Maintaining a digital presence in the form of a portfolio website can be integral to embarking upon and forging a successful career in a variety of fields, including communication and media, design, business, and engineering. In the communication industry in particular, which encompasses fields such as advertising, journalism, marketing, public relations, social media management, and technical writing, a portfolio is crucial as both a reflection of one’s professional qualifications and as an important reflective exercise when considering one’s career journey and how to craft a strong narrative and personal brand. Employers who are looking for candidates with training in particular areas often want to see examples of a candidate’s work, while also getting to know something more about the person and his or her values, goals, and ambitions.
An effective digital portfolio shows the range of a candidate’s work, encouraging potential employers to form favorable and lasting impressions of a candidate early in the hiring process. This can give jobseekers who have taken the time to create a portfolio website a competitive advantage over candidates who only have a cover letter and resumé to impress hiring managers. A digital portfolio may be the difference between getting an interview and not getting an interview, and also provides potential employers with concrete examples of the accomplishments applicants cite in their resumé, both of which are key in today’s competitive job landscape.
The Importance of Creating a Digital Portfolio
To provide students and professionals with advice and insights on why they should consider creating a digital portfolio, we interviewed five professors who either teach or are involved with master’s programs where students complete a digital portfolio as part of their graduate program. While the professors we interviewed are from communication-related graduate degree programs, their advice and the information included in this Guide are relevant to students and professionals in a variety of fields.
A digital portfolio is more than just a website with someone’s resumé and brief biography. On the contrary, it is an opportunity for applicants to tell potential employers who they are, and why they are the right person for a job. Jeanine Turner, Ph.D. is a Georgetown University professor who has spent the past 15 years teaching in the school’s Communication, Culture, and Technology (CCT) master’s program. In one of her courses – “Digital Presence and Strategic Persuasion” – students spend a semester creating a digital portfolio. “In the course, we focus on the power of narrative and storytelling in the context of a portfolio,” Dr. Turner explains. “We also focus on personal branding… And we talk about persuasion and influence. All of that is centered around creating a portfolio that accurately represents who you are and what your skills and interests are.”
In many cases, the process of putting together the portfolio and thinking about what goes into the portfolio is the most important part of creating a portfolio for a lot of students. After students have gone through that process, they are in a better position to communicate about themselves.
Another important benefit of creating a digital portfolio is walking through the process of considering, curating, and presenting one’s professional accomplishments in a way that creates a compelling narrative. At various points in the hiring process, candidates are often called upon to talk about themselves, their skills and experience, and their approach to overcoming challenges in the workplace and beyond. Students who take the time to create a thoughtful portfolio that accurately reflects their experiences will greatly benefit from that time when it comes to answering challenging interview questions.
“In many cases, the process of putting together the portfolio and thinking about what goes into the portfolio is the most important part of creating a portfolio for a lot of students. After students have gone through that process, they are in a better position to communicate about themselves,” noted Dr. Turner.
While a resumé can, at best, simply reference candidates’ greatest professional accomplishments, leaving much to the imagination or to conjecture, a digital portfolio provides a platform for candidates to concretely show potential employers what they have accomplished through artifacts. Moreover, the visual nature of a digital portfolio enables job applicants to show drafts and prototypes of their work, to better illustrate their process, the challenges they faced, and their reasoning in solving these challenges.
Ruth Tsuria, Ph.D., a Professor of Communication in the College of Communication and the Arts at Seton Hall University (SHU), who both helped develop and teach a new portfolio course that is part of SHU’s Master of Arts in Communication program, explained, “Most employers want to see projects. They want to see that a candidate can do projects because most of the deliverables out there are project oriented. That requires understanding how you start with an idea and follow it through to the completion of a clearly defined project on a timeline.”
Looking to the future, Dr. Turner speculates that a strong portfolio may take on a larger importance in the hiring process as employers begin to rely more heavily on a candidate’s digital presence. “I think that getting a face-to-face interview is going to be harder and harder to get as we move forward,” she says. “People are going to value their in-person, face-to-face time in a different way than they used to. Whereas before, maybe you could count on getting a face-to-face interview and rely on that to make an impression and tell your story, having a strong portfolio becomes much more crucial in a situation when you’re not sure if you’re going to have that opportunity.”
Getting Started on a Digital Portfolio
The digital portfolio, sometimes referred to as an e-portfolio, is generally conceptualized as a multifaceted web property that is accessible to potential employers and collaborators, and which contains a resumé, an “about me” bio, and other materials that highlight one’s skills, training, and accomplishments. It is also an opportunity for a person to demonstrate his or her command of digital media, visual design, and information architecture. However, the key to creating an effective portfolio is good content.
Indeed, one of the most straightforward pieces of advice offered by Dr. Turner is that students begin the process of collecting portfolio content early in their academic careers and make cataloguing content part of their routine as they progress through their undergraduate and/or graduate degree programs. “Even if it just amounts to creating a Google Drive folder in which you keep track of what you are accomplishing, that can be a big help, “she says, “It’s good to do that every semester or even at the end of each year, just to actively reflect on what you’ve done and what you have learned.”
B. Rich, whose background is in film and design and who holds an MFA in Film and Video, is an Assistant Professor in the School of Design at DePaul University’s College of Computing and Digital Media who teaches a digital portfolio course in DePaul’s Master of Arts in Digital Communication and Media Arts program. He echoes Dr. Turner’s sentiments in his description of the portfolio building process. In describing the key elements of the portfolio course he teaches, Professor Rich explained, “To build the portfolio, the students go through all of the projects they’ve ever done, starting with projects that go back to the beginning of their work in the field. Through that they can touch on what spurred their interest in media and design and create a backstory as an introduction to their work. We talk about how to tell a story about yourself and the projects that you include in your portfolio.” Clearly, reflecting upon one’s professional growth and creating a cohesive narrative about said growth is one of the primary benefits of building a digital portfolio.
I see the portfolio process as an opportunity to take a line on a resumé and expand on it in some way by describing in detail what you did. You can do that with additional text or with pictures or graphics.
Dr. Turner also recommends using a resumé as a starting point or building block for what will become a more complete portfolio. “I think the first step is to get your resumé together. If you don’t have a resumé already, then start creating one. If you already have a resumé, then start thinking carefully about the key things you have learned in specific jobs and what you would use to demonstrate those skills… I see the portfolio process as an opportunity to take a line on a resumé and expand on it in some way by describing in detail what you did. You can do that with additional text or with pictures or graphics.”
In many ways, a digital portfolio is how a job applicant can make his or her resumé come alive for potential employers, as it allows them to see exactly what the applicant’s resumé describes.
Digital Portfolio Content versus Design
While it may be tempting to focus on the design of one’s digital portfolio/website, experts in the field agree that, at least in the initial stages, content should take precedence over design. “I have students who will spend so much time looking at templates and trying to pick the right website design,” explains Dr. Turner. “They get stuck on how the portfolio looks, which is important, but the hardest part is developing the actual content. That’s what takes the most time.” She also noted, “More and more, with Squarespace and Tumblr and WordPress, you can put together a website in two hours and you can make it look professional. But in terms of the content, it won’t be a great site without spending time reflecting critically on the sections and developing the narrative.”
The difficult part is knowing how to select, polish, and present key artifacts in such a way as to have the desired impact on employers while also establishing one’s personal brand. The sections below provide an overview on how to balance content and design in the creation of a digital portfolio. (For more information on the specific elements to include in a digital portfolio, see the section entitled The Elements of a Digital Portfolio below.)
Portfolio Content and Organization
The content of a digital portfolio is highly individual. Indeed, a key element of a strong portfolio is its emphasis on its author’s individuality and professional journey. As a result, and as mentioned previously, it is important for students to choose projects that reflect their work ethic, their thought process when tackling projects, and/or their greatest professional growth. One principle that Dr. Turner has found useful in teaching her students about the portfolio creation process involves having students reflect upon and answer several key questions about themselves and their desired audience. “There are three questions we focus on answering in the class: Who are you?; Who is your audience?; and, How are you going to represent yourself?”
Professor Rich also stresses the importance of thinking through who, or in some cases what, may be reading and interacting with their portfolios. “Every portfolio is different, but we try to break them up into tiers so that the first page is a thumbnail and a blurb and if someone wants to know more about a specific project, they can click on it and go deeper. We want the students to imagine a hiring manager and to think about what that hiring manager is going to see.”
“If you are applying for a job,” he continues, “you want to make sure that the person doing the hiring sees the stuff you want them to see first and then, if they are interested, they can look at other things you have done. I like to think in terms of complexity. The first thing people see should be easy to follow and have some pictures. It should leave people with a clear impression of what you have done… The second level may be for the hiring manager in a department, a person who knows a little bit more about what they need but they don’t do the actual job so it should still not be too technical. And then you can have a third level where you assume that the people who do the kind of work that you do are now looking at it and you can get more into the weeds and go into depth and detail about all the little choices that are going to be interesting to someone who knows what you are doing, but that wouldn’t be interesting to a person who doesn’t have some technical knowledge.”
While many of the most common website platforms (which are discussed in more detail below), including Squarespace, Weebly, Wix, and WordPress, have templates that provide relatively easy-to-navigate frameworks, crafting a coherent professional narrative requires thinking beyond individual pieces of content and where to place them on a portfolio website. Therefore, students should organize their digital portfolio’s content along several key lines: the importance of each project, the target audience, and when the project was completed. Organizing projects in terms of when they were completed along the course of one’s professional journey ensures a logical flow to one’s portfolio, while prioritizing the best artifacts so that employers see them first is also crucial.
Moreover, students should take into consideration how different employers will interact with their portfolio and try to create as easy of a navigation experience as possible.
The visual presentation of a portfolio website may be secondary to quality content and its organization, but it is nonetheless a relevant consideration. This is particularly true in graphic design, photography, art, and other fields in which portfolio content is primarily visual. Therefore, as noted above, when creating one’s digital portfolio, it is crucial to understand one’s target audience (i.e., potential employers and/or clients) and to tailor one’s portfolio design to meet the standards and preferences of these parties.
Students should keep in mind that, in the current competitive job market, employers may spend only a few minutes on their portfolio website. Therefore, making a strong impression immediately is crucial. However, captivating and catchy are two different things, and students should aim for the former rather than the latter, in that they should present their work in a way that grabs and maintains viewers’ attention.
Dr. Renee Robinson, Program Director for the Master of Arts in Communication program at Seton Hall University who is a colleague for Dr. Tsuria and who also helped design SHU’s portfolio course that is a part of the MA program, stresses the need for students to develop competency in the basics of design. “Having an ability to express messages coherently in a way that is word based or sound based or visual is the important factor,” she explains. “I want the students to think about which tools they can use to accomplish that… Regardless of whether you’re using Photoshop or some other graphics application, there are still things you need to know about what makes an effective visual message and about how to use light and space in designing a graphic.”
In summary, students should put in the effort to ensure their digital portfolio is streamlined and visually appealing, which may entail learning about how to balance words, visuals, and video/audio on their website so as to create a comfortable and captivating experience for audience members. With that said, overall, content is still more important than design for most students and professionals and where the majority of the time should be spent when creating a digital portfolio.
The Elements of a Digital Portfolio
The specific composition of a digital portfolio can vary substantially by field and by individual preference. Yet, there are certain components of a professional portfolio that experts tend to agree are important to include. For example, a resumé is typically included as part of a digital portfolio, as is a concise biography or “about me” section. Beyond those two elements, decisions about what else to post on a portfolio website are more or less up to the person creating the portfolio.
There are literally dozens of resumé apps and sites and that collectively have hundreds if not thousands of resumé templates to choose from. Microsoft Word itself offers a selection of resumé templates that are professionally designed and relatively easy to access. Content and clarity are perhaps the most important factors when creating a resumé, although it does not hurt to incorporate some design elements. However, it may be advantageous to utilize a streamlined resumé template in order to ensure that the computer-based applicant tracking systems (ATSs) used by some companies to make a first pass at identifying qualified candidates can “read” the relevant information on the resumé.
It is also important to note that, for many professionals, LinkedIn has become a standard way to store and distribute their resumés. Professor Rich emphasizes the importance of having one’s resumé on LinkedIn and/or one’s digital portfolio. “The resumé is one of those things that has to be there [as part of your online presence]. People are going to go to LinkedIn to see who you are and what you’ve done. That’s become the rolodex for everybody. So, you either want to have a link to your portfolio with your resumé there or have your resumé linked out from your portfolio. You just want to make sure that it’s easily accessible from wherever you are directing people.”
In many ways, a resumé can serve as a table of contents for the digital portfolio, providing potential employers with context regarding a candidate’s academic and/or professional accomplishments, and a narrative about featured projects. It should therefore be viewed as foundational to the digital portfolio and a key reference point for the end user.
The “About Me” Section
“About me” sections are generally short and to the point, comprising one or two paragraphs that provide a brief introduction and overview of personal experiences, skills, goals, and any other noteworthy biographical details that may be of interest to employers. The section should align with the rest of the portfolio’s contents and is a fundamental component of most digital portfolios. The “about me” section is also an opportunity for individuals to project their personality strengths, their priorities and passions, and their ability to work well with others on a team. While students are encouraged to mention important milestones in their career, they should be careful not to simply repeat what is already disclosed in their resumé. The “about me” section should complement the resumé, not overlap with it.
The students are encouraged to bring their personalities into the portfolio as part of their personal branding, which means that some portfolios have a more serious tone and others take a more light-hearted approach in the ‘about me’ section,
Sydney Dillard, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Public Relations and Advertising in the College of Communication at DePaul University and the Academic Director of the Master of Arts in Public Relations and Advertising program; she advises students to see their “about me” section as a personal branding opportunity, as a strong sense of one’s personality is a key element of this type of branding. “The students are encouraged to bring their personalities into the portfolio as part of their personal branding, which means that some portfolios have a more serious tone and others take a more light-hearted approach in the ‘about me’ section,” she explains.
While students are discouraged from taking too informal of a tone, a warm and friendly writing voice that emulates how one talks can help potential employers get a sense of how you would interact with them and their colleagues in a work setting. In writing one’s biography, it is advisable to have a mix of individuals proofread one’s drafts–including professional and academic mentors, colleagues, and friends–to ensure that 1) one’s personality is accurately represented in one’s biography 2) the biography includes a discussion of one’s career journey and highlights, as well as one’s passions and goals and 3) the tone of one’s writing is genuine, accessible, and engaging.
Academic and Creative Work
The core of a professional portfolio consists of actual examples of work, often referred to in academic settings as artifacts. The type of work that goes into a portfolio varies by individual based on the knowledge, skills, and proficiencies the individual is aiming to highlight. For example, a technical writer would want to include several examples of technical writing in his or her portfolio. A public relations specialist might include a range of materials, including press releases, marketing campaign plans, and/or analyses of consumer trends. A graphic designer might include examples of drawings, webpage designs, logos, and other visual work. As mentioned previously, one piece of expert advice is to not overlook academic work, especially projects that have been completed as part of a graduate program.
While it may be tempting to include every single project one has worked on over the course of one’s academic and professional career, being selective is important. The Master of Arts in Public Relations and Advertising program for which Dr. Dillard serves as Academic Director requires students to complete a portfolio that includes at least three research/writing projects and three visual/graphic design projects. Students in the program are encouraged to tailor their portfolio’s content based on their own interests and aspirations, a process that requires self-reflection and honing their personal brand.
“[Students] spend a substantial amount of time reviewing the coursework they’ve completed in the program, identifying their personal brand based on their interests and their skillsets, and learning how to curate a portfolio that highlights all of that,” Dr. Dillard explains. “Students think about their career goals and look at the work they’ve done in order to design a portfolio that reflects those goals and how the work they’ve done relates to those goals.”
DePaul’s Professor Rich had similar comments and provided useful advice for students in undergraduate and in graduate programs who might want to overlook projects and work they have completed during their academic career. “I teach portfolio in a way that emphasizes that the portfolio is a story about you,” he explained. “It’s your story. It’s how you work and how you think. The individual projects you do for your portfolio don’t necessarily have to be great. You are a student. You are learning. And the projects you complete as a student are about learning, which means they aren’t all going to be polished, professional pieces. But if you can convey your thinking and your decision-making process in those projects, then you are telling a story about yourself.”
Dr. Turner similarly encourages students to include their academic work, and to understand that a portfolio is an illustration of a professional journey more than it is an extremely polished gallery of finished works. “Some people will create a portfolio and not have anything they did while they were in graduate school,” Dr. Turner explains. “That’s a mistake. A paper that a student does for a class analyzing an organization can be very valuable in a portfolio. You just have to communicate what you learned and what you did in that project.”
“It’s funny,” she reflects, “I have students who tell me that they don’t have any experience to put in their portfolio. They’ve just had two years of a master’s program and they’ve done case studies, in-depth analyses, and other projects. But they’re just thinking of that as academic work, even though some of the work you do in a master’s program is more in-depth than work you might do in the professional world.”
Finally, individuals working on their portfolios should keep in mind that, in some cases, less is actually more. Potential employers may not have the patience to sift through a large library of artifacts; students should therefore pick and choose their artifacts carefully, seeking to optimize the experience of the visitors to their website. This optimization may also include summarizing lengthier papers and/or more complex projects for employers and recruiters who only have a few minutes to scan their portfolio. Providing easily readable and understandable explanations of why each artifact in one’s portfolio demonstrates relevant skills and critical thinking can help potential employers navigate a portfolio.
Heidi Harris, Ph.D. is the Graduate Coordinator for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s (UALR) Department of Rhetoric and Writing. When describing the advice she gives her students in UALR’s Master of Arts in Professional and Technical Writing program, Dr. Harris notes, “We encourage the students who choose our portfolio option to create a portfolio that demonstrates their best work while simultaneously explaining WHY that work is their best work and how that work exemplifies the program’s learning outcomes.” Moreover, these explanations can help both students and employers connect the dots between students’ academic work and professional qualifications.
To illustrate this fact, Dr. Harris provided an example, recalling, “[O]ne of our MA graduates worked in the PR industry and led a team of writers before defending her portfolio. Her portfolio explained how she operationalized concepts from technical writing and composition theory classes to teach her team how to write for various audiences. Her portfolio was successful because she was able to operationalize her learning from academic courses in the workforce. The portfolio connected academia and industry to demonstrate the graduate’s ability to communicate effectively in both worlds.”
In other words, to simply feature technical writing training materials, the plans for a communication campaign, or even advertisement or marketing materials on one’s website is not enough–one must also provide employers with the context for these projects and a compelling “so what?” — that is, why should this project matter to them? To summarize her point, Dr. Harris emphasized, “[A] successful online portfolio is organized in a manner that demonstrates not only that a student can produce effective communication for an audience, but also WHY that communication is effective.”
Dr. Turner likewise strongly advises students to frame their work with clear explanations and summaries. “Some students might be tempted to just provide a link to a long research paper or thesis and then the reader is supposed to open the link and wade through everything to figure out if it is something they need to know. No one is going to take the time to do this. Students need to provide summaries and previews that encourage readers to take a deeper look.” This summarizing, streamlining, and helpful framing of the content that one includes in one’s portfolio is consistent with the principle that digital portfolios must be accessible/easy to navigate, and take the reader’s preferences into account.
Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media platforms are undeniably part of the larger media ecosphere and are another venue for promoting one’s personal brand and connecting with key professional contacts. As such, one’s social media profiles can be incorporated into a portfolio as long as care is taken to separate personal social media accounts from professional profiles. “We always tell the students that if they have a personal Twitter account, that’s fine,” says Dr. Dillard. “But you should also have a separate account that is more professionally focused and that is curated more carefully than you might for a personal account.”
There are layers through which people get to know you. Your resumé is just an outline; your LinkedIn profile is richer and more detailed; and your portfolio goes even deeper than that.
The one exception is LinkedIn, which has emerged as a somewhat ubiquitous or universal professional resource. “I see LinkedIn as a primary mechanism through which you communicate with the business world,” explains Dr. Turner. “People find you first on LinkedIn and then they can link to your portfolio to learn more about you. I would think that on LinkedIn you’d want to feature two or three of the things that are in your portfolio. Your portfolio will have more. There are layers through which people get to know you. Your resumé is just an outline; your LinkedIn profile is richer and more detailed; and your portfolio goes even deeper than that.”
When deciding whether to link one’s professional social media accounts to one’s digital portfolio, students should consider how active they are on social media. While including LinkedIn on one’s professional website is an easy choice, if one is not active on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram it might make less sense to include links to these profiles. As with the inclusion of artifacts in one’s portfolio, the decision to link to one’s social media account should be dictated by the question, “Is this particular social media profile an asset to my professional arsenal? What does it illustrate about me that will be attractive and informative to employers?”
In summary, students should include a mix of projects that reflect their professional journey, choosing their best and most illustrative work from both their academic and work experiences. They should also tie their portfolio together with their resumé that provides a timeline of their work experience and accomplishments, a biography that adds personality and authenticity to their portfolio, and include information about any professional social media accounts.
Portfolio Platforms and The Technology Behind a Portfolio Website
A digital portfolio is, at its core, a website. This website’s structure and the complexity of its design are individual. One person’s portfolio may be a simple website with just one page on which a bio, resumé, images, and text are posted, while another person’s could be a more elaborate web property with a central homepage that links to various additional pages on which text, images, audio, and/or video may be posted along with additional links to outside platforms (Social Media accounts, YouTube, SoundCloud, Behance, etc…). A portfolio website can also take the form of a regularly updated blog or have a blogging component within the architecture of a larger web property.
In terms of creating a digital portfolio website, students and professionals have to make two initial decisions that will determine how they create their website. The first involves deciding between registering a domain name (also referred to as a URL) with a domain name registrar versus using a subdomain of the platform they use to create the actual website. The second decision involves choosing which technology platform to use for the website itself. There are pros and cons associated with both of these decisions, which are discussed in more detail below.
Domain Name versus Platform Subdomain
A domain name is the website address that a user types into the address bar of a web browser. Web browsers convert domain names to Internet Protocol (IP) addresses through what is known as a Domain Name System (DNS). Anyone can register a domain name with a domain name registrar, assuming the domain name has not already been registered. There are several domain name registrars that charge different amounts to register a domain name (typically around $10 per year) and users typically have to renew domain names on a yearly basis. When a user registers a domain name with a domain name registrar, they own that domain as long as they keep renewing the domain name.
There are also technology platforms that will allow users to create what is referred to a subdomain off of their website domain. An example of a subdomain on the WordPress platform would be yoursite.wordpress.com. In this case, the user does not own the domain or the website they create on that domain–it is owned by the technology platform. (It is important to note that users may still own the content they create, but they should check with each platform to confirm before choosing a platform.)
While there are benefits and drawbacks to choosing a domain name versus a subdomain, the overall content of the portfolio is typically more important than the URL of the portfolio. However, to help users choose between a domain name and subdomain, the pros and cons of each are summarized below.
- Because users own domain names, they are not tied to a specific platform, should a platform go out of business or stop updating their software in the future;
- Users have the option to control every aspect of their website if needed, which may be beneficial for users who see themselves maintaining their website for years to come;
- For users interested in building their personal brand, a domain name will often be shorter and more specific, which could be beneficial as it is easier to share across social media platforms (for example, yourdomain.com versus yourdomain.platformdomain.com).
- Users must map domain names to technology platforms, which requires users to be more comfortable with technology (although most platforms offer step-by-step guides for this mapping);
- Domain names must be registered and renewed each year, which costs money;
- Some platforms may require users to upgrade their existing plan in order to use their own domain name, which may add additional costs;
- Service providers use domain name registrations to look for business opportunities, so registering a domain name can result in phone calls and emails if some sort of privacy is not added to the registration.
- Easier to set up and get started, as they typically do not require mapping to a domain name;
- Depending on the platform, users may be able to get a free basic account as long as they use a subdomain.
- Users do not own their domain names and therefore, could lose their websites if the technology platform ceases existence;
- Subdomains may contain platform’s branding and/or advertising, which users may have to pay monthly subscriptions to remove;
- URLs may not be as optimal for sharing on social media platforms or for personal branding as they contain the platform name in them (e.g., yourdomain.com versus yourdomain.platformdomain.com).
There are several online platforms that have created templates and technology that allow users to build a website with little or no coding experience. Squarespace, Wix, Weebly, and WordPress.com are four of the more popular and easier-to-use website-building platforms. All four of these platforms allow users to select a subdomain or use their own registered domain (these services may also act as domain name registrars for users who would like to register a domain) to create a digital portfolio website. Users should note that while some of these platforms do offer free website builders and free hosting for sites, others may not have a free option. Typically, free plans do not allow users to use their own domain names and often include very limited support.
Squarespace, Wix, Weebly, WordPress.com, and other online website building and hosting platforms allow users to select from numerous website templates, and to construct a website with little or no technical knowledge. These platforms are also typically maintained and updated to ensure that they do not have vulnerability risks, although users should follow any instructions provided by these platforms on how to keep sites updated against cybersecurity risks. Finally, all of the platforms mentioned above have hundreds of thousands, if not millions of users; therefore, there are numerous websites online with information on how to use these platforms.
In terms of platforms, I think Squarespace, Tumblr, Wix, and WordPress are the primary ones that our students are using. Those platforms work very well. If you are interested in user experience design or website design, then you are going to need your portfolio to demonstrate that you can create a website… It depends on who your audience is and what you need to convey to that audience.
For users interested in WordPress, it is important to understand that there are actually two versions of WordPress: WordPress.com, which functions as a website builder and hosting platform; and WordPress.org, which is an open-source software that can be downloaded and used to build a website from the ground up.
There are other potentially suitable website building and hosting platforms and applications, including Adobe Portfolio, which is specifically designed for digital portfolios and available to those who have a Creative Cloud account; however, it is important to note that the experts we interviewed were unanimous in their feeling that commonly used website hosting services like Squarespace, Weebly, Wix, and WordPress.com are more than sufficient for creating an effective digital portfolio in most cases. Students should compare and test out the platforms before deciding which one to use, to ensure that they select the platform that is the most intuitive for them to work with.
As Dr. Turner explains, “In terms of platforms, I think Squarespace, Tumblr, Wix, and WordPress are the primary ones that our students are using. Those platforms work very well. If you are interested in user experience design or website design, then you are going to need your portfolio to demonstrate that you can create a website. Essentially, your website then becomes your primary artifact. It depends on who your audience is and what you need to convey to that audience.”
Professor Rich urges the students in his portfolio course to explore various options before choosing a platform for their portfolios. “The main thing we focus on is helping students find a template that works for them, whether it’s on Squarespace or Weebly or whatever they end up choosing,” he explains. “We do an exercise where each of the students picks a platform and a template and researches it. They bring that research to the class, and we talk about the pros and the cons of the platform, the expenses, and the limitations. That process allows the students to see and think about the different options that are out there and then choose a platform that will work for what they want to do.”
Professor Rich continues, “I personally like Squarespace because there’s not a whole lot of their branding on the templates. If you have a domain and you have a Squarespace account, you really can’t tell that it is on Squarespace. And they have a ton of templates that you can experiment with… I’ve had a lot of students use Squarespace, a lot of students like Wix, and Weebly is a site some students choose. Weebly seems to show a lot of its own branding. There’s nothing wrong with that. But for me, personally, I don’t like that. I also don’t wear logo clothes. Unless you are sponsoring me, I don’t want to wear your logo. Squarespace and Wix seem to be good at not showing too much of their own branding on their templates.”
Optimizing Your Digital Portfolio for Mobile
One additional consideration when choosing a template and/or building a website is how the site will look not just on desktop and laptop computers, but also on mobile devices likes smartphones and tablets. Just as it pays to have a resumé that can be read by applicant tracking systems (ATSs), it’s worth taking the extra step of ensuring that one’s portfolio website is optimized for mobile viewing.
“It used to be that you didn’t want there to be a lot of scrolling on the screen for a portfolio,” Dr. Turner observes. “So, everything was a link. But now people seem to be more comfortable with scrolling and you see more of that in portfolios. I do think that it is important to emphasize that increasingly a portfolio has to be mobile ready. You may have a great website for your portfolio, but if you don’t pick a design that can be viewed well on a phone or other mobile device, that’s a disadvantage. You notice really quickly when a website doesn’t look right on a phone. You just have to be aware of that and pick a template or design that will look good on a phone. Most of them are optimized for mobile.”
Personal Branding and the Focus of a Portfolio
When all of the digital portfolio’s various elements – the resumé; the “about me” section; the words, images, and multi-media content; and the links to one’s social media presence – come together on a website, the result should be a compelling, accurate, and appealing distillation of an individual’s style, substance, skills, and aspirations. That distillation is often what people mean when they refer to a personal brand, and it is something that can then be applied across various platforms as that personal brand grows and develops.
In his digital portfolio course at DePaul University, Professor Rich explains how the process of creating a portfolio helps students build and clarify their personal brand. And the power of a personal brand is that it can then extend beyond one’s portfolio and influence other platforms such as one’s social media profiles. “We want each student to understand that [the portfolio course] is about building a brand, a personal brand based on who you are and what you do,” he explains, “You can do that on your portfolio site and through LinkedIn. The big considerations are where you’re going to have your website and what the domain name is going to be. Is the domain going to be your name, a brand name, or something else that relates to your concept? Then you can map that out across any other platforms you want to use.” In other words, while the portfolio can be seen as a culmination of one’s professional experiences and achievements thus far, it is also a starting point–the beginning of one’s personal brand.
Two years ago we did focus groups with a number of the creative directors at large agencies like Leo Burnett and Ogilvy. We spoke to them about what their recruiters were looking for. One of their main points was that they want to get an authentic sense of each candidate, and they want to be able to see how a person thinks.
When building a personal brand and working on your digital portfolio, Dr. Dillard stresses that above all, authenticity is key. “Two years ago, we did focus groups with a number of the creative directors at large agencies like Leo Burnett and Ogilvy,” she recounts, “We spoke to them about what their recruiters were looking for. One of their main points was that they want to get an authentic sense of each candidate, and they want to be able to see how a person thinks. We’ve used that as guidance for students as they progress through the portfolio process […] We want the students to authentically brand themselves and authentically present themselves. We don’t want them to say that they are a business professional and have a picture of them wearing a suit and a tie if that’s not really who they are.”
Over the time that he has taught in the Master of Arts in Digital Communication and Media Arts program at DePaul, Professor Rich has also invited industry professionals into his classroom to provide their thoughts on what makes for an effective portfolio. “I have had lots of different professionals come into the portfolio course and the takeaway is that they want to see your process,” he explains, “They want to how you work and how you think. They want to know something about you and what your passions are. They want to see how your personality comes through in all the materials in the portfolio. Are you very serious? Are you a jokester? And how is that reflected in the presentation? They want to know how a person works and whether or not that person’s philosophy and process is going to integrate with their way of doing things. That’s what has to come through and be displayed in your portfolio.”
On a related note, for many students and professionals, part of the process of building and honing their personal brand is identifying what kinds of writing resonate with their own style and interests. Dr. Harris encourages students to explore different forms of writing through their hobbies and passions, and to become a scholar of the publications that most interest them. “MA students and alumni have created work through niche hobbies (yoga, bass playing, farming, true crime podcasting). […] Writing comes in many forms,” she said, “Students might freelance or complete internships as part of their MA program coursework. Maybe they have create a website for their church, synagogue, or mosque to promote a special event. They might work on a social media campaign that gets parents interested in supporting the arts at their local school.” Clearly, even outside of a graduate program in communication, there are opportunities to complete writing projects for causes one is passionate about.
Dr. Harris offered an example to illustrate the kinds of questions she invites students to ask themselves when trying to break into a particular field of media writing. “I talked to a person last night with a love of hunting and fishing. He wanted to know how he could start writing for publications that addressed hunting and fishing,” she recalled, “I recommended that he start noticing how the writers in his favorite publications wrote for their audience. Were they funny? Were they serious? Did they include step-by-step guides for working with a particular piece of gear? Writing professionally begins with understanding how key publications reach their audience. Then, novice writers can practice using the tone, format, and style of those examples to focus on writing for that particular audience.”
As Dr. Harris’s and Professor Rich’s advice indicates, the creation of a portfolio is a reflective exercise from beginning to end–from the creation of the artifacts for one’s portfolio (which requires an understanding of one’s interests and passions and how they can be parlayed into compelling portfolio content) to the final touches on one’s website that make one’s personality and personal brand shine through.
While building a portfolio is undeniably a complex and involved process, it is also one that is a valuable self-reflective exercise. Students and professionals should think of their portfolio as a way of bringing various pieces of a puzzle together into a coherent narrative in order to introduce themselves to and impress potential employers, colleagues, and clients. Despite the potentially intimidating nature of creating a portfolio and building a personal brand, the most important part about building one’s portfolio is simply starting, and to try and not overthink every step of the process. Finally, it is important to note that a portfolio need not be perfectly polished, as it is a representation of one’s journey, and as such it is a constantly evolving digital asset.
Furthermore, while it is important to craft one’s portfolio carefully so that it is easily navigable and engaging for potential employers, it is also important not to get too caught up in optimizing every single element of one’s portfolio, particularly the elements that do not matter to employers. As Professor Rich notes, “None of the professionals who have come to the class have said anything like, we expect to see white backgrounds or black backgrounds or thumbnails on the front. They want to be able to easily understand what you do and see your work… It’s funny how many of them have said that they don’t care what platform the portfolio is built on as long as the material is there.”
Professor Rich’s insight is a reminder that, while technology has changed the way portfolios are constructed, delivered, and accessed, it has not altered three of the most basic imperatives of portfolio building: tell a genuine story about oneself that highlights one’s skills and experience; select and present artifacts that illustrate one’s best work and greatest professional growth; and forge a personal brand that encompasses one’s talents, values, and aspirations.