Building a portfolio that wins you the work you want

How to build a portfolio that wins you the work you want | nesha woolery | for web, graphic and brand designers. #Freelance #Business #Marketing #Portfolio #Guestpost #Startfreelancing

Does your portfolio attract the right kind of clients? Is your portfolio reflective of your current skill set, or is it outdated? These are questions I want you to consider as you read today's guest post by Hannah.

Hannah is part of Ditto, a creative design and branding agency based here in the UK, and her and the Ditto team have pah-lenty of experience in building a portfolio that attracts the right clients with the right budget. Read on to learn how they created such a successful, money-making, client-getting portfolio!

Nesha xo

If there’s one thing that’s made winning business immeasurably easier for our branding agency, it’s been developing a portfolio that plays to our strengths and showcases our signature style.

People come to us at Ditto knowing exactly what to expect, and are much, much easier to convert into paying clients since they’ve seen a portfolio full of work that they already love. It gets them excited to work with us and fills them with confidence, overcoming much of the decision-halting anxiety that often plays a part when shopping for a designer (will they understand me? What if they show me something that I don’t like?).

It wasn’t always this way.

Around three years ago, we were a fairly generic design agency that undertook pretty much any work from anybody. We did branding projects, sure – but we’d also do plenty of one-off projects with tiny profit margins. Most of our clients were super-local; we’d design business cards, flyers – even bus timetables. We made money, but business was frustrating and getting clients on board felt like wading through treacle. Uphill. In a snowstorm.

Online, our portfolio was looking pretty sorry for itself. The design was strong from a technical perspective, but it wasn’t distinctive and not particularly inspirational. I’d describe it as vanilla.

Clients came to us either by recommendation or because our location made us convenient to reach, but never for our design style – because, frankly, we didn’t have one.

Clients would always want to make a million revisions and never quite trusted us – they’d come in with sketches of what they wanted and it was our job to half-heartedly translate them into working designs. Yawn-fest. Literally.

And then things changed.

We’d had enough of competing on price. We knew we were capable of so, so much more. And for the future of the business, we badly needed to kick things up a gear. We hired a specialist business consultant, took a deep breath and silently prayed that it’d all pay off.

Three years on, and we’re winning work from all over the country (and further afield!), based on nothing more than the style we showcase in our portfolio. Clients come to us specifically for the way that we do things and the look of our work. And although they’re design-savvy (they’ll inevitably have checked out several agencies), they completely respect us and give us the creative freedom to do our best work.

Anyone who’s been through the same transformational process with their business – or is in the middle of it now – will know that this is absolute bliss. Our clients are genuinely the most amazing bunch of people who are all an utter pleasure to work with – they respect us, listen to us and they love our work. Gone are the days of endless revisions!

I received an enquiry the other day from a lady who said ‘I hope that my business is a good fit for you and that you’ll consider designing my brand’. Can you imagine?! No more scrabbling around for clients – and the enquiries that we attract ‘hope they’re good enough’. Blimey.

The point is, all of this comes down to having a strong and distinctive portfolio, and that’s what I want for you too. I’m so excited to be writing about this because I know how much it’s turned things around for us, and I’d love to see the same happen for you!

01. First things first

A distinctive style does not mean that all of your work looks exactly the same. However, there may be characteristics of your work which shine through in your portfolio, and these should be things that you are truly amazing at.

Perhaps you’re an awesome illustrator or letterer; perhaps you have a penchant for styling photos or are truly brilliant when it comes to killer tag lines. To build a distinctive portfolio, you need to identify your strengths and your aspirations for the sort of work you want to win more of. This is an absolute must, and for us, defining our style completely revolutionized everything.

More than this, you need to think about your commercial goals. What sort of projects do you want to be doing, and for what price point?

Perhaps you’re a brand designer with a start price of a couple of thousand pounds – maybe you’re a designer with a passion for creating wedding stationery starting at a couple of hundred pounds. Knowing your commercial goals makes this process significantly easier, so take some time to really consider what you want before you get started.

How we did it

There’s three of us here at Ditto, so the first job was to combine our individual tastes and talents to create one unified voice.

We started by building a Pinterest board to represent the styles that speak to us the most.

We then laid out our most recent projects and cherry picked the ones we’d really enjoyed and would like to do more of. 

By doing this we were able to build a clear vision for the style we most love to create, and marry that with our unique design talents within the team, giving us a definite goal of how our portfolio needed to look.

We’d already planned out our packages, and knew that to turn a profit we needed to be charging a minimum price of £2500 plus VAT for brand design. This immediately shifted our focus on to the sorts of people who’d be willing (and able) to invest that kind of money, making our marketing efforts much more directed.

02. Analyze your current portfolio

Time to get honest. How’s your current portfolio looking? Is it filling you with pride, or is it making you cringe a little?

What’s stopping it from looking as beautiful as you want it to – has it not been updated for a while, or have you simply not got the right sorts of projects under your belt just yet? Is the work cohesive – is there a clear style or approach being shown? How many projects are you showing? Is it truly your best work?

I know there’s always something else that needs to be done when you’re running a small business; I get that serving existing clients/ taking care of your taxes/ writing proposals is always higher up the agenda than your own marketing. But I can guarantee you that without showing your portfolio some serious love, you’ll stagnate.

How we did it

We’d made the unwavering decision that our business needed a total shake up and that we wanted to make definite strides in a new direction, and so we took drastic steps and removed our entire portfolio until we had enough of the right style to showcase.

In fact, I think we even took our whole website down and gave it a re-swizz. This approach might be a bit too severe for some, but it certainly focussed our minds and put our portfolio to the very top of our list of priorities to get sorted.

03. Show off only the work that
represents your style

Back in the day, there was a big difference between the work that paid the bills and the work we were actually really proud of. If you’re an aspiring brand stylist with eyes set on working within the wedding industry, for example, don’t show the business cards you designed for a friend who owns a local plumbing business. It might be solid design work, but it’s not going to inspire your target audience and does nothing to reinforce your creds as a designer.

In reality, you may well be plugging the quiet spots in your diary with smaller work – but the wider world doesn’t need to know that and you shouldn’t be showing it off. 

A big factor is making sure that the work in your portfolio is cohesive; if you’re a designer that loves rustic, earthy designs then a pastel, calligraphy, floral design will jar and cause confusion.

You’ll start to get a feel of the work which truly shows off your talents and you’ll instinctively know which projects have earned their spot in your portfolio and which might be confusing to a potential client who’s shopping around for a designer. 

How we did it

After an honest evaluation of the sorry state of our portfolio, we took the bull by the horns and started offering heavily reduced prices for clients who we reaaally wanted in our portfolio. If you’re going to do this, you must always, always communicate what the discount is worth to ensure that the client respects what you’re offering them. 

This is a tricky one to navigate as you do not want to seem desperate. And the answer lies in the spin, my friend! We sent out an email to our database to invite them to pitch us their project. It gave us the ability to pick and choose the clients that’d be a good fit for our portfolio goals, whilst at the same time marketing the fact that the direction of our business has changed.

It actually didn’t take many clients – no more than 5 – to give us enough material to get going with. I’m seriously proud of our portfolio now! Get a peek of it here.

04. Promote the heck out of it

Whether you’ve gone down the route of offering reduced rates in order to bolster your portfolio or whether you’re in the happy position of having a gorgeous portfolio already, you need to promote the bajeezus out of your best work.

I strongly recommend building it into your client contract that you reserve the right to use the visuals you create for your client in your own marketing, although it’s important to be respectful and you should always double check with them that they’re happy before you go posting their visuals everywhere.

Most people will be only too flattered to be seen in your portfolio, but some may need you to keep a lid on things, particularly if they’re working on something which is under wraps for commercial reasons for the time being.

How we did it

Blogging, E-blasts, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest… you name it, we used it. We’ve recently found that our best platforms for generating leads are Instagram and our blog, and I do my level best to carve out enough time in my week to keep both updated with snippets of what we’re doing.

You’ll probably find one or two platforms work much better for you than others, so be mindful of that and put the majority of your energy in the direction of the platform that’s getting results.

As creatives, we’re fortunate in that we’re constantly creating beautiful fodder for Instagram feeds so half the job’s done already; the challenge is finding a posting schedule that works for you.

05. Keep things current

Whether you’re an illustrator, designer, brand stylist or photographer, we need to stay up to date and not be seen to be going stale. That means staying on top of your portfolio and keeping it current!

You’d be surprised how many prospective clients may be dipping in and out of your website; tempt those lovely people towards becoming paid-up clients by showing them plenty of fresh new work to keep them excited.

How we did it

As part of our sign-off routine, I schedule time to write and publish a blog post to showcase the project. This means that at the very least, our blog is kept updated with our latest work. Every couple of months we aim to update our main portfolio too.

Over to you!

Your homework is to go and get cosy with your portfolio and show it some love! And let me know how you get on; I’d love to hear. I hang out on twitter @hannahditto and on Instagram @hannahlouisebelton. 

Written By Hannah Belton

Hello! I'm Hannah Belton. I'm a creative director, brand stylist and blogger at Ditto Creative, a family-run branding agency in Kent.

I specialize in creating brand identities that authentically reflect our clients' businesses - and what's more, I know how to delight our clients without sacrificing our bottom line.

Together with my team, we've successfully transitioned the business from a local agency, designing anything and everything in return for cash to a highly specialist branding agency, attracting clients who seek us out for our unique style.

I've been in business for nearly 11 years and seen a lot: the thrilling highs, the crushing lows and the moments of wonder when a plan comes together.


Nesha Woolery

I build beautiful brands & websites for passionate entrepreneurs!