Students That Freelance

Guest Post: Build Your 15-Second Portfolio

Guest Posts, Marketing
by: Amber Leigh Turner
The following post is a guest post by Amanda Hackwith, author of "Freelance Confidential." See the end of the post for author and book details John Lasseter, director and chief creative officer at Pixar, summed it up beautifully: “In any creative industry, quality is the sole business plan that prevails in the long run.” The quality of your current and former work is what will turn new and returning clients into a reliable stream of work and success. Portfolios are vital for student freelancers—if clients are skeptical about working with you for any reason, you have to quickly and easily impress them with your collection of work.

You’ve Got 15 Seconds…

Like it or not, clients and hiring people always, always, “judge a book by its cover.” In my tenure as Editor of FreelanceSwitch, I’ve had the opportunity to see a lot of good (and a lot of bad) freelancer portfolios. More over, when I’m not editing for FreelanceSwitch, I also manage a graphic design stock marketplace called GraphicRiver. GraphicRiver employs a team of highly skilled, freelance designers that review in-coming file submissions for quality control.

Whenever I need to hire a new designer, I announce an opening and am inevitably deluged by applications from our design community. I have to narrow down the list of candidates quickly to a manageable level. First, I cull anyone who can’t write a professionally worded (or, if not professional, very engaging) email. Second, I spend exactly fifteen seconds on portfolio links.

In this case, I’m the client. I will visit your portfolio, click on the first interesting link I see (hopefully a brilliant sample of your work), and decide if I’m impressed or not. Right now, I don’t care about your about pages or your testimonials or your prices. If I don’t love what I see in the first 15 seconds of a portfolio site, I’m not going to stick around to be impressed by your resume. You get one, perhaps two, clicks to impress me.

Tips for a 15-Second Portfolio

Perhaps you think your portfolio is fine—you’ve got clients after all. Your professional website has worked for you so far, and it’s not that old—why change it? You should continually re-evaluate your portfolio for one simple reason: it is the part of your business that is always working, even when you’re not. Time is the freelancer’s most valuable asset, so anything that works for you is worth the effort. A portfolio can generate new leads from the undecided, or it can turn very likely clients away.

There are some easy steps you can take to evaluate and improve your portfolio, no matter where you are in your business.

Quality over quantity. As freelancers build up experience, it can be very tempting to stuff your portfolio full of every project you’ve ever worked on, in order to show “variety.” Resist this urge. If you did brilliant intern work for a Fortune 500 company last year, do not distract from it with the design class project you did in high school. No matter how much experience you have, you’re going to have some gems and you’re going to have filler—focus on the gems. Make sure your clients see you only at your best. Limit yourself to only your most impressive, most current samples.

Know your field. Your portfolio or professional site should reflect the values of your industry. A technical UI expert does not need a flashy, artsy website with obtuse navigation. An illustrator may not need a detailed resume dictating her technical proficiencies and education, but she better well have those illustrations immediately featured. Know what is valued most by clients needing your services, and make sure your portfolio demonstrates only the very best of those values. If you could only show them one thing, what would it be?

Show signs of life. An active professional should have an active portfolio. You might think this would contradict “Quality over quantity” but it doesn’t—make selective updates to show you’re still competitive and active for new client work. If your portfolio items tend to not change too frequently, then at the very least ensure items aren’t unnecessarily dated. “Last updated: three years ago.” Will not inspire credibility with web-savvy clients. If your portfolio is attached to a blog, that blog absolutely needs to be updated. If it’s connected to a Twitter or other social media outlet, make sure it’s active.

Contact me! Now you’ve got them interested, close the deal. Make it foolproof to contact you. Your contact form or information is not the place to get too innovative or clever—make sure it’s visible and extremely easy to use. The more challenges you put between your clients and your inbox, the fewer responses you’ll get.

Portfolio Resources

There are lots of great sites, design galleries, and other resources out there to help you get your portfolio up, continually evaluate it, and improve how your work is presented to potential clients. Here’s just a few:

“Build Your 15-Second Portfolio” is an excerpt from the new book, Freelance Confidential, written by Amanda Hackwith and available on Rockable Press and Amazon. Freelance Confidential shares responses from 3200 freelancers to provide a clear look at the big questions of freelancing. The book also interviews success stories like Amber Turner of Students That Freelance! If you’d like to learn more about freelancing in the real world, check out Freelance Confidential.

Author bio:
Amanda Hackwith is former Editor of FreelanceSwitch and author of Freelance Confidential, available now via Rockable Press and Amazon. Amanda is a writer and designer located in Omaha, Nebraska. She writes about media and technology on her personal blog, You can also find her on Twitter: @ajhackwith.