Help! My Portfolio Sucks

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.

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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

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.

8 Reader Comments

  1. Really good article about a problem that I have been struggling with. Nice to read that it’s not uncommon and ever nicer to read an expert’s advice. The practicle solutions are really useful so thanks for that. I’m going to check out the Design is a Job book. Looking forward to reading about the side projects!

  2. Yeah, I’m stuck in NDA land for work (previous in-house job as well) so my portfolio is basically whatever I have the energy to work on after the 9-5. Definitely interested in that future side project article.

  3. I remember Ask Dr. Web! Wow what a blast from the past. I feel like I am meeting an old friend. I haven’t visited that site in so long but am dying to dig through the archives 🙂

    I just couldn’t agree more on your thoughts on this. I don’t comment publicly or talk bad about client work past or present, but lets just say I’ve done some work that my clients have LOVED that I was sincerely ashamed of. Great thoughts on countering this.

  4. As someone who works on the marketing side in a digital advertising agency, I see the struggle some tech designers have with creating a user-friendly site that the client is especially pleased with while I see others struggle with creating an “okay” website design that the client couldn’t be happier about. I agree with your point that “it’s not just your job to create something great; it’s also your job to sell that solution to the client,” but I also believe it is important for the tech designer to voice their recommendations to the client alongside the marketing team in order to build a mutual trust between the client and tech designer. The account manager is responsible for making sure the client is happy – not necessarily the tech designer. If a company has great account managers, clients will not only feel assured that their technical needs are met but that they are also designed with the best approaches in mind. Likewise, I appreciate your thoughts on hiring personnel who include a non-work-related project in their portfolio. From everything I have seen thus far in my career, digital agencies want to hire professionals who are not only tech-savvy but who are also well-rounded. The ability to shift design mindsets with varying clients is a skill I find somewhat underrated. Although an agency may specialize in something particular (such as healthcare or education), future clients may come from completely opposite fields and it is essential that a designer can adapt to different client needs and expectations. Overall, I like that your article focuses on the idea that you may complete projects you are not entirely proud of. A key factor to remember, however, is that if the client is happy, you have done your job and you have done it well. Your clients will spread positive W.O.M and you may receive some challenging new assignments in the future because of your previous work.

  5. Happy Cog is an amazing inspiration, and a company I dream of working with, so it’s heartening to hear Happy Cog has had to deal with this, too! Thanks for the practical advice on dealing with less-than-stellar results.

    About selling ideas: Do you mean with existing clients, or prospects? Do you think a designer can get the client she wants with the portfolio she has (but doesn’t like), just by telling the story differently?

    And yes, I’ll buy the book.

  6. Thanks for the great article. Seeing an issue from a different angle is a good way to solve the problem. Put emphasis on how you approach to clients’ issues is so much better than explaining why your project fail. I think there are several things we can do at beginning to prevent our projects from failure.
    1. Treat mistake as a gift
    Making mistakes is easy, learning from mistakes is hard. However, the most efficient or best way to learn and improve is probably through mistakes. Analyze the mistakes you made during or after you finish a client’s project and learn what you’ve done wrong so that you won’t repeat your mistake again in next project.
    2. Know when to pause
    You may have an intense project that requires you to finish in a limited time period. Sometimes the pressure will make you lose your judgment and become self-centered. It’s better for you or your team to pause the project, get some fresh air, and then continue to work if that is happening.
    3. Learn to use leverage
    Archimedes said “give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” This also applies to our work or projects. A good way to do this is to invest your time, energy, and resources on the most important tasks. In addition, ask for help if you are in need. People are willing to help those who seek for help. It’s normal that you don’t have enough time to focus on every aspect of a project. Therefore, learn to leverage your time and resources.

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