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Writing

What's a Designer's Website for Anyway?

The portfolio is only one part of it.

2021

Design

An emerging designer recently asked if he could take my website's source code and repurpose it for his own. These emails are always flattering, but I encouraged him to invest time into creating his own – even if it would be a struggle.

I built my website to work for me. My blog is missing common features like topic tags and key images because I'd never use them. Links to case studies on my homepage are hardcoded because I infrequently update them. My code lacks documentation that make it tough for others to parse. It's not a mess, but it is inflexible. It's all by design – I built it for me.

If you're like me, your design portfolio is made up of work influenced by your companies and clients. We've inherited design systems and brand guidelines. Your art directors shifted pixels that didn't need shifting. Post-launch promises weren't launched. We've all been there. Part of our job is making the most of our compromises. Prioritization is a skill. But compromises are still compromises.

So while our websites function as our portfolios, they can be more. They're a playground – an opportunity to learn a new language or experiment with visual treatments that clash with the rules we follow in our day job. I've lost count of how many times I've changed my website's colors and typefaces over the last year. If you're reading this article a year from now, it's probably presented differently than when it was published. There are no tickets to file or permission to ask for. Who's to say no?

Our websites are homes for our writing, experiments, photography, playlists, bookshelves, ABCs, and gifs of our cats. They're our chance to present ourselves to the world on our terms. Our websites shouldn't be able to be repurposed for someone else, because we aren't someone else.

We spend the workday making validated, agreed-upon design decisions. Our websites are our chance to be goofy. Animate some jiggly text. Put a horse on your 404 page as an inside joke. And if weird doesn't suite you, do what does. We make our compromises elsewhere.

I've been interviewing and evaluating designers for years. At a company like VICE, we combed through hundreds of applications for associate roles. Most applicants were designers out of college – works in progress. Luckier ones had an internship somewhere reputable, but like me in 2008, most didn't. Personal websites can give a contrasting first impression. They're an opportunity to show you have something unique to bring to the team. They express your creativity. We can teach you the rules. We can't teach you how to be interesting.

Let's look at some of the top-ranked Google results for "how to design a product design portfolio" – something all of us have searched for early in our careers.

Checklists. How-to's. None of this is bad advice, but designing your website is a design project. Following a guide or relying on a template will never emphasize your strengths. Think about your content and how it can be presented most effectively. Individual case studies worked for me. A single page might work for you. And outside of your case studies, anything goes.

The bar to launch a unique website has never been lower. After decades spent snubbing WYSIWYG tools for generating unoptimized code, the no-code movement is in a great place. All-in-one platforms like Webflow offer powerful tools for animations and interactions – all with free tiers perfect for personal websites. Many of the high-concept websites featured in galleries like Awwwards were developed using no-code platforms. You'd never know.

If you do want to learn to code (and you should!), it's easy to create a project in a local development environment using frameworks like Gatsby. Follow their step-by-step setup guide and you'll be up and running in a few minutes. Start from scratch or choose from barebones starters that help you focus on your own unique presentation rather than configuring Node and GraphQL.

And if a static site generator like Gatsby is overkill, there's nothing wrong with plain HTML and CSS hosted for free on GitHub Pages.

Whatever your approach is, it's worth the effort. Hiring managers will notice you. Engineers will love you for speaking their language. And most of all, it's fun. That's why we all started doing this in the first place, right?

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Thanks for visiting.

I'm looking for my next full-time role. If you'd like to work together, say hi.

aaron@aaron.mn