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How to Decide What to Include in Your Portfolio

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Read Time: 5 min

Remember when you graduated from school or first decided to become a freelancer?  You likely didn't have much work to show and had to scramble to fill your portfolio.  If you now have a few years under your belt, you've probably started to build up quite a collection of finished pieces.

The importance of having a professional portfolio website has been discussed on FreelanceSwitch - it is essential for the modern freelancer.  But how do you decide what to include in your portfolio? If you fill your site with only your favorite work it could be focused in the wrong direction and not attract business.  If you only display giant commercial projects it may feel like a sterile presentation with no heart.  Somehow you need to show that as a freelancer you are both capable in your skills and able to produce high quality, creative results.

I suggest this 5-pronged approach for deciding what you want to include in your portfolio:

Quality of Work

The quality of a work can certainly be a subjective attribute, but there are many ways to figure out which are your best pieces.  Maybe it was a project that you spent hours laboring on and at the end you sat back, amazed at your creation.  Maybe it's a design that has garnered you awards, been chosen for CSS showcase sites or otherwise brought you attention from your industry.  It could even just be a project that your friends, coworkers and clients say is their favorite.

Honestly, you probably know what your best work is.  Its important to put these pieces in your portfolio to show your amazing talent and to have something that you are personally very proud of.

Size of Client

Sometimes, size matters.  Having worked for a client whose name is recognizable can go a long way in impressing potential clients.  If you've had the opportunity to work with some companies or individuals with some serious clout, your visitors need to hear about it.

People feel assured by what they know.  Whether the company you worked with is easily recognized internationally, locally or just in your niche, dropping their name will help assure people that you know what you're doing.  Clients are now able to think, "Well, if they can do it for your big client name, they can do it for me too."  That's why many creative firms give a client list on their website.  Go further than just presenting a list - show what you've actually done for your big clients.

Size of Project

Now, let's say you've had the chance to work for a particularly famous client - does that mean you should definitely include the work in your portfolio?  Not necessarily.  If the entire project consisted of a small bookmark passed out to 20 employees during a staff meeting, it might not be as impressive as a large-scale project for a start-up company, even if no one has ever heard of the company (yet).

Bigger projects help show the range of your skills and prove that you can provide clients with complete solutions.  If a company is looking for a full identity but your website only displays logos, they might not realize you are capable of doing what they want.  Instead, show that you can offer the whole package - and maybe even design their website as well!

Age of Work

You've probably been to portfolio sites displaying work that looks like it was all created 10 years ago.  Upon further investigation you might find that it was all done 10 years ago.  This says to visitors (ie potential clients) "We've done some good work in the past, but recently we've done nothing worth showing off."  Now, this could be because they haven't done any good work recently, but more likely it is a lack of taking the time to update their portfolio.

Keeping your portfolio updated is vital on the web.  You need to plan time to update your site and keep it fresh.  Even if it takes a few minutes away from client work, you will reap the rewards as visitors find new information and work on your site. Ideally the longer you are a freelancer the better your work is getting and the bigger your
projects are - so that bigger and better work is especially important to show (remember the first two points?).

This goes further than just updating your own website - why not gain more exposure by getting your work out on other sites too? Submit your websites to galleries, enter your print work to competitions or post completed videos to Vimeo.  Give people plenty of opportunities to find and see your newest work.

Proximity to Your Ideal Project

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you need to show your ideal clients that you can do their project because you have done similar ones in the past.  If you haven't defined your Ideal Client read these articles and take the time to do it now.  Knowing who you are targeting can go a long way in deciding what to include (and what to omit).

After you've figured out your Ideal Client, take it to the next level and think about your Ideal Project.  What kind of work, specifically, would you love to do for them?  (Update their brochure copy?  Implement AJAX into their website?  Redesign their business cards?)  Then make sure you have similar projects that you've done on your site.

If you have a lot of examples, organizing your portfolio by industry or project type can help visitors find the kind of work they are looking for too.

Following these guidelines will help you put together a portfolio that can eventually lead to that ultimate work: a giant project for a famous company in your niche that wows everyone who sees it.

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What are other ways you decide what to include in your portfolio?

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