what keep the discipline alive, interesting, and ever-changing.
More recently, trends are how we ended up with some highly creative post-modern style sites:
Trends are how we ended up with daring typography-based sites:
Trends are the reason we talked about brutalism and pseudo-brutalism for like a month before we forgot about it:
The downside is that many people embrace trends without thinking too hard. They don’t think about the purpose behind the aesthetic, or the usability concerns of the people who started these trends. These aesthetic styles didn’t come from nowhere. They came from the minds of people that needed to solve a specific problem, to scratch a particular itch.
There’s nothing wrong with having a design in a currently-trending style, just make sure that you’re embracing the trend for the right reasons.
If you do any creative work, you’ll always get the urge to try something new and different. You might feel as though you’re selling out if you make two similar site designs in a row.
Experimentation is good, both for design and development. You should be doing new things. However, maybe your portfolio isn’t actually the best place to do them. I contend that if you’re going to get crazy with the animation, the navigation placement, or what-have-you, it might be better to do it with a side project.
Too many of the portfolios I’ve seen throw basic usability principles to the wind in favor of wild creativity. Your portfolio is supposed to be selling your work or services. If the site breaks because the JS doesn’t load properly, or if it’s just hard to navigate, the results are just as bad as they would be on a large eCommerce site, or a major blog. You will lose money.
People with bad internet need websites too.
Okay, that’s enough negativity in your life. How should you approach your portfolio’s look, then? Well, I don’t have all the answers, but I do have two pretty good answers:
Approach 1: Design the site your customers want
Design the site that your client aspires to have. Make them envious, and then give them what they want. I mean, you have a chosen niche, right? A target audience? Make your portfolio site feel a lot like the sites you build for clients. You know your market. Use that.
Shape does this quite well. The whole look and feel of the site is vaguely similar to that of an eCommerce template. Well, they design eCommerce sites, so that’s absolutely perfect.
Now how about a portfolio that isn’t about web design? Stefanie Bruekler’s portfolio bears a striking thematic resemblance to the print work showcased on her site.
Approach 2: Put your work front and center
Don’t give them the time to judge your portfolio site’s aesthetic by putting your work right in front of them. This approach is typically used with minimalist sites, but it can work pretty much anywhere. Put a preview or two on the home page, or put the full portfolio there. If they’re already looking at your work, then the look of your site (and anything you might have to say about yourself, really) is incidental.
Christopher Hall does this by showcasing his two major disciplines (furniture design and interior design) side by side, with no frills. Just look, and you get the idea.
Will Sanders does pretty much the same thing, only his photography is organized as a collage. The photos draw in the eye so quickly, it’s easy to forgive the inconveniently-orientated navigation.
You may have noticed that Stefanie Bruekler’s portfolio from the last section could also easily be in this section. You can easily combine both approaches.
Sharp observers will note that these methods alone will not solve all of the issues I raised earlier. No matter how you choose your site’s aesthetic, accessibility and usability are on you. However, using these simpler approaches to the question can remove some of the temptation to go overboard.
You’ll notice that these two approaches allow for a lot of variation and creativity. Still, you don’t need to limit yourself to them. If you end up with a trend-filled site, that’s great. If you invent a whole new kind of UI, I’m in (so long as it’s usable).
If you’ve made these decisions with care, then I’ve done my job, here. Besides, I am curious to see what’s coming after this big asymmetry trend.