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The most frequent question I get from students in my classes is “Are we really going to build a portfolio? What can we possibly put in it when we’ve never had any clients or been paid for work?”

It’s a great question and one that merits lots of thought and discussion. What can beginners include in portfolios when they’re learning and just starting out? For starters, everyone in our Blueprints courses has access to loads of great projects to complete in class. All of these are great inclusions in a portfolio because they are focused prompts that aim to bring out each student’s individual creativity and unique approach to solving problems.

But there are plenty of types of work you can showcase in your portfolio besides the traditional projects or jobs that first come to mind. You can literally invent “fake”, imaginary, DREAM projects just for your portfolio. In fact, you don’t need to be a beginner to do this – experienced web designers and developers do it all the time to keep up with skills, try new things and provide fresh solutions to problems. Daniel Mall has talked about this extensively, Skillcrush friend and designer Katie Kovalcin swears by it. And our friends at Funsize.co frequently reimagine dream clients’  products.

“Put the work YOU want to be doing in your portfolio, not the work you think others want to see.” Says Kovalcin. ” If you make fake projects, the trick is to make it look real. Put in context: print it out and photograph it, mock it up however you need to as if it were really a finished product and not just comps/ideas.”

What I’m about to suggest to you is a framework of porfolio project categories that aim to showcase a wide range of your skills. you can do all of these without a client or previous experience. A few considerations:

  • Make sure you are transparent in interviews and on your actual portfolio about the work you’re presenting and the processes you used to get to the final product.
  • Challenge yourself to approach one actual client – a friend who needs a blog redesign or a mom and pop business. Offer to create something for them for minimal pay or for free. However, if this is too intimidating or you just don’t have the bandwidth, focus on creating and refining the projects below and give them context, like Kovalcin suggests
  • Place an emphasis on process – don’t just focus on your ideas and execution. Use this time to go through the processes involved. Considering everything from research to user personas to briefs and wireframes. These are the types of deliverables that really make your work stand out, and showcase the life cycle of your project.

Okay, now that we’ve taken a few things into consideration, on to the main event, the projects!

SAMPLE PRETEND (but still real) PROJECTS

1. The DREAM client website – A dream client website allows you to showcase how you think in terms of scale. I once interviewed a self-taught developer who learned to code over the summer and had redesigned the New York Times website on his portfolio. It was amazing. He thought through every detail – how it looked on tablets and mobile phones, what the app experience was like, how comments and threading worked in his solution and lots more. It was the only project in his portfolio – but of course it was so thorough and thoughtfully presented, it was all he needed to get the job.

2. The non profit or mom n pop website – A great project to include in your portfolio is the design or redesign of a small local non profit or your favorite neighborhood take-out restaurant. One of my favorite to-go haunts is a delicious Mediterranean place named Sarah’s. I’d love to redesign their website, giving it a completely modern feel (no flashing pointing hands for the special of the day) while staying true to the family’s wonderful sense of community and humor.

I’d also love to design an html menu page because right now the only way to view their offerings are by downloading a PDF (a pain on my iPad and iPhone bc I have to take 3 steps to download & view it). It also looks like they started working on a meet the chefs page – I’d love to see this through. It would be great if newcomers visiting the site could meet the chefs – they’d be so taken by their personalities & warmth they’d never be able to resist a visit (the chefs are a married couple. Whenever I walk in they look at me & gasp and jokingly ask “Deepina you are hungry AGAIN?” It’s hilarious & their joie de vivre really comes across in the spices in their food).

3. Your twist on an icon set – This is a pretty standard project, but its a great way for you to offer something for free to the visitors on your website and go include a project of a completely differently scale in your portfolio. An icon set might seem ubiquitous but if you do it well and use it as an opportunity to define your aesthetic (think Project Runway!) you could really wow people in an interview. Check out Dribbble for examples of icon sets done differently. Or what if you designed a few of your own emojis to add to the next set of releases? Very topical, fun, and creative!

4. Improved mobile product UX – Focus on mobile UX to show how you would improve the experience for an existing client or brand in the mobile landscape. This is a project that allows you to be creative inside some very specific constraints. Do some research here. Perhaps you love a website but think the mobile experience needs an overhaul. Work towards its reinvention and create ux deliverables every step of the way.

5. Redesigned newsletter template – This may sound like a snooze fest, but I did this for my first portfolio while applying for my one of my first jobs in tech. One of the administrative duties of that job was to redesign and send out newsletters about events, interviews, breaking news and other timely items so before I applied, I spent half a day redesigning the org’s newsletter, creating 3 samples and including it all in my portfolio. Needless to say, they were impressed. I got the interview (and two follow ups) AND the job.

There are many other cool projects you could make up and include. The above are my suggestions because they are things I get excited about and LOVE seeing when I’m interviewing developers because they will likely be working on these types of projects once hired. Have additional project ideas? Tweet us your thoughts @skillcrush or post them in the comments below!

 

This post is Part 2 in a series of posts about portfolios. You can read Part 1 here.

Get the Beginner's Guide to What to Put in Your Tech Portfolio

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Get dozens of resources, plus expert tips on how to build a KILLER portfolio even if you're an absolute beginner.

You can unsubscribe from our mailing list at any time. We won't use your email address for anything else, promise!

Deepina Kapila

Dee is a fun-loving instructor with diverse tech experience across Fortune 500 companies, early-stage start-ups, government agencies & non-profits. Dee works at mobile product design studio Funsize, in Austin Texas where she lives with her husband, 2 border collie mixes, & 2 cats.

In her spare time she enjoys playing video games, reading on her Kindle & scuba diving in her hometown (Curaçao - an island in the Caribbean!).

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4 comments

  1. Manuela Replied

    Icon set, in which course are you teaching how to create an icon set?

  2. Adria aghasi Replied

    Hi
    I want to know which field in graphic design is the best and needed one?
    Thanks

  3. Rich Replied

    How come no one mentions the fact that these companies actually want experience and whole list of projects? I have two projects and I’m pretty proficient with html5 and css3 and jquery. But when I go to interviews, they expect to see more than 2 projects under my portfolio. It’s been a tough road, but it’s not as easy as it seems getting a job as a front end developer for recruiters or companies. Don’t get me wrong, anyone can really learn html and css, but when it comes to javascript, they expect more than the basics. Frameworks are a hot thing right now and it seems like the city I’m in has the hots for angular, backbone and nodejs. So I’ve been considering making real time apps with one of those Frameworks instead of relying on making static sites with html css and jquery. I have had a lot of interviews and I’ve been really unsuccessful.

    • I am a full stack developer and am fairly new to the development industry so I know your pain. Experience is number one in the industry because its easier to say you know something and use it for a few projects. Using it everyday on the job is very different.

      angular, backbone and nodejs are rarely going to be entry level positions. Until you get a larger portfolio you should look for more entry level positions. Other ways to get the experience is to contribute to open source projects on github, attend meetups and present at conferences.

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