Building Your Portfolio

Building your portfolio takes time and effort. It’s especially hard when you are starting out, since you have yet to land your first client and don’t have any previous work to show. Even so, there are a few ways you can create an outstanding portfolio that will impress future clients. Who knows — you might even make some money in the process.


OFFER YOUR SERVICES FOR FREE

As a freelance graphic designer, your portfolio is key to getting hired, which means you need a good amount of projects to showcase your skills and experience. However, self-initiated work is often substandard and doesn’t translate well into real world situations.

On the other hand, you can’t build a portfolio without any working designs. Fortunately, there are a few ways to work around the issue. One is to jump right in and provide your services to real world clients pro bono. Although the idea might not be appealing, it will allow you to accumulate professional experience from the get-go.

If you decide to go this route, I suggest you don’t use your actual brand name so it doesn’t get associated with free services. Since you are doing this temporarily, a generic name should suffice. Now, let’s explore different ways to build your portfolio.

REDDIT

Reddit is a social networking service with online communities based around subreddits, with r/freedesign being a great place to get your feet wet. It’s a subreddit created for clients seeking free graphic design services and designers looking to expand their portfolios, with logo design being particularly sought after.

Requesters have to fill a design brief with as much information as possible before posting a request, and for good reason — a thorough and articulate design brief is critical to the design process. After all, design is about solving a problem, so you need to understand the problem as much as possible before coming up with a solution. A design brief helps you understand what the client needs and allows you to create solid, manageable goals for the project.

r/freedesign connects you to clients from all walks of life, with requests that differ greatly in scope; taking these requests on gives you the chance to push your creativity and diversify your skills. A diverse portfolio highlights your adaptability — something clients often look for when hiring a graphic designer. Having experience in different types of projects will help you reach a wider audience as well.

Like you, I started out by providing free services on r/freedesign. One of the clients actually liked my logo design so much he paid me $150 after the job was done. It was my first paycheck, and really taught me the value of quality work.

99DESIGNS
99designs, the global creative platform for custom graphic design
99designs, the global creative platform for custom graphic design

99designs is the world’s largest marketplace for graphic design. There, clients hold contests in different design categories, with designers submitting their best entries. A cash payment is then awarded to the selected designer.

You will find many different types of contests on 99designs. A design brief is required for every contest so you can better tailor your submission to client specifications.

While money isn’t a priority for now, by creating quality designs you may have a good chance of winning some contests. Also, take some time to check out submissions from other designers. It’s definitely interesting to see how different people process the same information and produce vastly different results.

FIVERR
Fiverr connects businesses with freelancers offering digital services
Fiverr connects businesses with freelancers offering digital services

Fiverr is an online marketplace offering services for $5 and up, hence its name. Normally, the idea of creating quality designs for just five bucks is absurd. However, since your purpose now is to build your portfolio, think of the earnings as a bonus.

In fact, Fiverr can be a viable income source for a freelance graphic designer. With Gig Packages, you can increase your offering beyond $5 by bundling your services with upgrades and extras. Building a good reputation allows you to ‘level up’ and gain access to more features and better promotions.

NONPROFIT ORGANIZATIONS

Since you are providing your services for free, why not fill two needs with one deed by contributing your skills to a charitable cause? Find a nonprofit organization you believe in so you are motivated to put in your best effort.

However, don’t forget that free doesn’t mean unprofessional. By providing quality work regardless of price, you develop enduring designer-client relationships that will benefit both parties in the long run.


TIPS TO BUILDING A GREAT PORTFOLIO

SHOWCASING THE RIGHT PROJECTS

After you have a good number of projects under your belt, it’s time to think about which projects to include in your portfolio.

The answer depends on how you want to portray yourself as a graphic designer. On one hand, showing many different kinds of projects in your portfolio tells a prospective client that you have a broad skillset and can adapt to different expectations. On the other, diversity isn’t always great if you are looking to target a niche market.

Nevertheless, always go for quality not quantity. Clients usually have short attention spans, so every project has to be good enough to catch their attention. If possible, choose projects that represent your individuality as a graphic designer so your portfolio is unique and instantly recognizable.

PRESENT YOUR DESIGN PROCESS

A design is just the tip of the iceberg — there is a lot of work involved during the design process that outsiders don’t get to see, such as coming up with concepts, and responding to client feedback. As such, it’s a good idea to offer insight into some, if not all, of the projects in your portfolio. Such insight can be in the form of notes and annotations, or case studies if you want to provide more details. Clients will better understand your design process, and consequently have more confidence in choosing your services. 

MOCK UP YOUR DESIGNS

For your portfolio to have more visual impact, consider taking advantage of mockups. After all, presentation is just as important in attracting clients. Mockups allow you to showcase your projects in context, making them visually engaging and bringing them to life.

You can find mockups for just about everything online. There are many resources available on sites such as GraphicBurger and Pixeden. Most mockup templates require you to have Photoshop, so it might be worthwhile to get an Adobe subscription.


If you want to secure the right clients, take the time and effort to build a great portfolio. But don’t think you are done — now you have to set up and create your portfolio site.

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