Portfolios: Your First Date with A Client

Spoiler: there’s a tool to help you build a portfolio within minutes in the end of this post. Don’t look! Don’t look!

When a potential client lands on your portfolio, it’s a lot like a first-date. It’s the first time this potential client has seen you (and your work). While they browse through your portfolio, they’re making up their mind about you. They’re asking themselves: “Do I like what I see? Can they be trusted with my project? Do I want to open my chequebook (or my heart!)?”.

The dating world is competitive – and so is freelancing!

So what can your portfolio do to make your “client date” successful and win their work?

#1 – Looking Good / Lead By Example

The first thing a date will probably notice is your looks. How you dress, how you present yourself. To win work, your portfolio needs to be a shining testament to your talents as a designer and a communicator.

Don’t be too flashy. Don’t fill your site with a zillion JavaScript-driven bells and whistles. In the nomenclature of dating: this just looks a little desperate. Rather be refined in your aesthetic presentation, demonstrate your attention to the fine details. Focus on the work, not on the fancy frame around the work.

Play it like Yolanda in Pulp Fiction and “Be Cool”.

#2 – The Conversation / Quality Over Quantity 

Alright, looking good? Great – now its time for a scintillating conversation to show your date how quick-thinking, capable and insightful you are.

A good conversationalist (caveat: author’s opinion!) is concise and erudite, with an interesting perspective on things and a sense of humour to go with it all. And this is exactly what your professional showreel should be like.

The trick here is to stick with a Less-Is-More approach. The inclination might be to show a majority of the work you’ve done in the past. It seems sensible to demonstrate that you’ve been in the game awhile, you’ve got experience. But you should rather demonstrate your experience through the *depth of skill* present in each particular piece work; and ensure that *every* piece of work showcased is as excellent example of your skills.

Demonstrate your breadth of talent by the spectrum of categories represented (i.e. print / web / mobile etc), not by the number of works showcased.

Just like that great flowing conversation on a first-date, its a quality game, not a quantity one.

#3 – Tell A Story / Business Insight

So things are moving along nicely? Excellent. Lets build a little intimacy. Telling a good story is a great way to bring people closer together – it offers an insight into how we think, how we view the world and our personalities. Your portfolio is no different.

To sell a client on the quality of your services, it’s vital to communicate to them that you’re not merely a “Make It Look Pretty” kind-of designer, no, you understand how the design process and its products are fundamentally tied to business outcomes and objectives.

So tell a story. Teehan + Lax do a brilliant job of this. They highlight their (amazing) work, along with a pseudo process-journal of the job. They demonstrate how they creatively tackled the design challenges, compromised between antagonistic forces for the best fit, fulfilled the ultimate business objectives and how working with them is such a fruitful and rewarding experience.

Perhaps most importantly, the quality of your story-telling prose will show how clear and effective a communicator you are. This is a hugely important factor when a client is trying to decide on a designer for a job.

Design is perhaps a “foreign language” to your client, they want to work with someone who can translate easily between business and design.

Dylan Baskind the nuschool

#4 – My Place or Yours? / Contact Details

OK, so you did great, and the first date went really well! Now your client / date wants to “take it to the next level”…

This is kind-of a no brainer; but a lot of designers actually get it wrong: make it really easy for a potential client to contact you!

Don’t hide your contact details behind some fancy navigation UX, or clever hover state. Make it super clear and obvious.

PS: If you’re not available for work have that stated, if you are available, when are you available? (i.e. “Available for projects from March, 2015”, or, if you’re lucky “Booked until 2016”).

#5 – Closing The Deal

The pinnacle of the dating process is, ahem, “closing the deal”. Your portfolio looked good, the work showcased was concise and high quality, you expressed yourself clearly, made it easy to contact you and now the client is interested in working together… awesome! But its your proposal that will seal-the-deal.

Don’t make the mistake of having an excellent portfolio and a sloppy looking proposal. Every piece of collateral you produce in the sales cycle should exemplify your design nous. So follow the same “dating” principles in your proposal as in your portfolio. Make it clear and concise, don’t fill it with fluff content. Have the proposal itself communicate your excellent qualities as a designer and thinker.

Finally, in regards to both portfolios and proposals, you’ve got to “own your medium”. If your selling a graphic service, your collateral has to look awesome. If your medium is the web, then make your proposal web-based.

Get it done in minutes + look awesome? 

Now I know, I know creating a website can be huge headache and a big time drain, so we’ve got a little something that can get you from 0% to 100% in a just a couple of minutes. Here are two templates, ready to use straight away, for creating simple designer portfolio and proposal websites:

Designer Portfolio:  Create your own
Designer Proposal:  Create your own

Enjoy your date!

Editor’s note
: This guest post was written by 
Dylan Baskind. He is a founder, designer and developer at QwilrHe also makes business-focused helpers like this. He plays in a band, chats with fellow artists and industry here, and you could find some of his doodles here.  


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