For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been working on a redesign of my website from the ground up. I’ve been using a cool CMS, digging deep into all sorts of markup languages I didn’t know before, and trying to make some sound design decisions. But I’ve also been trying to develop my portfolio at the same time. I want to make it stronger on the new website.

This kind of thing is tricky.

Over the past few months, I’ve been researching all of my favourite agencies and people and come to realize that a digital portfolio isn’t really a portfolio. It’s not all about your work, or it shouldn’t be. And it shouldn’t just be a list of projects you’ve worked on either. So what should a portfolio be?

Share Your Stories

Cheesy (I know), but legit! The biggest strategy change you need to make is to stop thinking of a portfolio as a 'collection of work' and to start thinking of it as a 'collection of stories'…because stories can put even most cynical people at ease - especially when their entertaining.

That’s why I recommend case studies. For a long time, we’ve considered case studies to be dry; I correlated them with boring papers written by boring people. Remember reading those dry case studies on indigenous creatures in American water reservoirs in your high school geography class? (or was that just something I went through?). Anyway, case studies don’t have to be boring.

Go ahead and look up “case study" on Wikipedia. (Here’s a link.) That’s a pretty boring definition, but it doesn’t say anywhere that the case studies themselves need to be boring. Actually, the definition makes it pretty clear that they should be both empirical and exploratory, which can be a lot of fun.

Case studies can tell a story about the process of the project from beginning to end. In my case study for a digital magazine I worked on called The Modern Producer, I started with the very beginning — meeting the client — and went from there. I haven’t heard any negative criticism regarding the page and it’s one of the most-read on my site. The post started as an experiment, but I’ll definitely be putting out more like this soon.

Offer Solutions

One of the things that we often worry about as freelancers or small business owners is pricing. Do we charge by the hour? Do we charge per project? Part of the problem is that we don’t understand how to market ourselves and believe our prices have to be at a certain price if a potential client will consider us. A fellow writer recently claimed the issue of pricing to be the Freelancer’s Ultimate Challenge.

One of my friends is a partner at a local marketing firm. He shared his thoughts on the subject with me. The problem is that we’re not offering real solutions. We don’t offer anything unique. What problems do we solve? Anybody who purchases a product is trying to find a solution to a problem, so we should be positioning ourselves as the solution. That way, when a client looks at the quote, they don’t ask if that’s our lowest price. They simple say: “Is that it?" When you fulfill a need, price quickly becomes irrelevant.

That’s why I think a portfolio should offer advice, solutions, and ideas for people who are considering a similar product. Teehan + Lax do this really well, to the point when they even share the lessons they learned as they founded and grew their company. The bottom of any of their case studies includes a section about what they learned from the project. Admittedly, I was inspired by this with my own posts too.

Teehan + Lax go another step beyond that, though: they also offer a collection of popular tools to help people in the design and development industries. The Internet was based on the philosophy that “sharing is caring", and in an effort to show their work and share their tools, Teehan + Lax have built one of the most successful digital design agencies in North America.

The bottom line is pretty simple: share everything you can, and help people first. If you offer solutions, people will come.

Be Unique

The Internet was founded on one other principle entirely: that everybody could have their own digital home. After all, it’s called a “web address" for a reason. The problem, though, is that the Internet is starting to look more and more like suburbia.

I’d show you links to prove my point, but I know I don’t have to. I can guarantee you can think of several agencies, blogs, or personal websites off the top of your head that all look the exact same. And I’m not talking about — there’s a multitude of ways to make your blog custom and unique without busting your brain. That’s unusual. Tumblr is the only other blogging platform that encourages that sort of creativity so recklessly.

But the fact remains: Unless you’re a coding wizard (or paid someone who is), you’re probably using a generic theme used by thousands of other people to host your site or blog. Perhaps you’ve spent some time making your site somewhat unique, but even still, how is your portfolio supposed to stand out when it looks just like your competition?

Frank Chimero, one of the world’s best young designers, wrote about this extensively when he launched his new site. The blog post is called “Make It Homely", and it explores doing what you want and carving out a piece of the Internet that abandons rules in favour of flavour. You should spend a little time on his website and explore — it’s chock-full of great stuff.

Frank’s website is a portfolio, personal blog, and collection of things that inspire him — among other things. It’s also entirely unique, meaning that you’ll have a concrete memory of him and his site that you may not have had if it looked like your regular blog with chunks of centred black text and white backgrounds.

This isn’t an easy task. If you want to design something that looks unique, you’ll have to do what creative people do: absorb as much good design as you can, digest it, connect the dots, and build something new with all these influences as a foundation. It will take time and patience. I’m struggling with it myself, so I’m with you here. But I think it’s well worth doing.

I can hear one niggling complaint already: “But I don’t code," you say. “Do you really expect me to customize everything in my Wordpress theme or my HTML or my CSS?"

Well, I don’t, but it does have merits. Not everybody needs to program, but creative people with a digital portfolio should absolutely spend some time and learn basic markup languages like HTML and CSS, even if you don’t spend time customizing your site. They’ll come in handy more than you know. And if you’re not convinced, read this….

But what if I don’t want to code, at all!?

Well, that’s a million-dollar question, isn’t it? There are a ton of options out there, and I’ve used most of them: Blogger, Wordpress, Squarespace, Tumblr, and more. The thing is, most of these leave something to be desired. Tumblr is focused too much on a newsfeed, Wordpress is a little too geeky, Blogger looks like Google forgot to bring it with them when 2007 came along, and Squarespace is too expensive for its simple functionality. isn’t perfect, but if you’re looking to post your content in an attractive place that you still have a good amount of control over — one that is designed to be flexible enough to suit your needs — you can have a good deal of fun with it. I say this is as a guest writer with a full-time job running his own agency: is one of the best CMS platforms I’ve seen. You’ve got nothing to lose with giving it a shot, and they have an incredible team who’s dedicated to making it better all the time.

Wrapping Up

If you want to make your portfolio stand out, you might have a lot of work to do. I know I had to start from scratch. But it’s a job that makes your work more recognizable., and it makes you more hireable. Beyond that, just by creating and sharing a portfolio, you’re helping make the internet a better place. I can’t wait to see what you’ve been working on.

This post was written by Nathan Snelgrove. Nathan is the founder of Wildfire Studios, a design agency in Guelph, Ontario.