So you put endless days and nights into your online portfolio, anxiously awaiting positive feedback. The massive layers in your Photoshop file have been painstakingly cropped and optimized (well, perhaps not fully optimized, but I understand). You spend additional hours manipulating the pixels, testing the code and rearranging the pages. It's an agonizing, yet rewarding experience—tweaking the site until it's as close to perfect as you can get it, but still noticing places where it needs improvement. It's after that feeling of finally being 'finished' the problem begins.
Where’s the Content?
If you’re a freelancer, your online portfolio is your life. If you work for the man, it’s a great resource for that next job promotion, working with the design firm across the street. In either case, it is imperative that you create a website of value and visual interest. The part that most visual designers forget, however, is that the web is primarily a content-driven medium. For a well-rounded online portfolio, you’ll have to take your hand away from the mouse and start typing. If you begin creating content in the development process early, you’ll save yourself headaches later on. Starting with content will make your portfolio's presentation better as well.
I know what you're thinking. You either have talent or you don’t. You’re not going to fool anyone by trying to sugarcoat what we can already see. That’s true to some extent, but not having meaningful content can destroy an otherwise beautifully designed portfolio. People actually read your website, so spending some time refining your content might just help you snag that next job. People will take notice.
Here are 6 suggestions for improving the content of your online portfolio:
Your voice, without opening your mouth - It might be a personal website, but nobody wants to see you write about how bad your life is and how you desperately need a job. Pity doesn’t go very far for people in hiring positions. Make the information you provide about yourself important and useful- save bad mouthing, snide remarks and coded jargon for a more private venue. This doesn’t mean you can’t be controversial, it just means you might want to articulate your ideas in a well thought out argument. People love controversy.
Feed their hunger with your viewpoint. Find topics that you are passionate about and add details that provide insight into your character. You might have to research a topic or learn a new trade, but providing content other than pictures will broaden your audience. Web readers love personal information. Analyzing my site statistics, I know that visitors who view at least one web page that contains personal information during a session tend to stay on my site 4-5 times longer. Just imagine if you got that much more time in an interview to REALLY tell ‘em about your designs.
Scannability - PowerPoint's good for something. Most designers tend to find satisfaction in creating visual designs that evoke emotion, but often lack relevancy. When Jakob Nielsen tells you to throw in some bullet points to help your visitors scan the page, you’re thinking, "Hey. PowerPoint never made me long to be a designer! My designs aren't meant to be simply scanned." It's true. Well thought out short lists can make your portfolio easier to navigate. It may not be ideal, but it might get you through the gatekeepers to the people making decisions. Bullets are only a small part of putting together a page that's coherent and easy to scan.
Short overviews and focused text that get to the point quickly can help a visitor move around your portfolio. If a visitor isn’t convinced to visit your next portfolio piece, you might as well send them directly to another URL. In my own work, I recommend my clients think about every piece of information or idea being broken into a sentence, bullets, paragraph and a page. If you can do this with your content, you will have no problem selling people your ideas.
Know thy audience, but don’t sell thy soul - When creating an online portfolio, be cognizant of your audience. Impressing your fellow designers with how many layers you can cram into a design might get you kudos at your favorite design portal, but might also alienate the majority of the audience that wants to hire you! Visitors looking to hire a designer want people that are creative, articulate, organized and efficient.
A hiring manager or business owner needs clarity to make a decision- giving them an opportunity to see this in your content is crucial. Keep in mind though that simply focusing your portfolio on someone that might hire you will also limit your audience. Your best referral might be just a casual browser that is interested in some other part of your site.
In my own website I have a buried section about my Australian cattle dog, which a writer doing casual research on her own dog found. A few months later she was interviewing me for an article that she was writing for a major design magazine. Write about things you enjoy, keep it focused and people will follow.
Navigation text - yeah, people need to find your stuff. There is vanity in design and there are vain designers. If you fit in the latter, navigation is an afterthought and you would rather test your audience's IQ by forcing them to decipher strange images before winning the prize of seeing your portfolio. Identifying reasons people might want to visit your site is a quick way to refine the navigational text. My website top-level navigation naming convention is fairly boring, but it works-- I've never had someone confused about how to contact me.
This is a choice I am willing to make for the sake of usability. Using descriptive words helps clarify what your website is about and why a visitor would want to click around in your little world. Vanity in design is good- it helps spice things up a bit. Save this for your body content and use the navigation text to make viewers’ lives easier. I know bowing to the gray hairs and suit wearing crowd may not seem appealing, but meeting them half way might insure that you make a living. Life is a compromise; your online portfolio isn’t an exception.
Hyperlinks - they’re still in style. I tend to quickly become annoyed with online portfolios that have no hyperlinks and only images. It is just an insult to the simple, yet beautiful functionality inherent to the web, making it harder to browse a site. Yeah, I use images for my navigational links, but within the pages I try to create links that have some importance.
Being descriptive in your links helps visitors find information more quickly, which means they will view portfolio pieces that have relevancy faster. Give your links context, and be concise with your words. Instead of linking "skills", perhaps write "things I am good at" in the body content. People will have faith to follow your insights through your links.
The nice thing about hyperlinks is that you can change them quickly to redirect people within your website. They have a certain sense of freshness that every web site, including online portfolios, desperately need. In fact, you might actually add blurbs to your hyperlinks to insure that people know where they are going to be redirected.
Search engines - they matter too. As a designer, I tend to overlook the importance of web body content to draw people’s attention. Online this can be a mistake that easily slips by and causes Google to overlook a web page. Without relevant keywords, people will never find your portfolio.
Sure, I get most of my references by word of mouth, but why shouldn’t I focus on driving people to my site that might be interested in working with me? Keyword density is important in drawing relevant traffic, and with a little refinement to your pages, makes your portfolio much easier to find.
Put yourself in the mind of a potential hiring manager or client. Another quick improvement is to fill your web page titles with distinct adjectives and adverbs describing the pages. I know it doesn’t look as pretty as +_____about me__:)____+, but if you want your site to really work on your behalf, it serves you well to be minimal and direct.