“It will look good on your portfolio”
This is one line a lot of designers have heard. If you’re just starting out, then down the line you’ll hear it as well.
Every designer keeps busting their ass working on underpaid projects that they believe will give a boost to their portfolio. Or starting their own side projects in order to build a great portfolio.
But really, how important is a portfolio?
“If I work on underpaid projects now, I will have a good portfolio that will help me get better paid projects in the future.” This is what every artist tells themselves every time they take up a project they don’t want to.
But is it necessary?
What’s wrong with this approach?
In theory, this seems like a good strategy. Work a few months on low pay (or worse, for free) on good looking projects, build up a portfolio, then go looking for bigger projects.
Every designer has gotten caught in this vicious cycle. And it’s something they have a hard time coming out of.
Once you’re taking up low-paid projects, you’re undermining your value. Not only in front of the client, but also in your ownhead. Continue doing this, and you’ll find it hard to negotiate for a higher price even when it’s fair.
Most connections and clientele you form early on in your career stay with you for a long time. Most of the clients are going to return to you the next time they need any designs. In fact referrals and regular clients provide 70–80% of the total work (more on this In a minute).
It sounds good, then what’s wrong with it?
Let me explain with an analogy —
The Cheap Shirt Analogy
(For the lack of a better name)
Imagine you go to a store and buy some really cool looking shirt for $10. You’re beyond happy with it and in love with the store. 2 months later, you go back to the store looking for another shirt.
This time it’s $15 for the same shirt.
They justify it by telling you that they have invested a lot on the store outlook and brought in better clothing collections.
But the question lingers — Will you buy it? Or will you think they’re being unfair with their pricing? Especially when there are several other stores that might sell a shirt for a cheaper price?
Those of you who said they’ll still buy it, congrats. You’re a rare species.
Most of us probably won’t.
What’s the crux?
This same thing happens when you quote a recurring client a bigger price for the same job you did earlier for cheap.
And trust me, you don’t want to lose a regular client. So what do you do? You take the job for a lower price, again.
Unless you’re all in for charity, this approach isn’t good.
Most clients you want to have, don’t care about a portfolio
It’s true. Obviously a portfolio will help them in getting a vision of how the end product will look like, but it is not what will make them hire you.
It’s your understanding of design and coming up with solutions for them.
Getting behind a computer and designing is one of the final steps of a design project. Most of the work is done early on, by communicating with the client and understanding what they need and what would be the best solution.
Good communication with a client is what helps in getting the best work done.
Coming back to the point I made earlier, most of your projects come from either referrals or returning clients. These people already know your work is good, they don’t need to see a portfolio.
If a Portfolio isn’t as important, then what to do?
Okay here’s the alternative. This might sound ironic, but you do need a few pieces ready in order to find clients. This is just to let the prospects know that you can design. You don’t want them to feel that it’s your first time (even if it is!).
Since you’re a designer, chances are you already have a lot of designs ready. It could be from experimenting, or following along with a tutorial.
If you have worked with an actual client before, then you can include that work in too. But if you haven’t, then still great! Just include the pieces you’ve made for practice.
Put it out there. And network the hell out.
No matter what your skill level is, if you network well, you will find a few clients soon. Then just keep adding those projects to your portfolio.
The very first sale I ever made was through a friend (huge shout-out to him) who was selling artworks at that time. I didn’t have any portfolio back then, and the client didn’t ask for one. Excited with the sale, I created a couple more pieces like that.
The next time I talked to prospects, I showed them those 3 pieces. If I turned them into clients, I added their projects in my so called “portfolio” too.
Rinse and repeat for a couple years, and I’m here giving you this advice. This approach worked for me, it can work out for you too!
While a portfolio surely helps sealing the deal with a prospect and making them confident in your work, it isn’t as important as everyone tells you. It won’t help you get clients, it will just help them gain confidence in you.
Don’t waste too much of your time on building a portfolio. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past. For a client, the most important thing is how you can solve the problem at hand.
If you can present good ideas and solve their problem aesthetically with good communication, the client is all yours. Portfolio or no portfolio.