Ask any designer if they're happy with their design portfolio, and you'll get the same answer: "It could be better."
Part of what makes having a portfolio website be in a never-ending state of construction is the ever-present feeling that it needs to be up-to-date. Not merely updated with the latest work, but with a fresh design too—something that can better represent the designer and the level they're at in their career.
However, updating a portfolio often comes begrudgingly. Why update something that isn't serving a timely purpose? Unless you're actively looking for a job, it's not clear why an updated website matters. Many of us don't have the time to update—let alone maintain—a portfolio website.
Personally, I think of my portfolio as an experiment of sorts. It's a playground I can use to share my ideas and work in interesting ways. I've been managing a personal website for more than 21 years now. And while my original website was on a different URL than my current one (tannerchristensen.com), I've always viewed my website as this experimental playground, my own little private slice of the Internet. I think of my portfolio as a place where I can explore not only how I show my work but how I present it as well—how I talk about the things I've done and how I think about my work.
I recently looked back at the experiments I've put into this website and the emerging patterns that I've used to represent my career identity online. Here's a look at the past 15 years of my design portfolio website.
My website before 2008 has been lost to time, but it's probably for the best. Even this snapshot of my homepage in 2008 makes me uncomfortable. "You need my help" is a bold statement to make, particularly for someone who was only just beginning to solidify my ideas around what it means to be a product designer and digital creator. Note the lack of visuals on this version of the homepage—not something very design-forward.
A year later, I removed the ego-based plea for design clients and instead emphasized my projects and full-time job as an online manager for a news company. Moving to a more welcoming homepage meant I could try and drive people into learning more about me and my work, such as my very first iPhone app Pokeseo.
In 2010 I decided to begin "showing" more of my design work rather than merely "writing" about it on my website. I transformed my homepage into a place where visitors could get a quick feel for the type of projects I worked on and then click-into them to see more details of each project.
Most notably in 2010 I really began to highlight my overarching creative work, not just traditional graphic design work. Also used a large blockquote to "set the stage" for my work. A little ego can be impactful, helping prime visitors to the website with expectations.
Figuring the visual previews of my work was a good way of capturing visitor attention while also enabling people to see the types of work I was doing meant making a bigger grid of images. Here I wanted the work to be the primary thing visitors to my portfolio see, so I bumped up the images considerably and made the grid 90% of the homepage.
In hindsight, I'm not sure why I chose to use small, cropped previews of the work rather than more helpful previews. Here visitors are essentially playing a guessing game of what they'll get by clicking into any of the grid items. (The grid items appear to be faded due to a lowered opacity, upon hover the opacity would animate to 100%. I would never do this again because the default state looks like the images simply haven't loaded properly.)
Seemingly having learned my lesson in 2011 with the cropped images, in 2012 I moved to a more colorful approach with my grid. Here I show not only full-context images, but I highlight mentions of my work in news and blogs rather than explicitly showing the work itself.
I figured: why write a case study about my work when other people have done it more or less for me? The ability to link to places like Design Taxi, Lifehacker, Adweek, Gizmodo, etc. felt nice and probably helped visitors understand the seriousness of my work. But at the same time, news articles don't help anyone understand exactly what into my work. So I lost part of the control for telling the story of my career and work with this approach. Fun experiment, but I quickly pivoted away from the approach the following year.
Back to a much more "mature" design portfolio in 2013. I knew I wanted to have more control of the narrative of my work, so rather than linking out to other websites I began to put together case studies of my own. I also began spotlighting more focused work: rather than talking about my blogs, strategic work, and creative experiments, I began to spotlight only my digital work. Web-based and mobile apps became my passion and so that's the work I began to highlight in a clean, albeit "hard to see the details" kind of way.
Side note: I feel like almost every designer goes through this phase of wanting to show their work in product mockups. It's fun and can look pleasing, but it also diminishes the design work itself.
Also note: this is the portfolio I used when I landed a job at Facebook, all those years ago.
Moving back to a regular, text-free grid in 2014 meant being able to spotlight more of the visual information I want to in thumbnails. I also introduced "featured" grid items that were 2x the size of others, as a means of drawing more attention to those specific projects or case studies. Adding my avatar to the mix was intended to make it easier to associate my online presence with the portfolio.
It was clear at this point in my career that the optimal way to present work was with a grid of images. I expanded my work into new areas (like my first published book). I removed padding from grid items to try and create a more "singular" representation of my work, and even included my latest Instagram post in the image grid as a way of humanizing the page, I guess.
Updates between 2015 and 2017 were minor. I was focused on my work at Facebook and only updated my portfolio to include the most recent work I was proud of (like having my work featured at Facebook's annual F8 developers conference in San Francisco).
It's here, in 2017, that I think I began to solidify what I wanted to show on my website portfolio and how I wanted the website to be the "heart" of my online presence. Including links out to other places like Twitter, LinkedIn, Medium, and my writing on Inc or Adobe's (now defunct) 99u Blog.
From 2017 onward I really didn't change much in my portfolio. I made sure to include any recent case studies I could, and occasionally updated the "bio" or summary statement at the top of the homepage. But I felt confident in the layout I had landed on over the years: a colorful grid of images that links to specific case studies (which include larger, more detailed images, and a written narrative of the work experience).
I started to view my portfolio website as a "museum" of all I've done—not just in product design, but app development, writing, and consulting. I wanted the website to serve as a way for me, and others, to better understand the various skills I've utilized throughout my career. The blog helped as well, as I could write about things like company culture and design career pathways.
Near the tail end of 2022 I had worked at many companies, acted in varying roles, seen projects triumph while others floundered, and began to define who I wanted to be in my career. I landed on going back to my deep passion of product design work, and was fortunate to land a job at Netflix doing exactly that.
It was evident my website needed a refresh to better represent my newfound love for the work I do. Moving away from the image grid idea that had served me for many years, I decided to use my website homepage as a more succinct representation of my work. I wanted to show visitors a "snapshot" of my work experience, and opted to use a vertical, miniature grid approach to serve that purpose. If you're curious, I did two livestreams about the portfolio design, explaining my thinking and how I went about building the structure. Watch part 1 here, and part 2 here.
I'm looking forward to doing a similar post like this one in another 15 years. Who knows what I'll hope my portfolio expresses about me then!