Ah yes, your portfolio site — your final piece of work to demonstrate that you are now a part of the community of UX designers. You’re close to completing it, and now you are wondering: what’s the best website platform to showcase it on?
Why the platform you choose matters
The platform you choose to host your portfolio site on is very important, as it will be the primary element you use to promote yourself to employers and demonstrate that you are capable of doing the job.
In this article we are going to discuss:
- What a portfolio website needs to accomplish
- The different options for building a portfolio site that accomplishes its goals, and the pros and cons of each option
- What I use to showcase my work
- What I recommend you use as a beginner.
Tl;DR: if you’re just starting out and have no experience in building websites, use Squarespace. If you have no money to spend at all, use Weebly. If you know what you’re doing, use WordPress.
What a portfolio site has to accomplish
A portfolio site has to accomplish the following things:
- Showcase your work
- Tell the story behind how you arrived at your design solutions, in a clear, concise way that resonates with readers
- Be easily accessible online
- Look good visually
When you look at these criteria, you notice that these goals can be accomplished in a number of ways, depending on your needs, skillset and budget. The most important thing is not the tool that you use, but the quality of the work you’re showing. It’s easy for beginners to get caught up in which tool to use, because doing research to choose a tool is much easier and more immediately gratifying than doing quality work. But a great photographer can take better photos with an iPhone than a beginner can take with a Canon 5D. Gordon Ramsey can cook better food than you, in your kitchen, with the same tools that you have. And a great designer can showcase his or her work and tell a story around it on any platform.
The most important thing is not the tool that you use, but the quality of the work you’re showing.
So, if you have quality work to show off, and a good story to tell, it almost doesn’t matter where you put it online, as long as it’s accessible somewhere for employers to see. With that said, let’s look at some of the options available.
Easiest, cheapest option with the least flexibility: Google Slides
If the primary criteria for a place to host your capstone project is that it showcases your work and is accessible online, Google Slides fits that bill. Slides is like creating a powerpoint presentation that’s viewable and editable online.
Google Slides Pros:
- You probably already know how to use it
- Big companies are used to a “PowerPoint” format to view work presentations
- It teaches you to be concise in your storytelling, because space is limited on each slide
Google Slides Cons:
- You don’t have your own website address(URL), and the google URL’s are prohibitively long.
You can get around this with a URL shortener, but then you’d have a URL for each project, and no single place to view all of your various projects
- It’s not a sustainable long-term solution to host your work and market yourself
This is an unorthodox solution, but it can work in the short term. I’d only recommend this course of action if you really need to get something out immediately for an employer asking for a portfolio sample before your actual portfolio site is ready.
Good balance of flexibility, ease-of-use, and price: Website builders
Modern website builders are like Google Docs, but for building websites: You sign up for their service, and they give you a UI that lets you put together your own website, without having to write any code. They also give you a free web address for people to locate your site at, that usually looks like this: jamalnichols.websitebuilder.com
There are a lot of website builders out there. I’ve spent a lot of time researching the market of website builders, and there are two that stand out above the rest: Squarespace and Weebly. Squarespace templates look a little better(but Weebly is catching up), while Weebly is a little easier to use and a little more flexible. Weebly also has a free plan, however if you use their free plan, you site will have a baby-blue banner on it that says “Powered by Weebly”
Website builder pros
- Very easy to set up
- Very easy to build a basic website
- You get your own website address (URL)
- You don’t need to deal with any of the technology behind setting up your website like hosting, performance, content delivery networks, etc
Website builder cons
- It’s easy to set up something basic, but you will quickly run into limitations of the platform.
- Though website builders are easy to use, there is still a learning curve. I’ve seen students become very frustrated when Squarespace didn’t function the way they expected it to.
- You won’t be able to build your site exactly the way you want to. You always have to build it according to the rules, logic and available building blocks in the website builder. As mentioned above, can be very frustrating.
If you’re a beginner just getting into the world of building websites, a website builder is a good balance of features and ease-of-use, but they definitely have their limitations.
Weebly and Squarespace are the only Website Builders I recommend. There are others, but I don’t recommend them. Use them at your own risk.
Maximum flexibility, but very technical and easy to break: WordPress
WordPress is one of the most popular solutions for building your website. 26% of all websites on the internet are powered by WordPress. There’s a reason for that: it’s flexible, scalable, and relatively easy to use for a system that’s so powerful.
However, with this power and flexibility, come a lot of opportunities to get lost and confused. This starts with the fact that there are two versions of WordPress: WordPress.org and WordPress.com. WordPress.com is similar to the page builders from Weebly and SquareSpace, but not as easy to use. I don’t recommend using WordPress.com. WordPress.org is a set of files that you host on your own web server. If you don’t understand what that previous sentence means, then you probably shouldn’t be using WordPress and are better off using a website builder like Squarespace or Weebly.
- Extremely powerful and flexible.
You can build almost anything on WordPress.
- Great online documentation.
Since it’s the most popular system for running websites, many people write about it, and every problem you could possibly encounter is solved on some online blog somewhere.
- Complete control.
If you choose the self-hosted version of WordPress, that’s your platform. You can do anything you want with it.
- It can grow with your needs.
Since you can do anything with WordPress, and it’s a well-supported ecosystem, you have something that can grow and scale with you as your business needs change.
- More complicated setup.
Let’s go through the steps required to set up a wordpress site:
- Choose and purchase a domain ($10/year).
- Purchase webspace($10/month for a decent provider). That means you have to find a good provider that fits your needs, which is really hard because most of the reviews online for providers are fake.
- Link the domain to your webspace.
- Install WordPress on your webspace.
- Choose a theme that determines the appearance of your website, out of the thousands of available free and paid themes, most of which are terrible.
- Install plugins for additional functionality, like a contact form, or plug and play website building similar to what Weebly and Squarespace offer. That means you have to sift through the millions of WordPress plugins(most of which are terrible) to find the ones that are right for your needs.
All of this will probably take you at least 2-3 days, and you haven’t even started adding any of your content from your capstone project.
- More complicated maintenance.
That WordPress site has to be maintained. You need to update WordPress and the plugins manually and regularly to protect your site from hackers. Every time you update, there’s a chance that your site will break. If you chose a crappy $5 webhost like GoDaddy, your site will likely be very slow or crash if it gets more than 50 visitors at once. The plugins that you choose for your site, they may not always work well together. So your contact form plugin might not work with your site builder plugin.
- You’ll need to code(a little bit)
WordPress is getting better at creating no-code sites, but I still regularly find myself having to go in and fix a few things here and there. WordPress is not a platform for beginners just wanting to showcase some work quickly.
WordPress is the best overall site builder, if you have some technical know-how or a lot of patience to learn the ins and outs.
How I build my portfolio site
For my portfolio site, I use WordPress. In the past I used the Semplice theme, but I wouldn’t recommend you use that. It’s overpriced for what you get, and in the last update to the theme, the author decided to switch the underlying codebase, thereby making all previous versions of the theme incompatible with the new one. That means if I wanted to upgrade my theme, I’d have to buy a new version, and rebuild my entire site from scratch in the new version of his overpriced theme. Aside from the fact that I don’t have the time to do that, it eroded my trust in the theme author. Who knows when he will decide to update his theme and alienate his entire user base again?
Also, don’t believe the hype that Semplice creates on their page. Semplice is nothing more than yet another WordPress page builder. And if you measure it in the category of WordPress page builders, it’s not nearly the best or most supported one. That title falls to Elementor. I use Elementor on all of my new WordPress installations. It’s incredible. If you pair it with GeneratePress as the theme, that combo gives you extreme flexibility and a broader feature set than Semplice, which still being easier to use, and the pages load faster.
I host my WordPress sites on DigitalOcean + Cloudflare, which is another pro-level solution I wouldn’t recommend for beginners, unless you know how to configure an Apache server and upload files via FTP. If you don’t know what that previous sentence means, don’t use Digital Ocean + Cloudflare.
My recommendation for beginners
Use SquareSpace or Weebly. Don’t waste your precious time looking around at anything else. Those are currently by far the best platforms for a beginner to host their design portfolio on. You can quickly build a good-looking site and spend most of your time on creating quality design work and telling a compelling story.