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Weblog Entry

Positioning your Services

June 07, 2004

After a particularly frustrating afternoon spent trying to find a subcontractor, a list of suggestions formulated for having work noticed.

A project that required extra help saw me searching available resources to find a good fit for the job last week. I doubt I’m a typical contractor, but my methods ended up covering wide ground and asking questions that I’d assume a savvy potential client would ask, and I came up with empty hands.

First of all, where did I look? Where I knew a bunch of standards-friendly web designers had their work on display, of course. I cruised through the blogroll on Web Graphics, I went through the CSS Vault’s archives, and browsed the Zen Garden submissions list.

It shouldn’t have been so tough, but two factors kept me from making a quick choice: I couldn’t easily tell if the person or company provided the services I was looking for, and I couldn’t determine whether their level of experience and skill matched what I needed.

While it’s tempting to project a grandiose image of being a large multi-faceted company which is internationally sought-after, the problem with doing so is that you miss out on a lot of smaller work since it’s assumed you’re too expensive. If you are in fact a large company, the smaller work might be of little concern. If you’re not and you enjoy working on projects that require less of your time, then you may wish to reconsider the message you’re putting forward. The market is large, and getting larger; there is a need for all levels of skill and experience.

What I often couldn’t tell from visiting a site was if the designer was an employee of some other company, or available for hire. This was important to me in particular as I was looking for an individual. Some don’t list any affiliation at all which further compounds the problem.

When I could distinguish who was an independent, the problem then became evaluating the work. You wouldn’t believe how many don’t link to their portfolios on their weblogs. If I know you, chances are I know you through your weblog; if I want to hire you, guess where I’m going to turn?

And when I found a portfolio, often it didn’t have a wide enough variety of work to form an impression. Naturally a portfolio should only contain your best work (although sometimes that rule should be broken to also include your most recent work; a stale portfolio instills doubt) but when there isn’t enough work to pick and choose, brevity doesn’t solve the problem. You need a good stable of examples to show me what you know.

In the end I found what I was looking for, but it strikes me that as we’re carefully crafting semantically rich markup and visually gorgeous surroundings to deliver our messages within, sometimes that message gets lost in the shuffle.

Reader Comments

June 07, 05h

Well hold up there Dave. First off, I don’t link to my portfolio from my blog, like so many others, because it is a secured and private portfolio. You have to log in to get access. I do this because of the IP involved in my portfolio and the kind of clients I have worked for. The other thing is that I don’t publicly list “hire me” because that often leads to inquiries from projects that either pay too little (we’re talking high school student rates) or emails from contract recruiters (i.e. we’ll hire you for 3 months and drop you like a sack of potatoes).

I find my best job leads come in word of mouth form and that my best job opportunities are ones who seek me out because they know what I do or at least know me through the industry and the community. It’s really not worth my time to take a job where they just need someone who can do HTML. I’d rather take the job where someone needs specifically my IA skill set and has seen and appreciates my work.

My 2 cents, mileage may very per gallon.

June 07, 05h

Excellent, I was looking for some guidelines for making a user-centric portfolio. This is exactly the account I was looking for. Now we can all build something that can accurately express our own capabilities and strengths. Great timing on the post Dave.

June 07, 05h

So who’d you go with? ;)

Keith says:
June 07, 05h

I’ve run into the very problem you mention about “looking expensive” quite a few times in the past. It’s one of the reasons I’ve “retired” my site.

Like Nick I get most of my work via word of mouth and I don’t have a portfolio up for a few reasons:

#1 – They can be (are) a nightmare to maintain.
#2 – Quite a bit of the work I get wouldn’t “fit” into a portfolio. Not because it’s not “good” but because the final product has been fussed with (fussed up - grin) by a client, it’s behind a firewall (I do lots of Intranet work for some reason) or any number of other reasons.
#3 – Most of the contacts I get via my sites aren’t worth the time spent to scope out the projects. It’s not like someone like yourself comes along looking for work very often. I’m so busy right now it’s almost like I have to know you or have been recommended by someone I know to even bother.

Your points are valid and well taken, it’s just that for some of us things like portfolios are more trouble than they’re worth. Also, many people have sites for other reasons than getting work.

That said, if you are trying to get work, it makes sense to follow your advice – which I’d have been able to quote back if your entry was on this page….argh! ;)

June 07, 07h

I also don’t link to any portfolio information because of the maintenance issue. I’ve worked on probably over a hundred web sites of the intranet, internet and extranet variety. But take out the intranets and extranets, then take out those URLs that invariably change over time, and then to add new projects every month… It’s a time consuming process.

Besides, it’s easy to embellish or get the wrong impression as to someone’s capabilities through their portfolio. Word of mouth is probably still the best approach. And certainly as you continue your business, you’ll build a resource of contractors that you’ll be able to pull into different projects.

btw: it was a good idea to mention that you’d found someone. You’d have no doubt gotten a hundred posts with “hire me!” :)

Dave S. says:
June 07, 09h

Of course if you’ve already got a system working for you, there’s no need to change a good thing. The tips in this article were aimed at those looking for ways to be noticed, mainly.

June 07, 10h

I can definitely see the problem with the way most are designed now. Speaking as someone who this article was directly meant for probably, I can explain the issues that I run into.

When your portfolio is not that great, it is hard to be proud about showing it off. It’s the old catch 22. When you are starting out, you need a good portfolio to get good clients, but you need good clients to get that portfolio in the first place. You can’t do that with a less than impressive portfolio, so how to begin?

I personally found the best method was offering your service for a lower rate than you know you are worth. If you can really make a client feel like they are getting a deal, then they might be more willing to take the chance one you. Then, use that opportunity to show off your best skill. Then, after you get a couple under your belt, start a portfolio.

I started out by showing off screenshots of really amatuer work that I have done, and I am starting to realize this may have not been the best method. I have 2 current clients that I consider very high profile for me, so after those are done, I will feel better about my portfolio.

I really think everyone could use a “what we do” type page that explains in specific detail just exactly what skill-set the person/company has. Listing technologies and software that you know and giving yourself a rating of how confident you are with each I think gives clients a better idea of who and what you are.

June 07, 11h

A good point. I’m redesigning my website to be more client-oriented, as it was a combination blog-portfolio before. I’m keeping them separate this time, mostly because I don’t feel like I should display a journal of sorts on a client-oriented site. I’ll remember to link to my main site from my blog, though ;)

June 07, 11h

This has been difficult for me recently because I am a bit new to the whole standards scene. The question is do I display my old nasty table layouts for the world to see, when my site preaches standards compliance and css driven layouts?

Here is another issue. I often hand off control of a site to the client. And sometimes things can get a little ugly. The shell of my work is there, but it looks far different than it did when we went live.

The dynamic of the web is so much different than handling calls or face-to-face meetings. In those situations you can respond to questions and concerns, where on the web the potential client is left to fend for themselves. All very scary for a perfectionist…

So here’s to building a better porfolio. Until then, I will just keep showcasing that Zen Garden Entry for all its’ worth. The client never messes with that one ;)

Susanna says:
June 08, 02h

This article is a timely reminder that potential employers may be looking at our web sites. At least in the case of my personal site, the shoemaker’s children are going barefoot. I’m usually too busy doing work for other people to pay attention to my own site.

But I know it needs cleaning up. I plan to use some of the suggestions in this article to spiff up the portfolio. I will also finally finish the redesign, clean up my links, and do a better job of separating the professional from the personal. Someday soon, hopefully.

June 08, 03h

Brad Daily said: "This has been difficult for me recently because I am a bit new to the whole standards scene. The question is do I display my old nasty table layouts for the world to see, when my site preaches standards compliance and css driven layouts?"

Having just lost out on a new job with a web design firm because all of my sites were CSS-only, and because they made table-based websites and had only briefly touched upon CSS as a means of removing underlines from links, I would say yes, show your old table-based sites…

June 08, 08h

The way i handle web sites my portfolio (which ISN’T linked from anywhere right now, but that’s because i’m rethinking the whole site design) is as follows: i post a SCREENSHOT or two of the original design, and then a link to the web site with a note that the site may have changed since it was created.

I find that this gives the “street cred” of having real links to real work, but also the certainty of having the work be presented *as i created it* before they go look at the current incarnation.

Just a thought …

Will K says:
June 08, 08h

Paul Haine said: “Having just lost out on a new job with a web design firm because all of my sites were CSS-only, and because they made table-based websites and had only briefly touched upon CSS as a means of removing underlines from links, I would say yes, show your old table-based sites…”

Now, if you’re in Cleveland, Ohio, *all* you want to show to a web design firm is table-based, 1994-style HTML, or they’ll put your resume in gold ole’ “File 13.” Since I only do standards-based design work, that makes it a tough sell here.

This is an odd situation, as Eric Meyer lives in Cleveland, and he “wrote the book” on standards-based design (well, you know what I mean!). You’d think that there’d be more companies locally that are interested in standards-based design.

As my site develops, I am presenting the total package, including experimental work; this way, the prospective client knows that: 1) I am competent in everything that I say that I am; and 2) I am constantly working on new ways to wrap a package.

June 08, 09h

I’m working as the lone person concerned about standards compliance for a company filled with .NET developers. It can be as bad as it sounds. Oddly enough, the marketing people have been the most clueful and receptive to using web standards and semantic layout. Our IT department
s web administrators are more dogmatic than most Jesuits when it comes to the use of IE, much to my chagrin.

However, it’s taught me an important lesson. Standards compliance doesn’t mean anything to the business world. What does matter to them are things like ROI and scalibility. You have to sell standards, they don’t stand on their own. The suits aren’t designers, and they don’t care about things like semantic markup. They want to know where the bottom line is.

I’ve been sneaking standards in under the door, giving copies of the Seybold session on why standards compliance is important ( for those who haven’t yet seen it). I’ve mentioned that major organizations like Quark, ESPN, Fox Searchlight, and the Library of Congress all have switched to CSS based layouts. I’ve made the argument that CSS layouts mean that when mobile devices reign supreme, we won’t have to start redesigning pages. I’ve shown them the arguments for CSS leading to a better ROI ( I’ve designed sites using CSS in days whereas my predecessor’s tag soup layouts took weeks to design and develop.

Does that mean that my company is fully on the standards compliance train? Unfortunately not.

However, they’re starting to get the picture. While I still have to put up with a site filled with tag soup, ugly tables, and absolutely no content management (insane, yes, I know), at least some of it is starting to sink in.

Standards are going to be a long and hard fight, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on them. Yes, we’ll have to use tables from time to time, but this has to be an evolutionary process rather than a revolution process if the suits will understand.

If you think like a suit and speak their language, you can sell standards. However, that means that you can’t be dogmatic either. Table-based layouts may be evil to designers, but they’re still part of the web, and your portfolio should show how you’ve developed as a designer.

June 08, 11h

Good job on the article, Dave.

Since I’m new to professional design, my portfolio is still under development. Everyone has a different method of delivering their portfolio, but it is definite that everyone should have one. I think the best thing to do is have both screenshots and links to the “real thing.” I had my reasons for not doing so before, but now I am moving towards this method.

We get so creative sometimes that we forget the important aspect of design: CONTENT. I think 3 things need to be established on my site: who I am, what I do, and what I have done. Many times we fail to give the viewer the information that they are looking for, how they are looking for it, and where they are expecting it to be. I think just as we acknowledge the importance of standards-compliant coding, we need to have standards-compliant content similar to 508.