Because websites can be viewed at any time of the day or night, they can be a particularly effective way of ensuring that your work gets seen. Many clients expect successful professional designers to have a website. It's a sign that a designer is established and serious about his or her work. Websites have also eliminated many international barriers to business by reducing the need to send print portfolios between countries.
Many successful design studios redesign their sites as often as once a year to maintain a good reputation and stay current. Websites also need to be updated frequently to show recent work and give viewers a reason to come back. In general, firms or individual designers hire a Web designer or programming specialist to create a site and work closely with them on the overall concept and function. It's important that a website match the tone and style of the work of the designer or design firm.
Web portfolios and job hunting
There are two ways potential employers evaluate Web portfolios. First, they consider the material the site is showing them, and then, the site itself. "If a website takes too long to load, if it's a mile wide and an inch deep, if it's hard to navigate, cumbersome, or corny, that's bad," says Chris Pullman of WGBH. "A website can be a dangerous proposition. A Web designer doesn't know by which method people are viewing it. Viewers can be on a dial-up line or have sophisticated flash software. A website should therefore have two or even at times three options, one for people with flash, one for those without, and one for people with only simple HTML."
The first thing Pullman looks for in a website is a good range of work and an overview of the designer's accomplishments. He wants to understand the types of media the designer has worked with and see both small- and large-scale work, in terms of both physical size and clients. A Web portfolio should include a healthy number of samples, and Pullman likes to see a wide range of subjects. It also helps to give context to individual samples. What was the problem? And how was it solved? These questions can easily be answered with small blocks of text that accompany each piece.
Pros and cons
For designers who specialize in areas such as book design, annual reports, and information design, a website is a less effective way of presenting a portfolio. It is virtually impossible to thoroughly review typography and printing quality on a website, so in some cases the online portfolio should serve only as a visual preview or advertisement, not a finished presentation. The bottom line, however, is that a website is expected and even required in today's marketplace. Therefore, it is important to be as thorough in designing it as in designing your print portfolio. One benefit of a Web portfolio is its potential to function as a work archive—a technique that Lorraine Wild uses effectively in the website for Green Dragon Office of Los Angeles. The site documents books produced from 1994 to 2004 in a clear, systematic way that shows off the depth of the firm's experience. Because some years have been more prolific than others, it's a somewhat risky proposition, but the overall effect of the site is stunning. The quantity of books is so great that Wild and her three partners could never attempt to haul them around to interviews.
To make the site more informative, Green Dragon Office has created three motion films that show a hand turning the pages of beautifully designed art books. This presentation method simultaneously conveys the scale and pace of each book and makes the texts resemble moving pictures. In essence, the books make an impact via the series of linked images—more than they would with images of one or two sample spreads. These films duplicate the sensation of leafing through an entire book and are a perfect way to display complex work online.
One final benefit of websites is that they allow a designer to assemble and organize a diverse body of work in a more cohesive way than is possible with a print portfolio. If the work is separated into categories, such as logos, corporate, and personal work, viewers can find exactly what they are looking for and get a better sense of the designer's style in each area.
Issues to consider
If they are not well designed, websites can be a risky first impression on several levels. Because there is no way to control what path a viewer will take to explore individual pages, it's extremely important to create a site that's strong throughout. Technology can be a hurdle; even the best site becomes ineffective when the viewer has an older computer or a slow Internet connection. To offset this problem, some sites start with a "landing page" that allows visitors to select whether to view a version designed for high-speed connections or a simpler, pared-down site for dial-up connections. Finally, websites have a tendency to be cool and impersonal. Many companies, such as Two Twelve Associates in New York and Group 94 in Belgium, combat this problem with friendly shots of staff meetings or design principals.
The first step is choosing an appropriate layout and structure for a site. Do you want to use a grid system or try a less traditional approach? How many layers of content do you need? Where will you place the menu? What items will be included on the menu? Peter Lehman, Web designer at WGBH and a Web design teacher at the Art Institute of Boston, gives the following advice: Never make a website so complicated that it takes over someone's browser. Instead, he suggests making a site in which it is impossible to get lost by setting up a menu incorporating icons for easy navigation. Dividing the content on the site into logical items on the menu will also help viewers find what they need quickly. One of Lehman's students, Lucas Walker, created a splash page that follows these guidelines. While the design is simple and easy to navigate, it still succeeds in projecting Lucas's interest in illustration.
When working out the details of their sites, many designers write text to explain how they developed specific designs. This simple addition gives site visitors a glimpse into the thought process behind the work, offering the samples additional context and meaning. New York–and Los Angeles–based design firm Imaginary Forces, for example, includes explanatory text within the portfolio section of its website. Interactive ads for the Honda Element are paired with text that explains the overarching concept behind the design: "In these short films, the four elements—Fire, Water, Earth, and Air—are seen as a metaphor for human sensation and thought."
When is a website enough?
In some cases, a website may be the only portfolio a designer or studio needs to find work. This is especially true for interactive designers, but it also extends to other disciplines. Photographer and designer Tom Wedell, for example, says that many of his photo clients see enough work on his website to hire him. Photographs, particularly color ones, reproduce well online. As noted earlier in the PDF section, a good rule of thumb is that any sample which relies on photos for presentation within a print portfolio will translate well online. This might include food packaging, product design, restaurant menus, and signage.
Louise Fili, famous for her book design and restaurant identities, has created an elegant website that performs as a portfolio with amazing success. Because so much of her work is product-based—ranging from restaurant signs and menus to pasta packages and cracker tins—a print portfolio is an awkward proposition. To solve the problem, Fili worked with Maine-based Web designer Tom Morgan to create a well-designed easy-to-use site that perfectly reflects her style. Viewers can quickly navigate to images of Fili's work through four categories, each of which contains roughly sixteen designs. As the user rolls over a line of numbers, the name of each project appears to the right of the list. The only problem Fili must contend with is that much of her work is related to restaurants—a segment in which businesses open and close quickly. As a result, she has to remove designs from her site when a client shuts the doors to avoid having her work associated with failure.
Like most art forms, music is highly subjective. There's nothing worse than logging onto an attractive website and not being able to figure out how to turn off an irritating sound track. Since music taste is extremely personal, it's difficult to predict the reaction of users. For this reason, many designers aren't in favor of adding music to websites. Television commercials, however, often use nostalgic music to great advantage. What makes the difference? Unlike a television, a computer is often in a workplace and sound can be an unexpected—and unwanted—surprise. If you decide music enhances the overall site presentation, be sure the off button is easy to find.
Music for its own sake doesn't appeal to Pullman. In most cases, he will turn it off. Music puts a viewer in a certain zone, and if the listener doesn't like the music, it has an adverse effect. At Kyle Cooper's studio, Prologue, the feeling is that music with websites is inherently problematic. The user is in complete control of navigating the website, so there is no way to edit or control the sound track to be sure the viewer is hearing the music in relationship to the corresponding images. Cooper thinks that even the option of music on a website can be distracting and risky.