A thought from Rachel Smith

19th September 2015

Online portfolio tips for junior designer/developers wanting to get agency work

Justin recently asked if I had portfolio site tips for junior designers/developers. When I thought about it I realized, yes, yes I do. So instead of just tweeting back at Justin I thought I would write my thoughts in longer form here.

Why should you care what I have to say? Before “settling down” with Active Theory for the last 2 years I spent a few years hopping around between advertising and digital agencies in Australia and the UK as a contractor. So I was pretty reliant on having a decent portfolio to get work. I actually iterated on that portfolio several times to see how I could make it more effective in landing that first interview, and after doing quite a few interviews with quite a few agencies I got a gist of the sort of things they’re looking for in that “first impression” of a portfolio. These days my personal site is more a place to see what I’ve been writing/what I’ve been up to for people who are interested in me or my work, as I’m not looking for new work opportunities right now.

So this is the advice I would give based on my personal experiences, please keep in mind it is based on my personal experiences so may not always apply, but it might be a little more helpful than those generic “10 tips for an online portfolio” listicles:


1. Content is more important than presentation.

I think some people lose sight of this one, especially when applying to creative agencies, maybe because they think their portfolio has to be presented in a super creative way to be taken seriously. Yes, you want a nice, well-designed portfolio site but the agency hiring you is more interested in the work you’ve actually done. Which brings me to...


2. The first thing agencies look for in an employee is:

Unoriginal and disappointing I know. A lot of agencies don’t have a lot of resources for recruitment and onsite training for juniors so they usually go for the ‘lowest risk’ option of hiring someone that has worked somewhere before and produced some work from that engagement. So, if you have any work from a previous job or internship put this work front and center, or at least make it very easy to find. Do not worry if the work is not glamorous!! You are simply assuring the agency you are able to and have worked in an agency environment. You can show off your creative prowess with examples of side projects after you have shown your “real” work. If you don’t have any previous work with agencies, don’t worry about that too much. Just put your own side project work in your portfolio. And I’ll add some more about landing your first agency gig below.


3. If you are a designer/dev hybrid, decide what you like better, and make sure it is clear which of these is your strength in your portfolio.

The people doing hiring are often thinking in binary terms (designer or developer) and if your portfolio doesn’t make it clear what you are, you could lose out on designer jobs because they mistake you for a developer whilst simultaneously not getting offers for developer jobs because they think you are a designer. It seems ridiculous, but this happens!


4. Avoid bullshit.

The thing about people who work in advertising or marketing is that we can see “ad speak” coming from a mile away. So if potential employees are trying to use the same exaggerated emotive language we use to brainwash consumers into buying stuff on us we are usually turned off. It is unfair and ironic, but you will get used to the unfairness and irony if you spend any time in this industry :) Don’t try too hard to convince or “wow” with descriptions of yourself. Just very clearly explain why you think you would make a good addition to a company in your own words. Be yourself. Be real.


5. Show some creativity and experimentation in your work examples, don’t make your portfolio the experiment.

This ties back in to number 1, but I think I need to restate that it is very important you demonstrate your creative flair, but make it an appropriate format. Maybe you can share some cool demos you made, or experiments you designed as a work example. The portfolio itself needs to be easy to navigate and easy to read.


6. If you are a developer,

make sure you list the technologies and frameworks you used in your work examples. Use the ‘buzzword’ versions even if it makes you sad (HTML5, CSS3 etc) because recruiters and/or the people in charge of hiring will probably be scanning for these.

These are my top tips for making an effective portfolio to gain agency work. I hope they were somewhat useful to you!



An aside: getting your first agency gig

Because agencies are almost always looking for prior experience, it can be really tough getting your foot in the door when you are just starting out. Don’t lose heart, you will just need to be very proactive in applying for jobs. Sending in a resume like everyone else will not be enough. You will need to make a personalized application to the agency acknowledging that yes you are inexperienced, but you do have the skills for the job. Then show proof of those skills. The first agency job I ever scored (making Flash banners) I got by sending in a Flash banner I designed and made myself to ‘advertise’ my potential as an employee. It is the little details and extra effort that will make you stand out over other candidates with more experience.

Be realistic. Your first agency job is not going to involve working on fabulous exciting work. Almost everyone I’ve met who is producing amazing work now started their careers out building banners, emails and websites for small-time brands. Nobody walks straight out of college/self-teaching and builds the Awwwards site of the year. You need to put in a little time and experience in working in an agency environment first. However, if you are constantly learning and self-improving and chasing the right opportunities, you can advance in your career fairly quickly!



Shout out to Justin for being proactive and asking me about this on Twitter. I do like to answer people’s questions (if I think I can) so feel free to shoot your own my way!

Previous thought: Pushing against a tidal wave

Next thought: My 5 Favourite web-related podcasts with Spoken