Over the last few weeks, we’ve been talking a lot about how to create a professional portfolio that gets you hired.
But what about the actual projects to present? And what do you do if you’re just starting out and you don’t have much work to include? Or, what if you’ve been working with clients for a while, but not on projects that you’re actually passionate about?
Maybe you're ready to get focused on a niche and start attracting dream clients - but don’t have enough work to show that you can get the job done.
This is where “self-initiated” projects come in. Essentially, you come up with a “problem scenario” and create the solution. This is a great way to share what your design process looks like if you don't have a ton of real-world experience (yet!)
After graduating from college, I had a mishmash of projects displayed in my portfolio. One was a website design for my fave band (Brand New!!!), I also had an illustrated stack of sushi recipe cards, a variety of band posters and even a line of t-shirts with illustrated sea creatures (the idea was to donate proceeds to environmental causes).
I was proud of all the work I displayed and chose projects that did especially well with my professors. Even though I was proud of my student work, it was all over the map! It wasn’t until I bulked up my portfolio and started sharing focused, self-initiated design projects (a lot of them were digital designs promoting some of my favorite brands) that I landed my first graphic design job.
Here are five ways you can bulk up your portfolio pieces with self initiated projects.
1. Create a “Faux Business”
This can be a fun creative challenge that can give you the opportunity to really shine and show what you’re capable of. Plus, if you have a subject or specific audience you’re really passionate about, you can do related work that's targeted towards getting you jobs in that field.
I recommend starting from the very beginning of the project. You have full range on the creative process which includes that important research phase. You can start by creating a “business” ( could be a person/band/brand) and put together a creative brief. Then follow the standard research and brainstorming parts of the design process.
Don't forget to take pictures of sketches and share why you went with different design decisions.
Remember that the key to this being successful, is to create faux projects that you would be thrilled to get IRL. If you’d like to create logo designs, there’s no reason to create a website for a fake business. If your true passion is to work with fashion start ups, why are you creating projects for fake restaurants?
The obvious caveat to creating these self-initiated projects, is that you’re not getting real life feedback from a client, and can’t benefit from a client testimonial at the end of your project.
You may want to share the project with a couple creative pals to make sure you’re on the right track!
2. Re-design an existing projects & explain why yours is better
Another great way you can show off your process is by re-designing an existing creation.
You see this a lot when a company like Verizon, Uber or Instagram does a logo re-design, people like to hop in and share what their process would have looked like (just search for any of these on Dribbble to get an idea).
I think this is an interesting way to share your skills and join a conversation. However, the example I really like to share is this travel site re-design by Nathan Barry, because you have the opportunity to get strategic with work that clearly needs updating (and who knows, you could pitch your mock up and actually get the gig!)
3. Start a side project
Creating a side project is an interesting way to add a portfolio piece because you can pursue something you’re passionate about, plus create the designs for it!
Are you trying to become a designer for bands? Start a podcast analyzing album artwork! It can not only make great content for your website (which drives eyeballs to your site!) But you’ll also be designing the logo, graphics, website and marketing materials for your podcast - which can make for a robust portfolio piece.
Who knows, you might even find you'd like to work with podcasters to design their collateral!?
4. Commit to a creative challenge
My all time favorite way to build a portfolio piece is by committing to a daily creative challenge. It’s an awesome way to simultaneously build a body of work, flex your creative muscles and connect with an audience. Creative challenges work best when, well they’re challenging! If 30 days seems overwhelming, I would try at least 10 consecutive days of creating.
Try something like a 30 day lettering challenge and post daily on Instagram. Or an icon design a day and post your process on a YouTube channel. There are so many different options and a lot of people who are doing challenges out there to give you some motivation.
5. Trade skills
This is a little bit beyond self-initiated work. However, I wanted to present it as an option if you’re having trouble getting real world experience and landing those first couple clients. There’s a lot out there advising designers not to work for free, which I agree with!
But I believe trading skills can be a great way to get experience working with people when you're first getting started, or having trouble breaking into a new niche. It's an effective way to refine your process and get a testimonial for your site. Plus, the added bonus of a living, breathing design out in the real world beyond your portfolio.
The important thing is, to come up with a trade that doesn’t leave you feeling burned out. An example might be, you want to create digital marketing materials for entrepreneurs - find someone with an audience that have the people you would like to work with and offer a new Facebook group banner, or newsletter template.
Something that will help take their brand design “next level” in exchange for a blog or instagram feature that promotes you to their audience.
You might have to ask around a few times before you get a "yes"!
- Create a “faux” business, which can give you full creative freedom on the project.
- Redesign an existing piece of work, and why yours is better.
- Start a side project, you can pursue your passion while creating designs - it’s a win-win!
- Try a creative challenge, which can help build an audience while simultaneously creating a body of work.
- Trade “skills” to get a better understanding on what it’s like to work with someone.
- Make sure to list on your project that it is “self-initiated”.