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Ask Dr. Web with Jeffrey Zeldman

Help! My Portfolio Sucks

A note from the editors: During the 1990s, “Ask Dr. Web” was a regular part of Zeldman.com—and now Dr. Web is back to answer your career and industry questions. Read on for his advice, learn the story behind the column, and don't forget to submit a question of your own.

What if a lot of your past work reflects times when you satisfied the client, but couldn’t sell them on your best ideas? How do you build a portfolio out of choices you wouldn’t have made? Our very own Jeffrey Zeldman answers your toughest career questions.

Dear Dr. Web: What do you do when you’re not proud of the work you’ve done for your clients, and don’t want it featured in your portfolio?
My Shame
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Dear My,

Everybody does some work they’re not proud of. Paula Scher and Jony Ive have had the occasional project that didn’t work out as hoped. Dieter Rams may have a thing he worked on that he cringes to think about today. Even Ethan Marcotte has some fixed-width, bandwidth-intensive sites on his resume. When I worked in advertising, creatives at lousy shops took shoddy delight in finding out about dull, bread-and-butter accounts the award-winners occasionally had to work on. We all do it. It’s part of making a living. Sometimes you just need a gig, so you take on a project for which you can deliver competence, but nothing more. Other times, you take on a job with high hopes—only to have those hopes dashed because you couldn’t sell your best idea to the client, or because the business was better served by a dull solution than by the groundbreaking one you hoped to put in your portfolio.

I learned a thing or two about how to gracefully handle less-than-stellar projects from a friend who co-founded one of the leading boutique design consultancies of our age. At one time, this consultancy scooped up every challenging, high-profile strategic gig out there. After they delivered a handful of brilliant strategic bullet points for three-quarters of the client’s budget, my studio would come in—like the guys with brushes who follow the circus elephants—and do all the design, user experience, and front- and back-end coding work for what remained of the budget. Needless to say, I paid attention to how my highly paid strategist friends handled their business. (Rule Number One: don’t hate successful competitors; learn from them.)

At one point my illustrious friends took on a design project helmed by another pal of mine, who was working at the client company. Let’s just say this one didn’t go as well as hoped. For one thing, my friend who was working on the client side redid their code and design work, which is something a client should never, ever, ever, ever do—and should never feel she has to do. The results were not pretty, and did not in any way reflect the client’s fond hopes or the consulting studio’s work or philosophy.

So what did the consultants do when the project went live? Instead of featuring the gig in their portfolio, they had their team leader write about the project in their blog. Rather than the work they had done, he discussed the business challenges the client had faced, and explained their strategic approach to solving those problems. The team leader was extremely complimentary (and rightfully so) about the client’s place in its sphere of business. He spoke warmly of the client’s openness to bold ideas. There was no hint of disappointment, and there was also no dishonesty. My friend wrote about the things that had attracted his team to the gig, and left everyone with a nice, warm, vague feeling. And that’s how you handle a job that doesn’t work out to your satisfaction.

We’ve done the same thing at Happy Cog once or twice, when the work we delivered—although it satisfied the client and did everything it was supposed to do—just wasn’t exciting enough to merit a portfolio showcase. So you write about the business challenges you solved. Or about some innovative coding you did. Or you just share how honored you were to work on behalf of a client who does such wonderful things in the world. (I’m assuming you’re not ashamed of your client, even if you weren’t able to reach new design heights on their project.)

But there’s another part to your question—or, at least, I have a question about your question. It sounds like you’re not just unhappy with one or two projects you’ve worked on. It sounds like you’re unhappy with most of them.

Now, that would be another problem entirely. As a designer, it’s not just your job to create something great. It’s also your job to sell that solution to the client. If you can’t do that, then you need to workshop your persuasion skills, just as you would workshop your CSS skills if they had gotten rusty. A designer must sell. That’s part of the work. A decent designer who can sell will have a better career—and do better work—than a brilliant designer who cannot. There are books out there that can help. Design Is a Job is a great one. A List Apart’s Rachel Andrew writes about the business of web development, and Mike Monteiro’s 13 Ways Designers Screw Up Client Presentations may help you stop doing things in presentations that unconsciously undercut your work and convince the client not to buy your best ideas.

If deep-seated personality issues prevent you from selling—and you should only come to that conclusion after working at least a year to improve your selling ability—then find a partner who is good at it. They’re probably good at business development, too, and will almost certainly justify the percentage you pay them by improving your professional profile, finding you better clients, and helping you raise your pitifully low rates. (Designers who can’t sell always undercharge for their services. I know. I used to be one.)

Countries and cultures factor in here, as well. There are some places in the world where the designer is always wrong, and the client is a dictator. That is changing everywhere, but change comes slowly in some places, and you may not want to be the evangelist who single-handedly fights to improve the position of all designers in your part of the world. If you live in such a place, consider moving, or find a way to raise your profile so that you can work remotely for a more enlightened class of client.

Regardless of where you live, one important way to build a great portfolio is to work on open source or community-based projects. Side projects like Fonts In Use can build a designer’s reputation when the work she does for clients is less than satisfactory. I have never hired a designer who doesn’t have at least one interesting non-client project to show for herself, and I never will. When all else fails, create a killer blog. I started A List Apart because there was no magazine that approached web design the way I felt it should be approached, and to show what I could do when my first clients weren’t letting me do my best work.

I’ll have more to say about side projects in a future installment of “Ask Dr. Web.”

Have a question about professional development, industry culture, or the state of the web? This is your chance to pick Jeffrey Zeldman’s brain. Send your question to Dr. Web via Twitter (#askdrweb), Facebook, or email.

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