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A stellar portfolio is pretty much a necessity if you want to land any kind of design work, whether as a full-time employee or a freelancer. All the credentials in the world can’t prove you’re a good designer. The only thing that proves that is actual design work. (Mind-blowing idea, I know.)
Figuring out what to put in your portfolio (and almost as important—what to leave out) can be daunting regardless of where you are in your career. It can be tough to figure out how many projects you should even include, especially if you don’t have a ton of projects to choose from.
Deepina Kapila has covered some great beginner projects to put in your portfolio when you’re just starting out. (Check out Part 1 and Part 2 of her portfolio series.) The cool thing about Dee’s ideas for stocking up your resume is that you don’t have to wait till you get real paying clients—you can compile an impressive portfolio of your own sample projects of the kind of work you want to get paid for.
But what if you’ve got a little more experience (and some real-world projects) already in your portfolio? What are you supposed to feature to prove you can handle big, complex projects when the only work you’re getting hired to do are the same small, simple projects you’ve been pumping out since you got started?
You can take the same idea of creating design concepts and samples to the next level, by creating more complex and impressive projects that you hope to get hired to work on. Use your portfolio to show what you’re capable of doing, and clients will come to you for more projects at that caliber.
Check out these five projects you can create with or without a client in mind to take your portfolio (and your career) to the next level:
Project 1: A complete branding package
Creating a website mockup concept for a company you love is a great place to start. But what if you feel like your skills have evolved beyond that?
Create a complete brand update, with a logo, mood board, color palette, website design, packaging design, business cards, and style guide (along with any other designs you think are necessary). It’s a big undertaking, and can be done for either a real client or just as a concept.
You can download stock images for things like packages, printed materials, and more that you can overlay your designs on for an even more impressive presentation. If you’re not sure where to start, check out all the branding packages uploaded to sites like Behance.
Creating comprehensive branding packages like this is in the domain of visual designers, who focus on helping brands develop a visual identity and creating the web graphics to make it happen. If you’re interested in more work like this, check out our new Visual Designer Career Blueprint—you’ll learn what it takes to be a visual designer, from the tools (like Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign) to the best way to set up your design process. Learn when enrollment opens.
Project 2: A stock theme for a popular CMS
WordPress is the most popular content management system currently available, so it makes sense to develop a stock theme for WP. That said, there are tons of other options available if you do some research.
One of the big perks about developing a stock theme is that you can also sell it as a premium theme, generating income while contributing to your portfolio. Or you can give your theme away as a means of promoting yourself (consider offering support or customization for an additional price in this case).
Look at other themes that are on the market—and what sets them apart—and then design one of your own! ThemeForest is a great place to check out tons of successful theme designs. Look at the most popular designs on the site, even if you don’t plan to sell your theme.
And you don’t have to get too fancy. Check out these simple WordPress themes by Paul Jarvis.
Psst! To get under the hood with WordPress and learn what goes into creating your own theme, check out our Freelance WordPress Developer Career Blueprint. You’ll build your own WP site from scratch in just 3 months.
Project 3: A completely new mobile app concept
Mobile app design and development is huge. And while creating a new design concept for an existing app can be impressive, creating a new app concept design 100% from scratch is even more so.
Figure out what kind of app you want to create, find some examples that are already out there, and then set about creating a concept for something that’s missing from the market.
Be sure you follow established mobile best practices and restrictions so that your design does not come across as unprofessional. You can find tons of examples and inspiration on sites like Mobile Patterns.
And if you don’t know where to start with responsive development, our Front End Developer Blueprint will teach you the ins and outs and industry standards.
Project 4: A 365 design project
If you’re playing the long game (which you should be when it comes to your career), then starting a 365 design project can be a fantastic thing to add to your portfolio. 365 design projects consist of creating a simple design, usually along a theme or for a particular type of design (icons, logos, typography, etc.), and posting them every day for a full year.
Some designers are doing these as collaborative projects, inviting other designers to join in, while others take them on entirely solo. Check out this super useful article by Cynthia Koo on how to design your own 365 project.
It’s a great way to give yourself some accountability, get your name and work out there for clients and peers to find, and lower the pressure to create something awesome—when you work on something new every day, they don’t all have to be perfect!
Project 5: Your portfolio itself!
If you’ve been using a stock theme, even one that’s customized, to host your portfolio, it’s time to upgrade! Designing an entirely custom portfolio site is a chance for you to really show off who you are, what your design style is, and how you can do more for your clients than your competitors do.
Really take time to plan out and create a site that is 100% you. Think about the kinds of projects you’ll be showcasing, then figure out the best way to display those projects. Check out Folio Focus for some great inspiration from other designers’ portfolios.
When you’re satisfied that your portfolio is in tip-top shape, be sure to check out the FREE Ultimate Guide to Going Freelance!
Cameron is a staff writer here at Skillcrush, and spends most of her time writing and editing blog posts and Ultimate Guides. She's been a freelance writer, editor, and author for going on a decade, writing for some of the world's leading web design and tech blogs. When she's not writing about design, she spends her time writing screenplays and making films (and music videos for rock and metal bands!) in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom.