Contributor: Joe Gillespie
time comes in every designer's life when they have
to get that first foot on the ladder. The ladder
is, of course, their chosen career and that initial
step is so very significant because it has, at last,
committed them to a definite direction.
This article is about selling yourself. Obviously,
this can't be your first step because you have to
have something to sell but it might well be your
first encounter with 'business' and business is
what it is all about - never forget that.
Choose Your Path
There are two main paths you could choose. One is
where you are looking for employment with an established
company and the other is where you want to work
freelance and design sites for clients. Personally,
I am a great believer in working for somebody else,
certainly to begin with. You benefit from their
training and practical experience and are protected,
to a large extent, from the real world nitty-gritties
of seeking and managing a client base and all the
extraneous baggage that comes with running a business.
This can all be quite overwhelming when you don't
have much experience.
If you want to be your own boss from the outset,
and you think you've got what it takes, okay, the
best of luck to you. Selling yourself to a potential
client is quite a different story from getting a
job with an employer but we'll come to that
If you haven't already identified it in so many
words, the purpose of the exercise is this:
To demonstrate your skills and capabilities in
the most concise way possible
There are a lot of things going on in this statement
so I'm going to break them down into bite-sized
Demonstrating is more than just saying, 'Here it
is!' It requires you to 'convince' and 'prove'.
These are basic communicative skills and if you
don't acquire them, you are at a major disadvantage
in this business.
Skills and capabilities
You might well be capable of making a very nice
dinner for two but that doesn't necessarily make
you a chef. In Web design, you might be quite happy
to produce a logo or rollover button but without
knowing 'why' it works, you can't really call it
a skill. A skill is something that you can do better
than most other people. It is a unique ability that
makes you a valuable resource to a client or employer.
People are busy and don't like to have their time
wasted. Not only do you have to convince your prospect
that you are the best possible person for the job,
you have to do it in the shortest possible time.
Busy people will resent you taking up any of their
time and will look for the first opportunity to
dismiss you. Initial impressions are very important!
There was a time when presentations and interviews
were all done in person. It still happens, but with
the Web when you are looking for clients, the whole
World is your marketplace and being 'local' hardly
matters at all. If you are looking for a permanent
employed position, you will most likely have to
be physically present but you could still land that
first interview from work you send in or show online.
Of course, it's your work and abilities that matter,
but having face-to-face contact with a potential
client or employer adds an extra dimension - personality.
Yes, it's possible to take an instant dislike to
someone before they say two words. There are many
reasons - they can be too overpowering or too shy,
overdressed or scruffy, or it can be completely
subliminal and instinctive. That's the way it has
always been and, even with the Internet, will be
for some time yet. The only good thing about such
a situation is that it precludes a bad long-term
A more positive 'good' aspect is that you are in
control - well hopefully. You have the opportunity
to present your portfolio using your own laptop
computer and with the browser that you know works.
You don't have that advantage when you present in
any other way.
You also have the chance to talk about what you
have done, explaining why you took particular decisions
and actions and to answer questions. Establishing
a rapport with the person you are talking to can
help reinforce their favourable impression of your
work - and you as their partner in business.
Web sites are interactive. If you are working the
mouse or trackpad, it removes the possibility that
the interviewer might miss some vital part of your
presentation. The fact that you are explaining as
you go along provides an element of continuity that
would be absent in a remote presentation. Use the
situation to advantage. Given the choice between
a 'local' designer and a 'virtual' one of a similar
standard, the 'devil' you know is always preferable
to one that you don't.
With a Web-based portfolio, what you see is what
you get. There is no 'chemistry' involved or personality
likes or dislikes. You could be an individual working
in a home study or a company with loads of resources
and a fancy office - who knows? It's only what they
see on their screen that matters. I have emphasised
'their' because you have to ever be aware that they
could be seeing something quite different from what
you see. It's all very well producing cutting-edge
If the client is running Netscape 4 on Windows '95,
you could have problems. If you are using a Mac
and they are viewing on a PC, that alone can make
a big difference!
More than any time, make sure you test your personal
portfolio pages on as many systems as possible to
make sure there are no nasty surprises.
If you don't have a lot of working sites under your
belt, that doesn't matter too much. At this stage,
it's more important to communicate your abilities
rather than your track record. I would certainly
prefer to see a personal home page that was carried
out with skill and taste than half a dozen indifferent
sites for real companies. It's not the sites that
matter or who they were done for, it's how well
you did them.
As your career progresses, it becomes increasingly
necessary to show the quality of your client-base
too, because that establishes your professional
pedigree. A couple of sites for well-known companies,
whether local, national or international, go a long
way in convincing a potential client or employer
that you are exactly what they need.
Another way to present your work is to send potential
clients/employers a selection of your work on a
CD-ROM. This has advantages and disadvantages.
The advantages are that you have virtually unlimited
space and bandwidth and you can do what you want
by way of a 'shell presentation'. Here is a chance
to use Flash as a front-end, linking-off to conventional
HTML pages as necessary.
Having the bandwidth means you can add voice-overs,
music, animation whatever you like, provided
it leads the viewer into the work and doesn't just
become a barrier that keeps them out. That is a
fine distinction, but a very important one.
If you have any special requirements for plug-ins
or even complete browsers, you can deliver them
on the CD along with the necessary instructions
for installing or using them. On the other hand,
this could easily annoy the recipient. I know that
if I was instructed to install an unfamiliar browser
or other software on my machine, I would probably
not go to the trouble. If that meant missing-out
on an important part of the presentation, so be
If you do send potentials a CD-ROM, make it very
clear how they should be used. It is surprising
how many people provide a diskful of folders with
no clue as to where to start. Consider also that
a CD-ROM alone has very little presence or 'come-on'
about it. Make sure you dress it up for the occasion.
clients look for
It's amazing, but whether it's a small-time supplier
of bathroom fixtures or the art-buyer of a major
agency, they always look for the same thing. They
want to see their job already done!
What I mean by that is that the bathroom fixtures
supplier will want to see half a dozen sites for
other bathroom fixtures suppliers. Ad agency art-buyers
that I've had dealings with seem to show a similar
lack of imagination and take everything most literally.
Unless you specialise in very niche market areas,
it is unlikely that you will be able to show several
competitor's sites. I'd be more worried about their
being 'typecast' if their work was as polarised
All you can do is to try to fire their (lack of)
imagination by showing possibilities that they never
dreamed of and by pointing-out that where the 'products'
are not the same, the principles of selling them
I've said this before but I want to emphasise it.
The initial impression is very important. A presentation
that worked for one client isn't necessarily the
right one for another. If you just happen to have
a similar sample to the one you are pitching for,
show it first. The rest is icing on the cake!
It also helps to finish up with an outstanding piece
of work, no matter if it is relevant or not, it
leaves your presentation on a high note instead
of an anti-climax.
If nothing in your portfolio is relevant to the
clients needs, you have an uphill struggle. In this
case, you have to demonstrate that you understand
their needs and are capable of satisfying them without
resorting to visual aids. In such a case, I would
try to turn it into the advantage of being a 'fresh-eye'
that sees new ways of looking at things and helps
produce new, creative solutions.
employers look for
Quite different from the client's cursory flick
through your work, the employer will want to dig
deeper. This is not a one-off job but a longer-term
relationship and probably not just between two people.
A potential employer will be looking for unique
skills that you can add to his or her team and also
how you will fit into that team at a personal level.
Also, an employer will want to look behind-the-scenes
of your Web pages. Clients won't care too much about
this but employers will. Even after you have impressed
them with what is on the page, they will look at
how well you have dealt with the HTML markup and
all the correct elements there? DocType? Encoding?
Meta Tags? Are you working to modern Web standards
or still using obsolete and deprecated HTML tags?
There's no hard and fast rule, and it depends on
the particular situation you are applying for. Someone
who produces stunning graphics will have different
qualities to one that specialises in coding and
that will be taken into account. Even though graphics
or coding is not your thing, you should be aware
of what is happening around you.
If you are of a 'right brain' disposition and you
can produce good-looking sites, the fact that you
If you are trying to sell yourself on your coding
abilities, those telltale signatures of Dreamweaver
and don't look too good.
There's nothing wrong with using a WYSIWYG editor
provided you can show that you are controlling it
and it's not the other way around. Finicky hand-coding
might be efficient from a page rendering point of
view but few people will be impressed with it if
it takes twice as long and they can't see any advantages
in the final result.
It's certainly good to know how to hand-code but
it's not the only factor in the equation.
Some Dos and Don'ts
Here is a short list of tips, some obvious and some
not so. Try to keep them in mind when you present
to control the situation and browsing environment.
Finding out that your site doesn't work properly
in the client's browser is too late - you've
blown your chance!
looking at your portfolio is an imposition on
someone and they will almost certainly be seeing
other people too. Keep your presentation short,
sweet and to the point.
the breadth of your skills. Don't be afraid
to acknowledge your weaknesses, nobody can do
or four good examples are better than a dozen
indifferent ones. Quality, not quantity.
the finer details. It's very embarrassing when
a potential client or employer points-out typos
on your page.
prepared to say what a site you are showing
cost to produce. In business, the bottom line
is very important. If your price is too dear
(or too cheap), you won't be considered.
honest. Making wild exaggerations about your
abilities, if not spotted at the outset, will
return to haunt you later. Fooling the client
is one thing but kidding yourself usually ends
people's time. There are so many ways to do
this and I think I've covered most of them already.
Just consider that you will probably also end
up wasting your own.
excuses. A catalog of excuses about why a page
doesn't work, visually or functionally, is another
way of wasting people's time and a big turn-off.
potential customer or employers with your details.
People hate spam and the people who send it.
If you must send unsolicited email, make sure
that it is worded appropriately and sent to
the correct person. The subject should say exactly
what it is you are sending, using spammer's
tricks to fool people into opening your email
won't go down too well at all.
tell them how good (you think) you are. They
will decide that by their standards and on their
other people (or their sites) down. If you can
think of a better way of doing something, say
so but just trashing other people's work just
for the sake of it is unprofessional and reflects
more badly on you than them.
More valuable than your portfolio, or your resume,
or any advertising or promotion you might contemplate,
is a personal recommendation from someone your client/employer
respects. An extension of this is your reputation
that's how everybody views you and your work.
Protect it like a baby!