Who Needs a Portfolio Site?
For creative professionals, a critical element in building a reputation is a portfolio that showcases their work through images and photographs; after all, people consume the vast majority of their information about the world visually. A portfolio is a structured collection of images that demonstrates the capabilities of an artist, business or professional. A wedding photographer is an obvious user; she can show the best quality images taken at the happy event. Likewise, a graphic designer, book cover artist, illustrator, or fine artist can showcase their work with an online portfolio to demonstrate their skills.
But there are other applications: an architecture firm should consider a portfolio that walks potential clients through planned and completed projects. A baker could use a portfolio to feature the cakes and desserts he’s created for special occasions, or to serve as a visual menu for the goods available in store. A writer or journalist can use a portfolio to link to her work at other websites using custom cover images. A craftsperson might use a portfolio to show the fine details of products available for sale on online stores like Etsy.
Can’t I just use a Photo Album for My Portfolio?
There are many sites and tools that let you share photographs in a collected album. Even Facebook and Instagram can serve this purpose; so much so that Facebook recently became the largest host of photos in the world.
The difference between a photo album and a portfolio boils down to three main things:
1. Categorization: a proper portfolio creates a content hierarchy of two or three levels. These might be called “galleries” or “collections”. You can put individual projects into groups that showcase a specific style of work or products that are offered. An interior designer may collect a dozen photos each into three galleries representing different homes and group these into a “Residential” collection, alongside separate “Corporate” and “Retail” collections. This allows her to showcase her work in a way that appeals to specific clients. A portfolio tool will usually allow you to set a “cover image” (or multiple images) that represents the content of the collection, which you can drop elsewhere on your site as an invitation to people to have a look.
2. Organization: a portfolio allows you to organize the images into a sequence that makes sense to the viewer. For example, a book cover artist wants to show the designs they’ve created in sequence from books one to five in a series, giving a sense of progression of the work. A wedding photographer might want to organize the photos as before, during and after to better tell the story of the occasion. Photo albums don’t usually provide the same level of control or ease of use.
3. Tagging: an important part of a portfolio is the description and accompanying data about the images. For example, a photographer may want to list the various settings used when an image was taken; a baker may want to add descriptive details about the flavors and ingredients in each cake. More importantly, you’ll want to provide links and actions. For example, if a graphic designer’s work was used on an iPhone app, she’ll want to include a link to it in the App Store so that potential clients can download and see her work “in the wild.” Likewise, a jeweler will want to link to his Etsy store from the gallery so that a customer can purchase the product. Most photo albums don’t have this function, or if they do they don’t provide an interface to make sure the viewer clicks to see the target site in a new web browser window so you don’t lose them.
How do I add a Portfolio to my WordPress Site?
If you are running your site on WordPress, there are three main options available for adding a portfolio, and they are quite a bit different so you’ll want to consider them carefully. The great thing is that WordPress Portfolios are supported in such a wide variety of ways.
1. Portfolio Themes: if you’re familiar with WordPress, you know that you can set a particular Theme for your site that defines the colors, fonts, sidebars, menus, etc. – the overall look and feel of your site. There are specific Themes available that are designed with a portfolio layout first and foremost.
The advantage of a Portfolio Theme is that the “User Interface” of the site will be geared specifically to the display of your portfolio. This means that it will be easy to feature the cover images on your main homepage so you can drive users to the galleries. It also means that the menus and buttons are designed to make it easy for viewers to navigate the portfolio and then back to your main pages. These dedicated Themes usually also ensure that your portfolio images are “responsive” which means they automatically resize your photos and interface to work on mobile phones, tablet and desktop web browsers without any additional configurations.
There are many specific Portfolio Themes available for free at the WordPress.org Theme Directory or for a fee at premium sites like Themeforest.net, ElegantThemes.com, Themify.me, and many others. Check back next week for our article on recommended Portfolio Themes for our suggestions.
The downsides to using a specific Portfolio Theme are twofold. First, the designs revolve around the portfolio features. This is convenient if displaying your galleries is the primary purpose of the site, but if you have other uses, for example, you want to host an eCommerce store on your WordPress site, or you want your written content to be the focus, then a dedicated theme may be limiting because it may not be compatible with these features, or may bury them too deep within your site.
Second, if you already have a WordPress site with a theme you like, then a Portfolio Theme may be a problem because you’ll need to replace your entire current site design with a new look and feel. Unless you have enough expertise with CSS and HTML to adjust the theme, you will lose the branding and layout that you currently enjoy.
If you think a theme is the right approach for you, check out our article on Selecting a Portfolio Theme. But if you do have a current theme you like or if your portfolio isn’t the focus of your site, there are two other options apart from a Portfolio Theme.
2. Portfolio Plugins: a plugin is a set of software code you can add to an existing WordPress install to extend the features of your site. They don’t necessarily change your existing look and feel but add functionality within your site. With a Portfolio plugin, you’ll get many of the same image upload/handling, gallery organization and cover image controls you’d get in a dedicated theme. This gives you the ability to control the location of your portfolio directly and more importantly lets you keep working with your existing site structure, layout and design.
The downside is that using a plugin can require some “fiddling under the hood” of your WordPress install. Installing a plugin isn’t necessarily more complicated than setting up a dedicated theme. However, because plugins are designed to be used with “any” theme, you can run into occasional quirks and little issues where a layout or a button doesn’t look exactly the way you want it to, or isn’t quite as slick and integrated with your design as a dedicated portfolio theme would be. Usually, a little CSS or HTML work can resolve this, but it can be tricky, as the way plugins are implemented can vary greatly. You’ll also want to have a look at how well the portfolio created by the plugin works on a mobile and tablet browser with your specific theme.
If you want to go the plugin route, check out our guide to Selecting a Portfolio Plugin. Otherwise read on!
3. Third Party Dedicated Portfolio sites: another option is to use a third party website dedicated to shared portfolios such as Behance.net, Flickr, 500px, dribbble, deviantART, and even Etsy. In this case, your portfolio is hosted on these websites, rather than on your own. There are plugins available that let you set cover images and also display your portfolio from some of these sites on your own.
The primary advantage of these dedicated sites is the social sharing that happens with your content. They can generate significantly more views for your images than your own site because they already have a lot of traffic and users. This is particularly valuable for graphic designers, photographers and other visual artists; the advantage might not be as great for bakers or architects as these sites tend to be more about the images and visuals themselves than the underlying products they represent. However, it certainly can’t hurt to post your beautiful product shots there either.
The disadvantage of this approach is that if you rely exclusively on their hosting, the plugins to display the content on your site might not give you as much control on the display as you like, as site specific plugins have many of the same limitations a general portfolio plugin has.
If you’re leaning towards using a Social Media Portfolio site, or if you already are an active member is such a community, then check out our guide for integrating your own WordPress site with these services.
Making Your Portfolio Site Implementation Decision
Here’s a handy flowchart to help you decide which approach to take:
Choosing The Right Host For Your WordPress Site
Choosing the right hosting plan for your site is crucial. There are several options you can pick from based on your needs.
While most hosts offer an easy way to install and manage your WordPress install, you should consider which type of WordPress hosting plan is best for you. Here are the different types of hosting offers that you can consider:
- Managed WordPress Hosting: Managed WordPress hosts specialize in hosting WordPress ONLY. These hosts are suitable for both small businesses and large enterprise blogs. They are pricier than shared hosting options, but considered more secure as companies providing these services maintain, update and monitor your site regularly. For a list of the top managed WordPress hosting plans, see this page.
- Shared WordPress Hosting: This is the cheapest hosting option for a small business or individual. Plans cost a few dollars a month, but speed and uptime can be an issue as server resources are shared with many other clients using the same server. For a list of the top shared server plans that support WordPress, see here.
- VPS WordPress Hosting: Suitable for professional small and medium sized businesses, a VPS server is a more powerful option for hosting your portfolio site. A portion of the server resources are reserved for you with your plan, so site uptime and speed are less of an issue. To see the list of the best VPS servers that support WordPress, see this top list.
- Dedicated WordPress Hosting: Considered the holy grail of hosting (and the priciest option), and generally reserved for large companies. Dedicated hosting means that the whole server is yours, and yours only. To see a list of the top dedicated hosting plans that support WordPress, see this page.
If you’ve decided which approach to take, or want to dive deeper into each, we will have three guides that feature some recommended Themes and Plugins, and an installation walkthrough for each, over the next few weeks.
If you want to learn more about Portfolio Themes, including our recommendations for free and paid themes, check out our guide here. Once you have selected a theme, feel free to use our step-by-step guide to installing a theme.
If you’re interested in extending your existing site with a Portfolio Plugin, check out the guide for that here.
If you want to integrate your portfolio from a third party Social Media Portfolio site on your WordPress install, read this article to get started.