You might be embarking into the world of freelance. Or paving a new career path. Or even rebranding to generate new clients. It can be daunting to leave the comfort and perks of a 9-to-5, but freelancing can be a satisfying journey. Taking this leap isn’t easy (I should know, I took the leap a year ago and found the greatest rewards), but you’ll learn a lot about yourself and open up career opportunities in new industries and brands you never thought of working for.

Getting started with freelancing requires open communication with current and future clients. If you know your target audience, they’ll lead you in the right direction. Before I started freelancing, I cold-called a lot of potential clients so I could understand exactly what they were looking for. Here’s what I learned about building a client-focused portfolio that will land you the jobs you want.

1. Know why a portfolio is important

There’s so much more to a great portfolio than a beautiful layout, content or an impressive “About” page. This is your chance to show clients who you are—your work, work ethic, style and passion—without any room for misinterpretation. Direct and clear communication with both words and images is necessary for clients to browse your site quickly while absorbing the information they need to make the decision to contact you.

Vertically-scrolling portfolio design by balans~

Portfolios say who you are

Clients want to find the right person, so they need to know your role immediately. Are you a creative director, graphic designer, cinematographer or all of the above? Say your title loud and proud. Don’t be afraid to take ownership of it. Your role must be visible.

Check out this portfolio example to the right. The project page displays “Creative Designer” boldly on the first screen.

Your role will shape the way your viewer navigates your portfolio. For example, if you say you’re an art director, your client will examine how you successfully unified the vision of your projects.

Portfolios show what you do

You have your own style and so do your clients. Showcase that style in your design portfolio in one of two ways.

First, choose to be a specialist. Establish an aesthetic, style and brand that is recognizably yours. For example, Pswizzard’s logo designs below show a distinct vintage style that will draw clients who are specifically looking for this specific niche. If you showcase specialized work, you’ll likely attract projects that are completely aligned with your stylistic preferences.

Logo by pswizzard for Hop Creek.
Logo by pswizzard for El Purica.
Logo by pswizzard for Sol Flower.

Or you can take the approach of being stylistically malleable. Clients will see that you have a grasp of several different design styles that vary depending on the project, industry or brand.

However you decide to present yourself, always present work that makes you shine. Ask yourself what projects have moved the needle for you in your career.

Was the work for a world-renowned client? This can give your brand clout.
Was the assignment cutting-edge? This reveals you’re able to think outside the box.
Are your photos and videos high-quality and captivating? This will indicate that you hold high creative standards.

And don’t display work that you did five years ago if it doesn’t breathe your current aesthetic or direction. Remember: your portfolio should convey how your work is perfectly suited for your clients’ needs.

pswizzard portfolio
pswizzards’s portfolio on 99designs.

Portfolios show why you do it

Use your portfolio to show what you’re passionate about. If you are cinematographer that loves fantasy and science-fiction, communicate that. If your heart lies in the nonprofit sector, say it clearly. Embed these statements in your about page or project descriptions to show your clients your dedication to your interests and values.

2. Target your industry

While it’s good to be open to anyone who can write you a paycheck, targeting a specific industry will benefit you in the long run.

Start by researching your industry. Find an industry newsletter that gives you up to date information on the latest trends. Meet people in the industry. Connect with other creatives—online and offline—to discuss trends that clients love.

Once you know your industry a little better, you can be specific in which services you offer and only showcase work that falls into that industry. Remember, people are keen to work with individuals that have your specific expertise.

Great way to showcase services and industry in a portfolio by Damir K.

Your portfolio examples will make or break your job prospects. Know what projects to display by understanding your intended audience. In the example above, photographer Damir K. is very direct in showing his audience the service he offers and his specialty: the beauty industry. His keeps his portfolio very straightforward with strong images and a client credit.

If you’re a designer that has worked in a lot of industries, filter your work on your portfolio by industry. DesignsMadeWith♥’s portfolio examples below reveal her ability to work across multiple sectors—from wellness to event planning.

Logo by DesignsMadeWith♥ for Punchbowl Events.
Wellness Industry Design by DesignsMadeWith♥.

You might also consider presenting case studies and marketing plans. These can inform your future employer that you can not only deliver assets but also show that your work has had impact. Case studies help answer questions like:

  • How is your work unique?
  • Is your solution different from what’s been done already?
  • Does this project break new ground?
  • What makes you stand out from others?

If you are just starting out, have no fear. Case studies are not the be-all-end-all to your portfolio, but as you move forward consider gathering the data you need to add these.

3. Captivate your audience (in less than 5 seconds)

DLD studio website
Web Design by DLD Studio.

You’ve told potential clients who you are and put together examples of the best work you can possibly dig up. Now it’s time to add some finishing touches and create a portfolio layout that communicates and captivates. Remember: clients are skimming through tons of portfolios.

Great portfolios maintain consistent design elements such as visual unity, balance, proportion and contrast. But they also broadcast your individual vision and style. Your design should draw people into your world, showcase your personality through your work and give people a chance to intimately understand who you are.

Take DLD Studio’s portfolio design above. The shades of pink are a great visual pop of color, while white space creates breathing room for the work to coexist on the page. Through design alone, DLD appears to be a very playful design studio that works heavily in the fashion and beauty industries.

portfolio of Alexandra Nicole Solis-Sison
Perspectives trailer featuring Yuna by Alexandra Nicole Solis-Sison.

Once you have them hooked, clients need to know who you are. Don’t make them dig around. The first elements they should see are your most recent (and most impressive) work, your specialization and your contact information.

Keep project descriptions and captions at a minimum. DLD Studio provides only the necessary details such as medium (e.g. web design, animation, thumbnail, etc.) and client, along with a strong image.

Great portfolios always take the less is more approach. Communicate with intention and precision. Do not bog your viewers down with too much work and too many words that they lose sight on what they are looking at.

This is only the beginning

As a freelancer, your website is an extension of yourself. You are your own marketing department, so handle your portfolio with great intention and strategy. Communicate effectively, highlight your best work and target your audience with an easy to follow, beautiful portfolio that’ll make clients fall in love with your work just as much as you do!

Want a simple way to set-up a portfolio? Get started on 99designs. Their designer-friendly tools make it easy to build a profile page where you can showcase your best designs and connect with clients from around the world on their creative platform.

Welcome to the beginning of your newly branded freelance career. Let your amazing work do all the talking!

About the author

Nicole Solis-Sison is a creative director for Matter Media Group, an influencer management firm. She has also developed virtual and augmented reality applications for companies like Gap and Google. Find Nicole on Instagram