Do you find yourself jealous of graphic designers’ online portfolios, and wishing that you could showcase your work as they do?
Don’t you wish you could photograph pretty hipsters enjoying your product?
You’re not alone. That nagging envy is common for people who are selling services rather than retail products. And wondering how to showcase those works is a common conundrum—making consulting or freelance writing sexy is difficult.
It’s difficult to put together an online portfolio without a visual product to show off.

Hedgehog on his laptop

But it’s not impossible.

And without an online portfolio, you’re losing out on sales opportunities. Let’s make sure that money doesn’t go into someone else’s pocket!

Let’s dive into how to create an online portfolio when you have nothing physical to sell. We’ll talk about how to document your work, make it visually appealing, and deal with common obstacles like confidential projects. So buckle up, we’re about to cure that portfolio envy!

Getting Your Ducks in a Row

Before you let your enthusiasm get the best of you, we have to do the boring work of documenting your work. I know, I know, that’s not as sexy as editing a picture of a pretty landscape, but we’ll get there soon, I swear!

First, let’s get one thing clear—an online portfolio is not the same thing as your entire website. An online portfolio is (usually) one page on your website that sells your service.

It’s easier to be less intimidated if you think of it as just one page. You can boil down your experience into one page!

Right now, take a pen and paper, and try to write down the 15 projects you’re most proud of. One project you write down may be nothing more than the name of a client. Another may be the result of a series of projects.

Pro tip: Don’t use the computer for this—studies show that writing things by hand commits them to memory better than typing. And knowing your top projects by heart will help you to pitch your services at networking events or on sales calls. We’re multi-tasking here, friends!

Embrace Your Accomplishments

Before moving on to the next step, take a look at your list. Maybe you only came up with seven things because you’re new to your industry, or perhaps only four clients came to mind. No matter the length of your list, this is your list, comprised of your works, and your accomplishments—be proud!

Hedgehog with awards

Embracing your accomplishments before showcasing them is important—an artist would never sloppily doodle something and staple it to a museum wall. They would labor over their project as you did yours. This online portfolio is your museum, and you’ve curated the finest works.

You have your list of projects, and now you’ll need to label them in a way that someone from outside of your industry can understand (which is something many of your competitors fail at). This is a sales page, like it or not.

Here are some examples:

  • “Got the company’s website compliant,” is far inferior to “Brought Dallas’ second largest financial firm’s 2,433-page website into full ADA compliance.”

  • “Wrote articles about health insurance,” isn’t nearly as insightful as “Published 77 articles for a major health insurance company, which increased their blog’s traffic by 56%.”

  • “Did transcription work,” doesn’t tell as strong a story as “Transcribed meeting notes for 83 broker meetings, saving them over 100 man hours in labor costs.”

Get the idea? You may not have retail tangibles, but you have deliverables to sell, and this is not the time to be humble. Someone should be able to spot an attractive accomplishment that calls to them within the first three seconds of opening your portfolio, or you’ve likely lost them.

Display Your Achievements Properly

If you already have a website, start a new page, dedicated just to this portfolio. And for SEO purposes, you’ll want to literally name this page “Portfolio.”

If you don’t have a website yet, Namecheap has a tutorial on getting started (worth diving into, so bookmark that resource now). For now, you can create this portfolio in Microsoft Word or a Google Doc.

Let’s gather what is necessary for displaying your works.

  • Website? Check.
  • New page called “Portfolio”? Check.
  • Attractive project names? Check.

Now comes the sexy part—the aesthetics!

Maybe this is where you roll your eyes and swear there’s nothing visually appealing about your works. That’s where you’re wrong, pal. Take a look:

before and after images of portfolio image

What’s wrong with the before image (besides the old project name that didn’t sell you properly)?

It’s a lame stock image. Pictures of strangers in an office acting happy are so 2002, so let us arm you with a secret weapon:

Librestock. You can search across several royalty-free image sites at once and have access to thousands of modern pictures that don’t cost you a dime.

Pro tip: When looking for images for concepts instead of something specific, just search the word “work”—it’s a great shortcut! That’s how I found the person on the laptop in the “after” image.

You’ve just now improved your offering visually by avoiding generic, aged stock photography. Marry that with your amazing caption, and you’re already off to the races.

How could it get even better, you ask? How could it be even more aesthetically pleasing?

Image consistency.

Here is an example of images that are visually inconsistent:

portfolio images at different contrast levels

You have more than one project to display, so there are two great options for image consistency. Either (1) use images from the same photographer in the same collection, or (2) edit them yourself.

These images have been edited to have similar contrast and brightness, and so look more consistent:

images that have been edited to be consistent

The fix took under five minutes. An online photo editor that you might like is BeFunky, and two free editing options to check out are Color (adjust the saturation so it’s not overly processed like the middle image in the inconsistent example, or under-processed like right example in the same lineup) and Exposure (playing around mostly with contrast and highlights helps).

Pro tip: If you struggle to get images consistent, just turn the saturation all the way down to make it black and white, and try to get the contrast to match between all images. If you’re feeling ambitious, in your photo editor, create a colored rectangle over your new black and white image, and turn transparency to 40%. This is another way to achieve consistency, especially if it’s the same color as your logo.

How Do You Show that which Cannot Be Displayed?

There is a project that you can’t exactly profile because you signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement, so you’ll never be able to name that client. While a graphic designer must profile their end product, you can use sets of images (as seen above), and use project titles that don’t reveal any company name (as none of the above examples do).

Hedgehog working on portfolio website

Focus on the deliverables and the end results of your efforts that would inspire someone to hire you.

This is where metrics can be your friend. Maybe you can’t show the whitepaper you worked on for six months, or display the internal documentation you labored to create. You can mention the general topic, length, number of users or downloads, efficiency improvements, or other things that speak to the success of your work.

Other Points to Consider

Here are a few other things you need to remember to do in your portfolio.

  • Be relevant. Don’t list anything from a past life that isn’t relevant to the audience you’re trying to attract. Writers, it doesn’t matter that you were a dental assistant a decade ago if the niche you’re looking to master is real estate marketing. Engineers, your work in college managing a roller derby team is cool and all, but not relevant here.

  • Accuracy matters. Your portfolio will throw red flags high into the air if it is riddled with errors. After you’ve treated your accomplishments like the precious works of art they are, and you’re ready to tell the world to come see it, read it forwards and backwards, then ask three trusted people to review it. Don’t let a typo prevent you from getting the dream gig.

  • Don’t forget the call to action. Online portfolios are almost always missing a call to action. You just made a sales pitch, and no matter how awkward that is to you, this is the time to close them. If the person viewing your portfolio is looking to hire someone, and they’ve made it all the way to the end of the page, give them some next steps (because they’re interested). Most people will simply link to their contact page, but you’re smart, you’ll offer them a complimentary 15 minute consultation (and link to your contact page), or invite them to join your monthly newsletter where you’ll share common mistakes made in their industry (that you’re an expert in and get paid to fix or prevent).

  • Be findable. You don’t want your portfolio to get lost in the shuffle. Be sure to put a link to your portfolio in the menu of your website’s landing page. Even better, consider making it the bio link on your social media sites.

    Be proud of your new portfolio. You’ve taken more steps than your competitor, you’ve avoided pitfalls, you’ve offered a professionally presented version of your work, and you’ve asked for their business. You’ve got this!

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