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Portfolio Design Study: Design Patterns and Current Practices

In our recent study on Typographic Design Patterns and Best Practices861, we asked our readers about case studies they would like us to conduct. One of the most popular suggestions was a detailed case study of portfolio websites. Following the requests of our readers, we have carefully selected 55 design agencies and Web development agencies, analyzed their portfolio websites and identified popular design patterns. The main goal of the study was to provide freelancers and design agencies with useful pointers for designing their own portfolio.

We have brainstormed on the most important design issues and asked designers across the globe what design decisions they often have to make when designing a portfolio website. We also asked designers what questions they would like answered or analyzed in our case study. In the end, we came up with a bag of 40 solid portfolio-related questions — sorted, grouped and ranked according to importance. Finally, we searched for a good mix of established design agencies and well-designed portfolio websites of small and large agencies.

Finally, we created a questionnaire with these 40 questions and went through the websites of all of these design agencies, noticing design patterns and filling out our quite lengthy forms. Overall, the study took over 75 hours to prepare.

This post presents the initial results of our big portfolio design study. Below, we discuss the visual design, structure, layout and navigation of portfolio websites. We also get into the design details of every single section, including the about, clients, services, portfolio, workflow and contact pages. Of course, you do not necessarily have to follow the findings presented here; rather, use them to get a general idea of what other portfolios look like, and then come up with something of your own that is usable, distinctive and memorable. We would like to thank Mark Nutter for helping us gather data for this study.

1. Light vs. Dark Design Link

A general question that comes up often is whether to design a visually appealing dark website (that is, use big bold typography and vivid colors to give the user a colorful and memorable experience) or a softer lighter website (one that has a simple structure and clean typography).

Surprisingly, according to our studies:

Of course, picking a dark or light design depends strongly on your personal approach and individual goals for your portfolio. Saying that the “trend” strong favors light designs would be inaccurate because each type serving its purpose in its particular context.

2. How Many Columns? Link

Interestingly, many of the portfolio websites we researched tend to vary the number of columns between sections. Client and about pages usually have two columns, while front pages often have three to four columns and present the most important sections of the website in a compact overview. In fact, we see pages getting more and more columns: every sixth portfolio website we saw has at least one page with four columns.

Screenshot

According to our study, few websites risk experimenting with so-called out-of-the-box layouts14, or navigation like JavaScript scrolling or other kinds of original layouts. Most portfolios have traditional block-style layouts, with two to three clearly separated columns and a simple, convenient navigation menu.

Screenshot15
carrot creative16 has an original one-page layout with JavaScript-scrolling navigation, which is unusual and memorable but not necessarily intuitive.

Also, most portfolio websites consist of multiple, detailed pages, with relatively deep sub-sections. Minimalist one-page portfolios are rarely encountered: only 5.4% of the portfolio websites we saw have simple and minimalist designs (namely, Neutron Creations17, Fish Marketing18 and 80/20194).

3. Introductory Block On Top? Link

Portfolio websites commonly have a large introductory block in the header of the page, essentially a short friendly statement about what the agency offers and what advantages a customer will gain by using its services. The block will usually blend vivid imagery with big typography. It conveys both the company’s overall image and the personal tone of the agency’s staff, making it equally professional and friendly. Such blocks usually appear immediately below the logo on the front page.

Screenshot

According to our study, 79% of portfolio websites have some kind of an introductory block in their upper region. We noticed, though, that some portfolios forgo an introductory block in favor of showcasing their recent projects (concentric studio20, HUGE inc.21 and Wishingline22 being examples). For such designs, a small “About us” block is placed somewhere else on the page, often below the fold.

Screenshot23
45royale Inc.24 has friendly introductory text on its front page. It communicates that the website belongs to a Web design studio that is located in Canton, Georgia and that creates clean, unique and usable websites and Web applications.

4. Layout Alignment Link

Back in ’90s, website layouts were traditionally left-aligned, with either vertical navigation in the left sidebar or horizontal navigation near the head. With growing adoption of wide-screen displays, this has changed. More and more designers are horizontally centering their layouts so that the passive white space around the page balances the layout. We did notice a trend towards more original, even right-aligned, layouts at the beginning of the year, but not a single portfolio in our current survey has a right-aligned layout.

Layout alignment

According to our study,

  • no portfolio layouts are right-aligned,
  • 89% of portfolio layouts are horizontally centered,
  • the rest have either original adaptive layouts (Method25 and Carrot Creative26), a vivid background image that fills the remaining screen space (Duoh27) or just left it empty (e.g. Ideo784128, maybe.for.you29 and Area1730) – of course, you will see the remaining screen space only if your display has a wide-screen resoluton.

5. Navigation Alignment Link

Where to put the main navigation in the layout? The question isn’t trivial and often leads to a debate among designers. Surprisingly, our study revealed that most portfolio designers place the main navigation in the upper-right corner of the layout. In fact:

Main Horizontal Navigation: Study

Vertical navigation is rarely used, and other approaches (such as horizontal navigation at the bottom of the page) are found on unconventional out-of-the-box layouts, though still uncommon.

Main Horizontal Navigation: Study36
Area1737 has a left-aligned layout with left-aligned navigation. Each navigation element is a fairly large clickable block element.

6. Search Box Design Link

While many portfolio websites are quite small, presenting visitors with only some general information about the studio and its design process, some portfolios go the length and present a variety of case studies, a blog and detailed information about its every major project. In general, if a website contains a lot of information, search functionality would very likely benefit some visitors to the website. As it turns out, very few companies integrate search functionality into their website.

  • 89% of the portfolio websites we studied have no search functionality,
  • Only 11% of websites have a search box, usually a simple, clean one. Most of the owners of these portfolios have a blog that they update regularly (including pod18038, OmniTI39, fortyseven media40, Ideo784128, Viget).

7. Flash Elements Link

Flash, which is an established technique for rich interactive design, seems to be losing popularity among Web designers — at least among designers of portfolio websites. The reason is probably that certain Flash effects can be replaced by advanced JavaScript techniques, which are often available from popular JavaScript libraries as easy-to-use plug-ins.

Slideshows, animation effects and transition effects can now be created with JavaScript solutions that are lightweight, quicker and much easier. Rich Flash animation and video effects are being replaced with simpler, subtler JavaScript techniques. Flash is still sometimes used, though — for instance, for dynamic text replacement.

A portfolio site with Flash-elements42
BKWLD43 is one of the few portfolios in our study that uses Flash heavily throughout the website.

In our study, only 3.7% of portfolio websites used Flash heavily (notably, Lift Interactive44, Bkwld45, and others, but mainly for slideshows and presentations). The reason is very probably because we did not include any interactive motion design agencies, Flash design studios or video production studios in our study.

8. Where To Put Contact Information? Link

One important objective of our study was to understand how designers generally convey information about contact options. Do visitors have to click on a “Contact us” button to get in touch with a design agency? Or is contact information placed prominently at the top of the page? Or do most designers put contact information in the footer – the place where most users are expecting it anyway?

The websites we analyzed put contact information in almost every area of the page: top, right, left, bottom, even the middle of the page. But we also noticed some interesting patterns. Note that we were interested in a) where the link to the “Contact us” page is and b) where the actual contact information is positioned.

Where is the link to contact information placed?

It turns out that:

  • Only 12.7% of websites display a phone number in the header of the page (e.g. Things That Are Brown46, Headscape47, Clearleft48 and Concentric Studio49),
  • Only 9.1% of websites display their email address in the header of the page (e.g. buffalo766650, Kyan media51),
  • A postal address usually isn’t displayed at all (54.5%) or else is placed in the footer (40%) or upper area of the website (5.4%),
  • A “contact” link usually appears in the upper-right corner (71%) and/or the footer (45.4%),
  • “Contact” (59.7%) and “Contact us” (21%) are most popular wordings for the link to the contact page.

Wording for the link to contact information

9. “About Us” Page Link

The about page is used on portfolio websites to present the members of the team, explain the philosophy of the agency and prove the company’s expertise and professionalism. The page gives the design studio a personal touch and — if designed properly — elicits the trust of potential customers.

Weightshift.com's about page shows team members and describes who they are.
Weightshift.com’s “About us” page shows team members and describes who they are.

An about page is clearly a must for portfolios: 89% of those we analyzed included a link to the page in their main navigation (exceptions include 31three and Huge Inc52 and others).

The level of detail you use to describe your agency is up to you. 59.1% of about pages we surveyed have no sub-pages and offer visitors a brief, compact overview. Photos of team members, their personal information, and information about the design process are very common on such pages. The tone of the main copy is usually informal, friendly and sometimes even funny. The most popular wordings for the link to the about page is “About” (43.6%), “About us” (27.3%) and “Who we are” (7.2%).

10. Client Page Link

One of the surest signs of professionalism and a good reputation in the industry is a solid list of clients with whom your company has worked. Of course, the more prominent the companies in the list, the more likely potential customers will turn their attention to you. In our experience, many customers seek out a client list, case studies, and testimonials when searching for a design agency. So we were surprised to find only a few agencies that have a standalone page listing their clients.

The client list at Squared eye
The client list on Squared Eye lists every important client this company has worked with. With names such as the Gates Foundation, the US Institute of Peace, Fox Television and the US Postal Service, the company certainly seems trustworthy.

Of the portfolios we analyzed, only 47.2% have a client page (either as a standalone page or part of a portfolio page). In most cases, clients are represented by their logos, which are often linked to detailed case studies that discuss the work done by the agency and client testimonials. The most popular wording for the link to this page is “Our clients” (46.1%), “Clients” (39.6%) or “Client list” (15.4%).

11. Services Page Link

Given that visitors usually come to such websites because they are looking for services, validating their search with clear introductory text on the front page or with a standalone services page is reasonable. Potential clients usually have a pretty good understanding of what they are looking for (motion design, print design, Web design, CD/DVD jacket design, etc.), so putting your major offerings on the services page is a good idea.

Signalfeuer's 'service'-page53
Signalfeuer’s services page54 explains what the company offers very concisely. Icons and small illustrations are used to good effect.

67.2% of the portfolios we looked at have a standalone services page of some kind. The rest put their information on the about page or the front page. The services pages sometimes have sub-pages (35.1%), but in most cases the single page is quite long and detailed.

Linking your portfolio page to your services page is definitely a good idea because it bridges theory and practice and shows exactly what your agency is capable of. The most popular wording for links to such pages is “Services” or “Our Services” (75.7%), followed by “What we do” (10.8%).

12. Portfolio Page Link

Potential customers obviously want to see what a design agency is capable of. Does its style match theirs? What aesthetic does it communicate for visual design, typography and usability? Do its designs feel intuitive and look pleasant? These are the questions potential customers want answered when they become interested in a design agency. So, a solid showcase of previous work could close the deal and convince the customer to contact the agency.

Huge Inc's case study
Huge Inc’s case study: an example of one of dozens of fairly detailed case studies.

In general, be selective with the work you showcase, and let the visitor order and filter the projects by style, industry and year. Also provide some information about the project, or even conduct a detailed case study, with testimonials and insight into your workflow. Unfortunately, few portfolios do that.

According to our study:

  • 7.2% of websites don’t have a portfolio at all,
  • 12.7% have only logos or screenshots, without any description or case study,
  • 16.4% briefly describe each project next to a logo and/or screenshot,
  • 63.6% have a very detailed page for every project, including case studies, testimonials, slideshows of screenshots, drafts and sketches (see Bright Creative55 and 45royale56).

Surprisingly, the most popular wording for the link to the portfolio page is “Work” or “Our work” (47.2%), followed by “Portfolio” (27.2%).

13. Workflow Page Link

Actually, the workflow page works rather well as a sub-section of the about page, rather than as a standalone page. However, some designers want to make their explanation of their workflow more prominent. While 74.5% of websites do not have a workflow page at all, the rest go to rather great lengths to explain to potential customers how their process works and what expectations both parties should have.

45royale's workflow page57
45royale’s process58: the company explains how its process works and how customers will be involved throughout the design process.

Giving potential customers a better understanding of how they will be involved throughout the design process is certainly a good idea. The most popular wordings for the link to this page are “How we work” or “Working with us” (42.8%), “Process” or “Our process” (35.7%), and “Approach” (7.1%).

14. Contact Page Link

If everything goes right, and your portfolio has earned the visitor’s interest, then the contact page will be their final destination. Do everything you can to make it as easy as possible for them to contact you. Make sure the customers provides all necessary information by presenting a simple, clean Web form that can accommodate the essential information about their project. You could also provide your phone number, postal address and email address: the more, the better. Driving directions, social profile buttons and vCards are a good idea, too.

Omni TI's contact page59
Omniti’s contact page60 has driving directions, an office address, personal contact information, vCards, telephone numbers and working hours. It also tells the visitor whether the office is closed right now. An example of a good contact page.

According to our study:

  • 9% of websites don’t have a contact page (instead, contact information is included in the footer of each page),
  • Driving directions (often with an interactive Google map) are given on 45.4% of portfolio websites (!),
  • 83.6% provide a phone number and email address on the contact page,
  • 76.7% provide a postal address on the contact page,
  • 69% of websites have a contact Web form,
  • 14.5% offer a vCard for downloading, usually next to the email address,
  • Links to social networking websites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are often used (14.5%).

15. Specials And Extras Link

We also noticed a few distinctive elements that some design agencies offer potential customers. One popular approach is to offer some kind of project or proposal request form, which prospective clients are expected to fill out with their project’s main details when submitting a request (e.g. Mark Boulton Design61, stuff and nonsense62, 45royale63, Duoh64 and Clearleft65)

Also, some design agencies offer a project planner (including buffalo766650, Happy Cog67 and 45royale68) or help customers estimate costs (such as OnWired69) or offer a more detailed pricing guide (like Blue Flavor70).

Buffalo's project planner71
Buffalo’s online project planner72 guides potential customers smoothly through the project worksheet, making it easier for them to fill in data and avoid mistakes or missing information.

Among the other interesting things we noticed were a chat window on the contact page (e.g. Agami Creative, a “Stress-o-meter” that displays the company’s current availability (e.g. Bright Creative73), a quote calculator, and a “Capabilities and Credentials” presentation (usually in PDF).

16. Other Findings Link

We also found out that:

Summary Link

  • 82% of the portfolio websites we analyzed have a light design, with neutral, calm colors,
  • 79% have traditional “block” layouts, with two to three columns clearly separated and a simple, conveniently located navigation menu,
  • 79% of websites have some kind of introductory block in their upper area,
  • 89% have horizontally centered layouts,
  • 80% have large horizontal navigation,
  • 51% have horizontal navigation with right-aligned elements,
  • 89% do not have search functionality,
  • Only 3.7% use Flash heavily throughout the website,
  • A contact link appears in the upper-right corner 71% of the time, and/or in the footer 45.4% of the time,
  • 89% have the link to the “about us”-page in the main navigation,
  • Only 47.2% have a client page,
  • 67.2% of portfolios have some form of standalone services page,
  • 63.6% have a detailed page for every project, including case studies, testimonials, slideshows with screenshots, drafts and sketches,
  • 74.5% of websites have no workflow page,
  • The contact page should contain driving directions, a phone number, email address, postal address, vCard and online form.

You may be interested in the following related posts:

(al)

Footnotes Link

  1. 1 /2009/08/20/typographic-design-survey-best-practices-from-the-best-blogs/
  2. 2 http://www.happycog.com/
  3. 3 http://simplebits.com/
  4. 4 http://www.8020studio.com/
  5. 5 http://concentric-studio.com/
  6. 6 http://www.45royale.com/
  7. 7 http://www.hicksdesign.co.uk/
  8. 8 http://www.duoh.com/
  9. 9 http://www.frexy.com/
  10. 10 http://odopod.com/
  11. 11 http://orderedlist.com/
  12. 12 http://www.blueflavor.com/
  13. 13 http://www.pod1.com/
  14. 14 /2008/09/03/40-creative-design-layouts-getting-out-of-the-box/
  15. 15 http://carrotcreative.com/
  16. 16 http://carrotcreative.com/
  17. 17 http://www.neutroncreations.com/
  18. 18 http://www.fishmarketing.net/
  19. 19 http://www.8020studio.com/
  20. 20 http://concentric-studio.com/
  21. 21 http://www.hugeinc.com/
  22. 22 http://www.wishingline.com/
  23. 23 http://www.45royale.com/
  24. 24 http://www.45royale.com/
  25. 25 http://method.com
  26. 26 http://carrotcreative.com
  27. 27 http://www.duoh.com
  28. 28 http://www.ideo.com
  29. 29 http://www.maybeinc.com
  30. 30 http://www.area17.com
  31. 31 http://concentric-studio.com
  32. 32 http://www.markboultondesign.com
  33. 33 http://www.barbariangroup.com
  34. 34 http://www.builtbybuffalo.com/
  35. 35 http://www.simplebits.com
  36. 36 http://www.area17.com/
  37. 37 http://www.area17.com/
  38. 38 http://www.pod1.com
  39. 39 http://omniti.com/
  40. 40 http://www.fortysevenmedia.com
  41. 41 http://www.ideo.com
  42. 42 http://www.bkwld.com/
  43. 43 http://www.bkwld.com/
  44. 44 http://www.liftinteractive.com
  45. 45 http://www.bkwld.com
  46. 46 http://thingsthatarebrown.com
  47. 47 http://headscape.co.uk
  48. 48 http://www.clearleft.com
  49. 49 http://www.concentric-studio.com
  50. 50 http://www.builtbybuffalo.com
  51. 51 http://www.kyanmedia.com
  52. 52 http://www.hugeinc.com
  53. 53 http://www.signalfeuer.info/leistungen.html
  54. 54 http://www.signalfeuer.info/leistungen.html
  55. 55 http://brightcreative.com/portfolio/
  56. 56 http://www.45royale.com/work/articulate/
  57. 57 http://www.45royale.com/about/
  58. 58 http://www.45royale.com/about/
  59. 59 http://omniti.com/is/here
  60. 60 http://omniti.com/is/here
  61. 61 http://www.markboultondesign.com/
  62. 62 http://stuffandnonsense.co.uk/company/contact
  63. 63 http://www.45royale.com/contact/rfp/
  64. 64 http://www.duoh.com/portfolio
  65. 65 http://clearleft.com
  66. 66 http://www.builtbybuffalo.com
  67. 67 http://www.happycog.com/contact/
  68. 68 http://www.45royale.com/contact/
  69. 69 http://onwired.com/contact/
  70. 70 http://www.blueflavor.com/contact/
  71. 71 http://planner.builtbybuffalo.com/
  72. 72 http://planner.builtbybuffalo.com/
  73. 73 http://www.brightcreative.com
  74. 74 http://bkwld.com
  75. 75 http://www.area17.com
  76. 76 http://www.builtbybuffalo.com
  77. 77 http://www.45royale.com
  78. 78 http://www.ideo.com
  79. 79 http://www.omniti.com
  80. 80 http://www.pod1.com
  81. 81 http://www.erskinedesign.com
  82. 82 /2008/07/04/web-form-design-patterns-sign-up-forms/
  83. 83 /2008/07/08/web-form-design-patterns-sign-up-forms-part-2/
  84. 84 /2008/07/24/a-small-study-of-big-blogs/
  85. 85 /2008/07/31/a-small-survey-of-big-blogs-further-findings/
  86. 86 /2009/08/20/typographic-design-survey-best-practices-from-the-best-blogs/

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Vitaly Friedman loves beautiful content and doesn’t like to give in easily. Vitaly is writer, speaker, author and editor-in-chief of Smashing Magazine. He runs responsive Web design workshops, online workshops and loves solving complex UX, front-end and performance problems in large companies. Get in touch.

  1. 1

    It is noted in your survey that none of the sites contained a FAQ page, just thought I’d mention that a link you provided for IDEO contains a FAW named 20 Questions. Although it could be argued it’s not a traditional FAQ, I believe it’s the design equivalent. All the questions they obviously get frequently asked about the studio.

    IDEO 20 Questions

    (SM) Actually, you are right, and we’ve seen it. But it’s not a “traditional” FAQ. But yes, your point is valid.

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  2. 2

    Great ‘study’…and good that it’ll be continued!

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  3. 3

    Awesome write up. I am going to refer back to this article when I redesign my portfolio site in the coming weeks. Thank you for doing this research, helps out a lot!

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  4. 4

    Awesome article! Would be even more awesome to see a list of portfolio sites that use these techniques.

    (SM) The list of analyzed web-sites is available as well – please see the first paragraphs of the article!

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  5. 5

    Very interesting article, thank you. I’m waiting for the next part.

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  6. 6

    Awesome, thanks SM.

    I have been struggling for a while to come up with ideas on my portfolio creation, it’s been the lngest project i have ever done and i have still not opened PS yet! I’ll DEFINATELY be coming back to this article when im not at work, but it seems no matter what i try i end up using the same colourscheme as my CSS gallery site. Think im hooked on dark blue, GAAAAAAHHHH!!!

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  7. 7

    Great study!

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  8. 8

    Great article… I’m never satisfied with my portfolio site, and re-design it constantly. This will be really helpful for the next version :)

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  9. 9

    Pretty brilliant study. Way to keep the best agencies and designers at the forefront. These design cues subliminal…but putting it in a quantitative form to identify the trends makes sense of it all. Thanks.

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  10. 10

    Awesome study! Great imagery and details. I’m eager to see a study on other site types!

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  11. 11

    Great job sir, very helpful!

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  12. 12

    Awesome research and data. Thanks alot. Helps with the new site development

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  13. 13

    Very nice article. It would be nice to see this same writeup on corporate websites as well. Looking forward to the second part!

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  14. 14

    Great study! Very very useful information.

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  15. 15

    very interesting. thank you for your work !

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  16. 16

    Kelly Ann McCann

    September 17, 2009 8:29 am

    This is really great and I look forward to reading the next installment. Wondering if you have done or will do as comprehensive a study on individual portfolios. There are many of us out here who are freelancing on our own, who need to communicate our services and work but are not looking to compete with agencies.

    I would love to see your findings in that domain.

    thanks!

    1
  17. 17

    Just the reason y smashing magazine is the best informative resource for ui enthusiasts. Keep rocking smashing :) loved it and the effort spent !

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  18. 18

    Pretty useful, working on our website at the moment i’ll pass this around

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  19. 19

    Thanks for this great study! It’s really useful

    -1
  20. 20

    Thank you Smashing for featuring us (bkwld.com)! We all love your mag! Thanks!

    0

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