Categories / Inspiration

10 Portfolio Details that Turn Off Clients in Seconds

Kevin Whipps March 31, 2021 · 9 min read
If someone wanted to hire you, then they’d have to look you up (via Google, Facebook, Dribbble, etc.) and see what kind of work you’d done in the past. Makes sense, right? Of course you have some kind of portfolio out there that’s either up on a website or a PDF that you can send out, right? Of course you do. So let me ask you this: does it suck? Because if it does, then it’s likely turning off potential clients, and that is costing you money. With that in mind, let’s take a moment or twelve to discuss what you’re doing wrong (or right) and how to fix the problem. After all, nobody wants a sucky portfolio, right?


Whether it’s on Reddit or a forum, the famous “TL;DR,” or “Too long; didn’t read,” often refers to a post that someone put up, ranting away about one thing or another, that just wasn’t worth the reader’s time (in their opinion). Now who wants that to apply to their portfolio, huh? This happens to professional writers all the time, and it comes down to brevity. We refer to it as “tightening up your work,” and it’s where you remove unnecessary words, making it flow smoother. For example, “talk about” becomes “discuss,” and so on. Think of your portfolio in the same way. Instead of putting out 40 pages of design that showcases everything you’ve done, consider tightening it up to a solid 10 of your absolute best ones. And as for your writing goes on those 10 pieces …

Show and Tell

It’s great to show off your work, but we need to know why it was created in the first place. We need context. Why did you do this work? Was it for a class project or did you get hired on? What was the goal set by the client? We need the journalism basics: who, what, where, when and why. Start from there and work some magic. That said, keep things to the TL;DR rule. Make sure that you’re succinct in your writing, and that you get the point across without being too verbose (so you probably don’t want me writing your portfolio, is the point here).

No Goals

I’ve looked at portfolios before where it was clear that this was just a collection of the person’s work. There was some packaging design, a few mockups of websites and even some U/X work, and that was all super cool. But what was the focus? I mean, other than that the guy was a designer, why should I care? Look at it another way: what kind of work do you want in the future? If you want to design print layouts, then putting up examples of your T-shirt designs isn’t going to help you out. The average potential client (who doesn’t know anything about design) will say, “Well, they can design shirts, but what about magazines? Pass.” It’s a jerk move, but it happens, so be sure to give your portfolio some kind of direction so that everyone is on the same page.

Mobile Doesn’t Work

I don’t have to tell you that more people check out websites on their mobile devices, because I’m betting that you’re reading this on one of them right now. So why shouldn’t your portfolio work the same way? This should be obvious, but I’ll admit, I’ve fallen prey to it myself. Fact is, your portfolio should look just as good on an iPhone as it does on a 30-inch display and everything in between. If it doesn’t, then you need to figure it out before you start sending links to new clients. It just doesn’t make sense.

A Lack of Professionalism

Know what’s not professional? Poor grammar. You’re/your, there/their, and all that stuff looks horrible on your portfolio and causes you to stand out like a sore thumb — in a bad way. Do a quick copy edit of your work before you push it live, because that’s important. (Now that I say that, I’m positive there will be a grammatical mistake in this post that I will have missed, thus embarrassing myself completely.) Second, stop telling me your age in your portfolio. I mean, who cares? If you say that you’re younger — under 25, say — then is your intent to show that you’re some kind of prodigy that produces amazing work much beyond their age would show? Or is it to say that you’re young so don’t expect a lot? And the same thing goes in reverse for those of you that are older. We don’t care, so just stop it.

No Confidence

Putting yourself out there takes some chutzpa, because it’s like you’re an open wound exposing your body to whatever comes its way. Your portfolio is obviously a representation of you and your abilities, and nobody wants to get made fun of for what they do. But if you don’t back up your work with fairly confident words it’s all going to fall flat. Imagine you see a piece in a portfolio that you like a bunch. You then see the writeup next to it that says, “I did this in my spare time for a friend, but I wasn’t paid for it. I think it’s pretty good, but you make the call.” Yeah, that’s not going to get you any work. And it sounds outrageous that anyone would write like that, but believe me, it happens. Stand up, folks. Be confident. That will help with landing the client for sure.

Can’t Find Anything/Lack of organization

Now I’ve talked about the size of your portfolio already (and there’s more to come), but if you do decide to lean toward the big side, then you need a way to clearly organize your portfolio. See, I know that I said you need to have a goal in mind, and that makes sense. But some of you may be the jack-of-all-trades kinda designer, so you want to show some of your flexibility. If that’s your bag, then cool. But know that you’ll be essentially making multiple portfolios, and they’ll need to be organized accordingly. If that sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. If you want to go out there as a web designer and a print designer, then you’ll need two portfolios: one for web, and one for print. And every one you do should follow the same rules I’ve mapped out here, because otherwise you’re just wasting your time. Point is, no matter how you work this thing, keep it organized — and searchable is a nice bonus.

All Filler, No Killer

When you first start out, it’s easy to want to put whatever you can into your portfolio. You end up shoving that one piece that got you some heat while you were in college, and that one spec deal that you produced for a buddy but never technically got paid for. Sure, they’re not always perfect bits of work, but it’s something, and that’s better than nothing, right? Forget that. If you don’t have a substantial body of work to use, then keep it simple by not doing a portfolio at all. Or, go ahead and populate it with work that you weren’t paid for, but make sure you say that in your portfolio. Create a fictional client and explain why you did the work, but then make sure you’re clear that it’s all made up. Whatever you do, don’t just slap some crap into a website and call it good. That’s just embarrassing.

Print? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Print!

I’ve got this old boss of mine who used to print out all of their emails. Every time a new one would hit her inbox, she’d print it out and file it next to her keyboard. It never made any sense to me, and I’d tell her that, but it was her thing. Guess who reviewed the candidates for the available designer position? Her. And she printed out every. Single. Portfolio. Turns out that lots of people print out emails, and even though they’re of another generation, they’re also potential clients. So you need to make sure that your portfolio has some kind of print option. Maybe it’s a downloadable PDF or just a printer-friendly version of what you already have. Whatever you do, just do something, because there are people out in the world who will print it out, probably in black and white. I know, it’s scary, but keep it in mind.

And We Get Ahold of You How?

The dumbest thing you can do with your portfolio is not include any contact information on it. But wait, who would be that dumb? Believe me, many, many people forget, and even if they do remember, it’s usually tucked away somewhere small where it can’t be easily found. That is a deal breaker. Again, your client isn’t necessarily design savvy, so using 6-point light text in the margin to give your cryptic email address is probably not the best idea (and if they’re older, their eyesight will hate you for that decision). Make it easy for someone to reach you. Put a link to your email on that PDF, or have it at the bottom of every portfolio page, both online and off. Look, there is zero point in putting your work out there to the world in the hope of getting clients, if you don’t have an easy way for them to contact you.

Get Busy

Now that you know all the things you shouldn’t do, it’s time to get out there and make something cool. Show the world that you’re able to create awesome work and make it all stand out. Just avoid those pitfalls, because in the end, they’ll cost you money.
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About the Author
Kevin Whipps

Hi! My name is Kevin Whipps, and I'm a writer and editor based in Phoenix, Arizona. When I'm not working taking pictures of old cars and trucks, I'm either writing articles for Creative Market or hawking stickers at Whipps Sticker Co.

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