As a web designer, your portfolio is the single most important piece of marketing you have. It conveys to potential customers what you can do, how you do it, and the benefits they will reap from your hard work.
However, there are differing opinions about the form a web designer’s portfolio should take. Some web designers believe that your portfolio should represent all the different work you can do – a diversified portfolio if you will. In fact, we’ve even discussed why it’s a good idea to diversify your online design portfolio on the IM Creator blog. The idea behind having a generalized portfolio that shows all kinds of different work is that you can potentially garner more business because you have a little bit of something to offer everyone.
But some experts believe that this isn’t the best approach to take. Instead, they argue that web designers should focus on one niche and become the absolute best at it. By working with a specific type of client or on a specific type of job, you get better at it with each new project you complete, and thus have a more refined skillset to offer clients in that specific niche.
If you still don’t have an online portfolio, go ahead and create a portfolio website for free.
Why a Niche?
Before we dive into the details, it’s important to review why it’s a good idea to develop a niche design portfolio.
It’s Specific, But Doesn’t Limit You
Niches are dynamic and robust, filled with various opportunities for work. For example, you could specialize in a specific industry, such as hospitality or retail. Niches can also represent a type of functionality – an e-commerce site, a mobile app, or social media. Some web designers have even carved out a niche by creating specific elements for websites, such as widgets, calendars, and banners. The point is, even though carving out a niche might feel like you’re restricting yourself too much, in actuality, there are plenty of opportunities for work.
You Avoid Spreading Yourself Too Thin
Getting into niche design allows you to focus your energy on a specific group and avoid spreading yourself too thin. In doing so, you become really good in one area of design. Beyond developing a reputation as an expert in your niche, you develop the ability to speak to potential clients’ needs because of your expertise as well.
Think of it this way: If you drive a BMW, wouldn’t you rather have a certified BMW mechanic work on your car, rather than some guy in his garage down the street? The same applies to web design. If a restaurant owner is looking for a web designer, they are much more likely to conduct a specific online search, like “restaurant web designer,” than they are a general search, like “web designer.” If people use long-form searches to look for a niche web designer, you should give them what they’re looking for by becoming a niche web designer. In this case, it is far more beneficial to you (and your clients) for you to be really good at one type of design, rather than passable at a bunch of different types of design.
There’s No Ambiguity
A niche portfolio also makes it plainly evident to viewers what kind of designer you are and what services you provide. If your specialty is creating banners for websites, visitors to your portfolio will know exactly what you can offer them. There are no moments of “Who is this guy and what does he do?” With this kind of focus, it will be easier for you to identify potential clients – and them you. Additionally, niche-based design helps you get more referrals – and better ones – because of the credibility and trust you are able to build with your niche clients.
So, now that we’ve covered the general ideas behind developing a niche portfolio, let’s get down to specifics.
Obviously, the most popular niches are those that command a lot of business, so dedicating yourself to developing a niche-specific portfolio will take a little more work than if you were simply adding pieces from various kinds of jobs. Some of the most popular niches include:
Businesses and Organizations
- Non-profit organizations – Whether it’s a church, a charity, a food bank or some other public service entity, non-profits are a particularly good option for the web designer that seeks to specialize. There are innumerable non-profit organizations, and once you demonstrate an ability to navigate their needs and wants, others will come calling.
- Small businesses – Staking your claim as a web designer with a small business expertise is a great choice because many small business owners like to hire freelancers because they tend to be a more affordable option. Further specialization within this area is possible as well. Think about specific types of businesses you’d like to work with, trying to identify common types that are large in number. Car dealerships, real estate agencies, and restaurants come immediately to mind.
- WordPress – As blogging has become more popular (and WordPress along with it), many clients seek a designer that can either develop a blog website from scratch or customize an existing WordPress theme. A designer with theme customization abilities can also expand their services into creating or customizing other types of WordPress sites, such as those for small businesses, magazines, or schools.
- Website builders – Another great option for specialization is to focus solely on website creation using a website builder. Like WordPress, website builders are an excellent option for creating all kinds of websites, from blogs to e-commerce sites to portfolios. Becoming a website builder specialist also allows you to market yourself as a website creator rather than a website designer. Doing so gives you the ability to offer a full slate of services to your clients because website builders do all the heavy lifting for you. For example, rather than just offering site design, you can offer features like SEO, web hosting, and things like custom contact forms that require coding, because again, the website builder can do all that for you.
Styles & Services
- Styles – Web designers can specialize in working on particular types of sites – e-commerce, informational sites, or one-page designs are potential style specializations.
- Services – Many web designers have made a name for themselves by offering niche services as well. This could mean you work solely on updating and upgrading existing sites, or perhaps you focus on UI/UX. Other designers may simply work on creating fonts and icons, while others might hone their skills as a banner ad designer.
If you’re just starting out in the web design industry, you may need to dabble in a variety of areas before you figure out exactly what kind of work you most enjoy (and the kind of work that’s the most profitable). This might take a few months, or even a few years to determine, and that’s okay. But once you find the kind of client or the type of job that best suits you, get busy developing a portfolio that focuses on that niche and work to make it your own. You will find that doing so offers you a number of advantages.
Finding a Niche Allows You to Become an Expert
There’s a saying that goes, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” Unfortunately, this describes a lot of web designers (and a lot of other professionals, in general). Rather than doing a bunch of different things with an average level of success and an average level of competence, why not focus on a single area of work and become the leading authority in that area?
But the question remains, how do you go about showing you’re the best designer in a given area?
Demonstrate You Understand Their Market
Today’s web design clients aren’t just looking for a pretty website. They want proof that the designer they hire understands their particular market.
When you need work done on your home air conditioning system, you call the home air conditioning repairman. When the kitchen sink won’t drain, you call a plumber. The point being, you contact someone that has demonstrated experience in the specific type of work you require as opposed to, say, a general contractor, who may well know how to solve your problem, but in the end is not an expert in that specific area. When clients approach a designer to tackle a new website project, they do so using the same approach: they want a designer that has a proven track record of solving problems in their particular area of need.
For example, if a potential client owns clothing store, they will look for a designer that has experience creating websites in the fashion industry. They will not be looking for a web designer that has designed sites for museums, coffee shops, or veterinarian clinics, because none of those businesses have the same needs or purpose as a clothing store.
Now, this doesn’t mean that if you’ve decided to become the best web designer for restaurants that you can’t take on other related jobs. Choosing your niche doesn’t have to be so narrowly focused. Instead, maybe your area of expertise becomes designing websites for the hospitality industry as a whole. Doing so opens up possibilities for working with hotels, bars, coffee shops, and other such businesses. This also allows you to become highly familiar with the web design-related needs of an entire industry, rather than one small aspect of that industry.
The notion that your portfolio might be best served by focusing on one genre does not mean that your portfolio can’t include variety. Quite the contrary, offering a number of your best examples of work within your chosen niche is a good idea so your potential clients can see the full range of services you offer.
For example, if you specialize in designing sites for non-profit organizations, include a variety of your website designs in your portfolio to give potential clients an idea of the different approaches you’ve taken to designing sites for similar organizations. In your portfolio, identify the needs or wants each client presented to you, as well as the specific manner in which you fulfilled those needs or satisfied those wants.
Another good idea is to include the types of services you have provided to past clients. Perhaps for one client you designed a new, eye-catching logo in addition to their website. For another client, perhaps you created a new form that made it easier for visitors to donate money. Whatever the case, showing off the various types of work you can do in your chosen niche will help demonstrate to potential clients that you are the best in that specific business, and that you aren’t just a one-trick-pony.
Finding a Niche Allows You to Dress for the Job You Want
There’s a saying in business that goes, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” As applied to a designer’s portfolio, this adage means that if you want to do a particular kind of work, then your portfolio needs to reflect that. All designers eventually find the kind of job (and client) they most like to work with, so tailoring your portfolio to that specific kind of work can help you stack your schedule with those kinds of jobs. For example, if law firms are your favorite type of client, fill your portfolio with work you’ve done for law firms.
The same principle applies to the type of work you do as well. If full site designs are your favorite thing, then develop a portfolio that focuses on that type of task. If you’d prefer to spend your day creating banner ads, your portfolio similarly needs to reflect that. If your goal is to be the go-to designer for WordPress customizations, then by all means, create a portfolio full of customizations you’ve made to WordPress themes.
Dressing for the job you want, that is, becoming a niche designer, has a couple of really awesome benefits too.
Specialization Increases Your Value
Focusing on a particular niche increases your perceived value in the minds of potential clients. By specializing in a certain type of work, you’re conveying to clients that you are knowledgeable and that there is minimal risk involved in hiring you because you’ve done this type of work before. Let’s look at it from a customer’s perspective:
Pretend you’re looking for a web designer for your jewelry store business. Two designers make the cut – one that offers general web design services – and another who specializes in providing web design services to small business owners. The first web designer is more affordable but doesn’t offer much in the way of specific expertise to fit your needs. The second designer, because she has elected to focus on services for small businesses, has specific strategies for fulfilling your needs, even though her services cost a bit more. Which designer would you choose?
Clearly, the second designer would be the one to get the job because she has a demonstrated expertise (and a portfolio of specific work examples) that address your particular needs and wants. Web design customers can’t see and touch and feel the product they’ve paid for. There are a lot of risks involved in that, so clients have to weigh your chances of success with the chances that you will fail. Focusing your portfolio on a specific type of work will help you convey to potential clients that you have a better shot at success than everyone else on jobs in that area of specialization. The end result is that you can charge more because people are willing to pay more for specialized, expert services.
Specialization Helps You Stand Out From the Crowd
Web design is an exceedingly popular career choice, and it is a field with many highly talented designers. If you try to offer the same services to the same people as everyone else, you run the risk of getting lost in the sea of good web designers.
However, by developing a particular niche for your portfolio, you immediately help set yourself apart from all the other designers out there who offer a wide variety of services. Whether you differentiate yourself based on the type of work you do or the type of clients you work with, you become a provider of a unique service that helps you stand out.
Once you’ve done a few jobs in a particular niche and have a portfolio reflective of your niche-specific work, your ability to get future business in that specialized area will only improve. Again, standing out from the crowd will help your business (and your bank account!) grow and grow.
Creating a dynamic portfolio that shows off your expertise and services is one of the best tools you have to garner new business. Making sure your portfolio speaks to your desired clients and sets you apart from the crowd will only help you get the business that you want. It will also increase your value as a designer, and the price clients are willing to pay for your services as well.
Have you gone the way of specialization and developed a portfolio dedicated to a particular kind of web design work? If so, let us know what tips you have for other designers by commenting below!
Aaahhh! by Evil Erin via Flickr Creative Commons
Finding Your Niche by Chris Hsia via Flickr Creative Commons
$100 Bill Stack by American Advisors Group via Flickr Creative Commons
Unique Selling Proposition by photosteve101 via Flickr Creative Commons