11 Things Portfolio Websites for Creative Entrepreneurs Need

Last week we talked about why you shouldn’t put all your eggs in a basket you don’t own. This week we’re talking about portfolio websites – the basket that you do own. And what those websites need to serve as the ideal hub for your online efforts.

(If you’re not sure whether you own your site or not, check out last week’s post on digital sharecropping.)

What’s the purpose of portfolio websites?

Knowing what the website is for helps to focus on what it needs. Portfolio websites need to

  • Get you found online
  • Tell people who you are
  • Tell people what you create
  • Help build a relationship with fans
  • Tell people how to support you

Sensible, right?

portfolio websites

A word on ‘portfolios’ before we get started

Even if you’re not a visual artist, you still need something like a portfolio to show of your work. It doesn’t matter whether you write, make music or something else –  you need to show what you can do, on your website. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll just call that a portfolio.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about the 11 things portfolio websites need.

#1 Obvious & intuitive navigation

The last thing you want a site visitor to do is think too much when trying to navigate your site. Your navigation links need to be easily findable (at the top, or on the left) and they need to make sense. 

That doesn’t you can’t be a little creative – instead of About it could be something like Meet Melba or Who’s Ahmad? The important thing is that it should obvious what each menu item is for. And the menu items people expect (AboutPortfolioShop, and Contact) need to be there as well. 

One thing to keep in mind is how many menu items you have. Too many choices can be overwhelming. The more choices people have, the less likely they are to make a choice (aka decision paralysis). I would recommend having at most 5 top level menu items, with no more than 1-2 submenus.

#2 A clear welcome message

The welcome message is the first thing that catches the eye when people come to your site. It appears at the very top of the page, below the navigation. It’s an overview of your site and lets people know who you are and what you do. Ten years ago, sliders were the most common vehicle for the welcome message. The dawn of the smartphone has brought the hero image into vogue because sliders are crappy on mobile. 

A hero image is a large banner image that takes up the full width of the website. It’s an image that draws the eye and sometimes takes up all available screen space. A picture is worth a thousand words so the right image can set the tone for the whole site.

On top of the image is some text to explain what the site is about. There’s usually a header – aka a title, which is usually your domain or your name. It’s followed by a sentence or two describing what the site is about, along with links to interior pages or a call to action.

Here’s mine:

welcome message

It tells people that I make comics & illustrations, and what I blog about, with links to the topics that I feel are the most important. And it lets visitors know right away that I don’t censor my language. However I do need to update it, as I’ve added a shop; I’ll be doing that as part of a larger site overhaul as another template’s outstanding typography has caught my eye.

#3 A well-organized and uncluttered layout

When you read a web page, the style, format, and arrangement of text should immediately let you know what is the primary content and what is not

You should be able to scroll down a page and scan headlines and text to see if you’re interested in reading something. Images should be used to break up text but not overwhelm the page. There should be a clearly defined ‘action’ color that makes your CTA stand out.

And everything should have space to breathe. The page should not feel cluttered with a ton of stuff. It should feel good to look at, not busy or agitated.

This is easily attainable with a well-designed template. With WordPress (ref link) and, to a lesser extent, Squarespace, templates handle most of the styling. As long as you don’t go nuts formatting your text, the template should make the content hierarchy clear. But a Squarespace design can be ruined with their drag & drop editor – something that can avoided with a little care

Wix = poop
See that stuff coming out of the fish’s butt? That’s Wix.

Wix, on the other hand, is an absolute piece of shit service. Why? Because you can drag and drop anything, anywhere – leaving elements unaligned, with inconsistent font sizes and oddly organized pages. All of that can result in a design that just looks like crap. And the worst first impressions are given by portfolio websites that look shitty.

Tip: Don’t use drag & drop editors for portfolio websites (or any website, for that matter). They are not worth the trouble.

#4 Information about you 

Being a creator is about people connecting with your art. Besides your creations themselves, it helps people to get to know you better. You need an About page.  It should give a little bit of your background/bio, perhaps your artistic journey, an artist statement (if you have one) and a description of things you have done.

It doesn’t have to be long and super-detailed – just enough to let people know you better is enough. But length and details don’t hurt.

artist portfolio website
All internet tubes lead to this gallery.

#5 A portfolio of your work

Portfolio websites are not complete unless they have examples of your work. If people are coming to your site, they want to see/read/hear what you’ve made. That’s what turns people from being visitors to fans.

For visual artists, a gallery of photos of your work is a requirement. Writers should have examples of their writing, and, if available, information on their published work. Musicians, podcasters & voice talent, etc. should have audio of their work available on the site.

The portfolio is not just for fans either – it’s also a professional necessity if you are looking for an agent, publisher, collaborator, etc. 

Make sure that your creations are displayed attractively and are easy to navigate – just like the rest of your site.

#6 An easy way to contact you

Portfolio websites are pointless if people can’t get in touch with you. No potential customer should have to hunt to figure out how to get in touch with you.

Make sure that you have a Contact page that contains either a contact form or contact information. Keep privacy and spam in mind; an email address is usually enough for contact purposes. Note that any posted contact information is fair game for spammers.

And make sure that the contact page is easy to find. It should, at the least, be a link in your site navigation or in your footer. And it should say something like ContactContact Me, or Get In Touch

Gutenberg sucks
Real artists make newsletters the old fashioned way – and even chew reeds to make their own newsprint.

#7 A newsletter subscription form

Once someone gets to your site, you need to – respectfully – try to get permission to email them before they leave. The goal is to build your list – aka your potential audience. The more fans on your list, the more people who may be interested when you offer something for sale. If you have 50 people on your list, you might get 1-2 sales. If you have 500 people on your list, you might get 10-20 sales. Which one would you prefer?

So why start a newsletter? Because it’s free and it works. You can communicate directly with your fans without being subjected to algorithms and distractions. It’s respectful because you ask them to join and don’t overwhelm them with emails. They choose to join and listen to what you have to say. 

Compared to social media networks, email inboxes are distraction free. On Facebook, a fan might go to your page and then get distracted by an ad or notification. This is much, much less likely in their inbox (where there are fewer distractions)

Update: Just got an email from ConvertKit (ref link) where the author shared the results of an engagement experiment they did:

I did a little experiment on my own where I posted the same message on all the platforms I use and measured the engagement (e.g. how many people saw my message compared with how many people were following or subscribed to me on that platform). Here is what I found, and it surprised even me:

Facebook: .08%
Twitter: 0.1%
Instagram: 4.5%
YouTube: 5.3%
Email: 46%

Isa @ ConvertKit

Email works. It’s the most effective way to communicate and build relationships with fans. Messages stay in their inbox until they check (so no algorithms to mess with you). And most people check their email every day. That makes a mailing list a no-brainer.

There are many email marketing services out there. I suggest checking out Mailerlite (referral link). I’ll go over how to grow your mailing list in a future post.

(Hint: it involves giving new subscribers something cool & free)

#8 A call to action

call to action (aka a CTA) is a prompt your site that asks a visitor to take an action. The action could be to subscribe to your newsletter, learn more about you, visit your shop, or contact you. The CTA can simply be some text with a button, or it could be the much-derided pop up window. 

Mr. Rogers
Mr. Rogers would encourage you to pursue your art.

Why do you need a CTA? Because hope is not a strategy. Hoping that a visitor might buy something is not how you’re going to make a living with your art. Not asking is leaving money on the table (and if you’re like most people, every little bit counts). Remember: you can ask without being sleazy or manipulative.

When deciding on a CTA, think about what action you’d like a visitor to take on the site. I recommend focusing on newspaper subscriptions. It’s much more likely that a new visitor will consider a free subscription versus opening their wallet for someone they’ve just met. 

I’ll go over CTAs in detail in a future post.

#9 Not-too-prominent links to your social media profiles

Remember that you want to direct your social media followers to your website, with the goal of getting them to join your list. But when someone is on your site, your don’t want to immediately send them off to Facebook/et al. They’ll just end up being distracted instead of digging deeper into your website.

With that in mind, make sure links to your social media accounts are available but that they are NOT super prominent. Don’t put them in your header or around your nav. Don’t make them ginormous buttons. Small buttons in your footer are ok. So is having them on your contact page.

Pro tip: There is one time when prominent links to your social media profiles is ok: after someone has subscribed to your newsletter. Once you have their permission to email them, that’s a perfect time to thank them – and to ask them to follow you online.

Website performance optimization
Look how fast these cars are going.

#10 Fast loading pages

In our smartphone-oriented world, how fast a page loads can make or break a site. Long page loads are frustrating and lead people to abandon a site. 

“2 seconds is the threshold for ecommerce website acceptability. At Google, we aim for under a half second.”

Maile Ohye, Google

A couple of years ago, the Financial Times tested how delays affected user activity, with a control group and a group that experienced delays. Slower speeds results in lower reading, lower engagement – pretty much lower everything. Here’s a table showing the drop in article views over time:

Page load time7 days impact28 days
1 second slower-4.9%-4.6%
2 second slower-5.0%
3 second slower-7.2%-7.9%
Mean % drop in article views between variants and control

Speed makes a big difference because no matter how good your content, people will not want to engage with it if your site is slow and frustrating. You should shoot for page loads under 2 seconds. 

Tip: if you’re using the self-hosted version of WordPress, know that 1) all hosts are not created equal and 2) you usually get what you pay for. Cheap-ass $5/mo hosting plans are usually slow as shit because they cram as many sites onto a server as they can. Paying more for hosting is usually worth it, and so is looking around for smaller hosts (fwiw, I host clients on my server and their page load times range from .9-1.5s).

You can test your site speed at GTMetrix, Pingdom or Google.

basic SEO

#11 basic seo

Search Engine Optimization (aka SEO) is the practice of increasing your traffic from organic search results by improving your website and content. It is vital to everyone who needs to make money online.

Look at it this way: when you learn your craft, you learn how to do certain things well. For visual arts, it could be composition or anatomy. For writing, it could be setups and payoffs. If you want to do something well, you’re going to learn things that help you improve. (Or you can continue sucking, the choice is yours.)

The same goes for portfolio websites.

Google & Bing evaluate and rank websites it based on how well they fulfill certain criteria. They want to know, for example, what a page is about – and there are certain things they look for to decide that. These decisions center around the words people use when searching for stuff online (aka keywords). Optimizing is the term for helping search engines know what a page/site is all about.

SEO is a topic that deserves (and will get) a blog post of its own. For now, know that easy SEO is the #1 reason I prefer WordPress to Wix, Squarespace or any other website service.

There you go – 11 Things Portfolio Websites for Creative Entrepreneurs Need

Keep in mind that there are exceptions to every rule, plus you’ll find successful artists whose portfolio websites fall short in several of these areas. Then again, if an artist is already successful, they can slack on their website. We’d like to have that option too.

Did I miss something that you feel is an absolute necessity?

Leave a comment and let me know.

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