When I look at design portfolios, many of them are not designed to appeal to the client. If you are looking for a job at a agency that is one thing, but if you want client work, you better make a portfolio that appeals to clients. It isn't hard, it just takes a different approach and you need to step out of your designer shoes and into those of your potential clients.
Can This Person Solve My Problems?
This is the number one, most important thing of all. You are a problem solver. Clients do not have the time or skills to do what you do. Therefore, your portfolio should be all about how you solve problems.
It makes me sad, but I have to say it, for your benefit. The majority of clients don’t know what good design looks like, and don’t really care if they get it or not. I know it is a punch in the gut, but you have to realize, that clients are coming to you because they have a problem that you need to solve, and that is the only reason. Making an amazing design is what you want to do, but it is not a solution to a problem. It can be, but it isn’t always. A great design that doesn’t fix the problem, means you didn’t do your job.
Demonstrate your worth to the client. Not that you just make things pretty.
Base your portfolio around the problems you know how to solve, and give examples. For instance: “Client A needed to promote their new line of widgets, so I built a blog and a custom Facebook page for them, which did X, Y and Z to increase their exposure. Sales increased by X amount.” Clients will eat that up. You demonstrated a problem you solved and a way to justify your paycheck, by bringing the client more sales.
Can I Work With This Person?
If you cannot communicate through your website there is a good chance you cannot communicate in person either. Everything needs to be simple and direct. I do this work, in this way, to solve this problem. Keep it sort and to the point. Clients want someone who can understands them and can communicate in a language they can understand.
If your portfolio is full of technical terms, you will only confuse potential clients. Say that you are up on the latest design techniques and use the latest software but it isn’t important that you say what those techniques are. It may cause confusion. The tools you use to solve the problem are not important to the client, just the results are.
People who are buying sports cars don’t typically want to know the camber control on the suspension. They want to know the good stuff like horsepower and 0-60mph. They want a “fast car” but don’t need or want to know the really technical details. Design clients are the same way. “Oh, she can let us update content ourselves, that will save us money.” Describe your skills as a solution to a problem instead of, in this example, explaining your experience with various content management systems.
Is this person trustworthy?
The best way to demonstrate trustworthiness is by showing client work that others will recognize. As a designer, you always tend to put your very best designs first. Instead, to appeal to clients, you want to put the work you’ve done for your most visible client first. Especially, if you are working in small community, show that you do work for local clients. You would be surprised how much businesses talk to each other. A potential client is very likely to contact a business you worked for and ask about you. But if your portfolio is full of concept work, there is no way of knowing that you can be trusted.
Impress Clients Not Your Peers
We often go to our peers for feedback and tend to judge our own skills around looking at other peoples work. When it comes to your client portfolio… stop it. That is like going to the gym and trying to lift way more than you should because the meathead next to you is bench pressing 400 pounds. Forget about what your peers are doing and just focus on your client’s needs.
Too often designers try to wow each other with their portfolios, while they never bother to consider the people writing their paychecks.
Are They Experienced?
This can be a tough one. You do not want to put every piece of work you have ever done in your portfolio but you need to demonstrate all of the skills that you want to get hired to do. If a client needs something specific done, they will look to see examples of that on your portfolio.
That reminds me. If you hate doing something, don’t put it in your portfolio, even if it is your best design project. You will get work based off of the projects in your portfolio. If you have a portfolio full of illustrations, that is what clients will call you about. If you hate Flash, leave your Flash examples out of your portfolio.
Getting Too Clever
I see this in web design portfolios more than anything. As designers we love to push the envelope, experiment with new things, but your portfolio is not the place to do it.
Using techniques that only work in the very latest builds of Chrome and Firefox might impress your design friends but it isn’t going to impress the client who is still running on IE7. Is it more important to impress other designers or get paid?
If you need to spread your wings, come up with a personal project, but don’t make your portfolio your personal testing ground for every new css class and layout technique.
All of these things will help you on your way to gaining more clients. Just remember, you are solving problems first and foremost, and everything will work out.