What often stops us from making more fun things for the portfolio, and how to be more proactive in this.
Every designer must have a portfolio. Of course we wanna put nice, appealing projects to it, but when you have a full time job, it can be tricky. It might not be allowed to display client’s projects on your personal website, or sometimes those projects are not the most suitable for demonstrating all your skills. So, you need to make something cool yourself. It can be anything: illustrations, animations, or a whole website about anything you want (that’s the great way to apply all your skills at once and maybe win some design awards). But I know that working on personal projects can be difficult for many reasons, and I have some thoughts that I’d like to share with the design community. So let’s take a closer look at those challenges.
The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali + Me
We tend to think that personal projects are basically free. We can spend as much time as we want working on them. No one is setting deadlines, there is no clear scope, and, most importantly, if you end up spending more time on it — you don’t have to pay more, or anything at all. So — it’s free, right? Well, not exactly. In fact, you are spending your personal time on that, which in my opinion should cost more than your billable hours, not less. That means that a stretched personal project becomes super expensive if you sit down and count those “overtime” hours spent. But there is an even bigger problem with the infinite timeline: if you drag the task for too long, you’ll most probably end up abandoning it because you lost the spark or it became irrelevant. So, all the hours spent were for nothing. Of course, it’s never truly for nothing — there’s always the experience gained and lessons learned — but we’re talking results here, and they were not achieved.
Try treating yourself not only as a designer, but also as your own manager, AND a client. Set up a clear task, or write a brief, if you want. If the project is big — break it into smaller batches, that need to be completed in certain order. Basically, come up with a solid plan, and write it down. Set at least the approximate deadline and try to meet it. If you have mad self-organizing skills, block time in your week, which you’re gonna spend on this work. Most importantly: Define. The. Scope. And stick with it. If you have time for improvements — make them in a second iteration.
The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel + Me
Being your own client sometimes really sucks. We can be super demanding and set expectations way too high. As a result, we may start thinking that what we create is never good enough to show to strangers on the internet. We constantly feel the need to improve, make it better, and better. Then, we hesitate, wondering if maybe the previous version was actually better… or wasn’t it? Who knows? This cycle can trap us in the imposter syndrome, preventing anything from ever getting published. And here we are again, all the hours of hard work seem to be for nothing.
There is no such thing as a perfect design and there will always be a room for improvement. So leave this room and use it in your next project, that will be better. And after that — even better. Don’t spend too much time with one thing. Reached the stopping point? Publish it, and move on to something else, with newly gained knowledges and skills. Also, design trends are changing fast, and abandoning a project for too long can lead to it becoming outdated.
Arrangement in Grey and Black №1 by James Abbott McNeill Whistler + Me
When we do any work for clients, we normally receive plenty of feedback. From client itself and from coworkers (depending on each designer level of seniority, if it’s a full time job). And when it’s a personal project, there is only you to judge the result. Which is liberating in one hand, and overwhelming on the other. Cause what if you’re not seeing something, and what if it’s not good at all, and all the cycles from the previous section continue.
What I did few years ago, while working on my first big project alone, is imagining what would my mentor from the previous job say. And that really helped, cause at that point I could really look at my design and tell exactly where she would have pointed, and what was messed up. And I fixed those things. Then, when I was done, I sent it to couple non-designer friends. They, as a regular users, pointed out couple weird UX moments that needed improvements and found some typos to fix. So there, I had my feedback. And that project won the Site of the Day on Awwwards, so that was pretty cool. Check it out.
The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch + Me
I've been noticing throughout years that designers tend to be pretty messy in their files. When eventually the design file have to be handed out to the client, we, of course, have to clean up and make it neat. But when we know, that no one will ever see anything, other than the final export / render — those design files become a very scary place. And it’s bad to leave your project in such a state, because you make it difficult for yourself to pick up the work after few days / weeks break. No, you will not remember what does “assdasdasf.001.psd” means. To be fair, it got easier now, Figma is definitely more forgiving. But still, be nice to the future self and keep things in order.
If your project is bigger than a single image for an Instagram post, then I suggest making a small design system for it. Define text styles, colors, some components. Name things properly, give your file a cover. It feels nicer to work in a clean and tidy file, same as it feels nicer to be in a clean home, rather then in a hoarded attic. And it does save time, since you don’t have to solve your own riddles every time you want to continue working on this project.
Black Square by Kazimir Malevich + Me
The desire to completely redo the whole thing instead of gradually improving the existing one seems very natural to me. I totally understand this when you inherit design files from other people/agencies, and their system might not seem ideal, so it’s faster and easier to just start from scratch. However, when it comes to our own projects, constantly redoing everything might not be the best approach.
I suggest thinking a little bit ahead and design in such a way that allows for scalability and future modifications. As I said in a previous section: create a design system, organize your files so it’s easy to get back to them at any moment. If you are designing your portfolio website, think how is it gonna look when you add more projects. Make sure the grid allows it, and not only look good with 3 items in it (for instance).
During 9 years of my career I had redesigned (and then coded) my portfolio 5 times. I think this is very much normal, and I’m not saying that you have to design one thing and stick with it forever. But I think that with years of experience the time distance between full redesigns suppose to get longer. And I’ve noticed this with my current portfolio website. I released it on 04/2022, and so far it does not annoy me and I don’t feel like starting working on the 6th version. However, after a year of having it, some things did not look as good to me anymore. So I opened my 1 year old Figma file, spent a little bit of time there, redesigned areas that bothered me, and it was smooth and painless. Then I opened the dev project with the website, and also implemented all the changes without any problems. That’s because everything was in a state like it was a client’s project: neat and organized. Also I’ve been adding new stuff there and overall keeping this website up-to date. Which is good, and that’s why I decided to write this article and share some struggles I’ve been facing myself before.