Does your portfolio website have a case of the “no one ever calls me”?

On a hunch yesterday I started Googling “[insert city here] freelance graphic designer.” I looked at New York, Seattle, San Fran, London, and more. I spread from there to agencies.

I saw sites from well-established peeps to ones who, as Kevin O’Leary from “Shark Tank” would lovingly say, were “cockroaches no one’s ever heard of.” (His words, not mine!)

Those websites were sick, and needed a dose of Millo advice stat.

PS: Do you know what potential clients really think of your portfolio? If not, click here.

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So I made a list. A list of the most common issues I saw that I knew, from experience, were turning new clients away. Here it is, and what you can do if your website is making these mistakes too.

Contact Page Troubles

For many of the sites I came across, the ONLY way to get in touch or ask a question was to fill out a form. But imagine that scenario in person. Let’s say I specifically want someone who can make me a WordPress website. All I want to ask is, “Do you work with WordPress?”

And your response to that is, “Hi, to answer your question just tell me your first name, last name, phone number, email address, budget, line of work, and how you heard about me.”

Pretty crazy, right? And very unnatural.

You want your website to flow like a natural conversation. And you want it to be EASY for people to reach out to you.

Contact forms are great for people who know what they want and are ready to get started. They’re not so great for quick questions or people who are more hesitant and need some reassurance.

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Our agency’s site is currently under construction, but on our last site we provided options for calling, emailing, texting, and filling out a form. It worked, extremely well. We’d get inquiries from just about every one of those channels but texting.

And if you check out the website of my agency’s new PSD to Code service, Reliable, you’ll see an email link in the main nav on every page, and on just about every page our phone number / email address is also at the top too, near the header.

(We have a contact form too – but even the contact form is paired with alternate ways to reach out.)

Again, we get inquiries from every single one of those channels. In fact, the Reliable site is one of the highest-converting ones we’ve yet to create. We want it to feel extremely easy to get in touch. We want to appear available and approachable. So we give lots of options and opportunities to reach out.

On the other hand… when you “lock” someone into a channel like a form that asks rather invasive questions, you make them feel trapped and pressured. From that place, they are much less likely to reach out.

Some people are phone people. Some people are email people. Some people are form people. Cater to all three.

You have some explaining to do.

Super renowned geniuses with celebrity status aside, you need to explain yourself on your website.

I saw a tremendous amount of sites that simply displayed portfolio pieces with no explanation. There was no services page to talk to me about what you actually offer. The work didn’t speak for itself, so I had no idea why, if at all, you were different or better than the next choice.

There was simply a grid of portfolio pieces, and a link to a blank contact page that had nothing but a form (again with the forms!).

Unless you’re the Picasso of the design world, you need to talk to me about what makes you special. I know, it’s uncomfortable at first. Trudge through it and do it anyway.

Use your website’s copy to explain your strengths, and how they’ll help your new clients achieve their goals.

Clearly list your services.

Expanding on that last point, make sure you clearly list out what services you offer. On many sites, I had to sort through the portfolio and create a mental checklist…

“Okay, so they do logos… oh there’s a website, guess they do that too… Ah ha! An infographic! I guess you could order one of them…”

I felt like Sherlock Holmes.

If someone has to go through the steps above to figure out if you’ve got what they’re looking for… well, no one’s going to do that.

Most people will just hit the back button and click on the next choice. So make sure you list services out so people know right away if you even offer what they’re looking for.

Sorry, Sugar. This ain’t your 15 minutes.

I also saw many websites where the main focus was a giant photograph of the freelancer. While they had the smiles of champions, to be honest… prospects could care less.

I’ll take a Frankenstein who delivers amazing work on time over a lazy Heidi Klum-looking designer any day of the week.

Again, unless you have hyper-celebrity-status in the design world, in which case your face is your brand, your photograph should just be a small addition to your site that shows you’re a nice guy / gal. That’s it. It’s just sort of the icing on the cake, if even that.

It’s not your main selling point, and as such, it shouldn’t take up 75% of the home page, pushing your headline and copy down well below the fold.

Make the site more about your visitors than you. Make it about their problems, their goals, and how you help them solve those problems and achieve those goals.

You have some explaining to do: the sequel.

On the subject of copy, make sure your portfolio pieces have copy as well. You want to talk about who the client was, what their problems were, what their goals were, and how you solved / achieved both.

I whipped this up as an example:

Bitter Rose is a high-end flower delivery service. They wanted a website that immediately told visitors that they were the “real deal”, premium, and a luxury option. I used a minimalist design to convey sophistication, and made the focus of the website on photographs of their beautiful flower arrangements. After all, this, more than anything, showcases their unique talent.

Are you starting to see a pattern? Problems, solutions, ease of communication. All of the issues I saw were a lack of one or all of those three.

Our agency’s own site used to be a disaster, too.

So I’m not taking the high ground here.

In fact, for years it wasn’t a reliable source of new business. Or any business. But that all changed when we refined our message, clearly stated our strengths, and made the focus on what benefits we could provide our market.

After that, it literally became a source of clients whenever we turned on Adwords. This stuff works. Give it a shot.

Have questions about your own site?

Post’ em in the comments! I’d love to help. Or if you have some other suggestions that have worked for you, leave a comment and share with the tribe.

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  1. Hi David! Great articles, really informative and concise- thank you for
    sharing! Our website has been a work-in-progress for about a year…
    we’ve come a long way, let me tell you, but I’d love to know your

  2. K.I.S.S. is my MO. It’s hard enough getting people to look at your website, much less read the content. I seriously doubt my main bread and butter client has even been to my website. If a client is interested, they call. They aren’t going to take time to fill out a contact form. My clients are probably different than yours. These are small business/startups and I rely almost totally on word of mouth. Maybe it’s the lazy person in me not wanting to add further info and spend time on forms. :-/

  3. Hi David,

    I always look forward to your posts and from this particular one I have already seen some mistakes my website is already making. Thanks for the advice and I plan to make use of it to make the necessary improvements. Keep posting!!

  4. Hello David,

    As always, a great post. Thanks for the info and help… as with most of your posts… after I read them all, I usually go through and implement some of the things you talk about. I never thought about that with the notes about kind of an intro to your portfolio. Sure makes sense when you explain it out like that.

    Thanks so much!


  5. Hi David,

    I read your article with trepidation, as I have recently launched my own freelance business and my website is now nearing the ever-illusive ‘finish’. Luckily, I feel (I am biased) that I ticked most of the boxes. If there is anything I am blatantly missing feel free to point it out –

    I am still not getting as many clients as I would like (who is?) so have begun looking into adwords as you suggested. After spending some time on it yesterday it looks like it could be tricky for me as I have a quite specific market (the education sector). I realise this could be opening a can of woms (and maybe a new blog post is required?) but any advice for the minnow in starting in adwords?

    All the best & thanks for another good read

    Jack Smith

  6. I can already see where my own site probably needs some of the things you suggest, such as details about each design, contact info on more pages etc. Any other suggestions you can offer would be most welcome. Thank you for a very entertaining and informative article.

  7. Hi David,

    Thankyou for your article. I’ve opened several links from it and have time to do some thinking and changing of my site today.

    I wondered what you thought about an actual bullet point list of services. Say I do branding/identity, would I do a list of all those things I might create for people? such as business name, logo, business cards, all the way through to ecommerce websites?

    I’ve wondered if I should be broad and create more of a vision of what clients can expect or actually say each detail of what I create.

    Any thoughts would be welcome!

    1. Hey Lara,

      A bullet list is a great “fix” to just get it up fast. Once you have that, I’d create separate sales pages for your top services that you sell the most of. If you create separate pages that discuss your approach, strengths, show testimonials for that specific service, and talk to the problems / goals people look for in that particular service, I think you’ll find a lot more success from your site.

      As for “all those things” you might create for people, on your branding / identity page you could list the main ones, and then add a statement like “plus just about anything else you can print or put online that has your brand.”

      That’ll cover those weird situations you can’t really foresee.

      Does that answer your questions?

      Thanks for your comment 🙂


      1. Thanks David, That’s a really helpful insight. I hadn’t considered that my ‘best selling services’ would be presented like a product and have their own product page. But it makes sense. Thankyou! I’ll start drafting my ideas!

  8. Thanks for the multi-channel contact recommendation. It makes sense, I’ll implement it.
    How about blogging? I know blog posts add keywords to a site and makes it more attractive to Google, but figure people would rather see design work than read about it.
    I have started sandbox/experiments section of my site so I can test out things and describe the experience, with the idea that clients would be interested in new features and capabilities.
    has anyone tried this type of blog?

    1. Hey Susan,

      For Reliable we blog to help with SEO and to help build relationships with clients / prospects. For our agency’s site we’ve never really put much effort into SEO, and we’ve never blogged for it either, and I’d be surprised if we ever did.

      Clients want to know if you can solve their problems. I find that almost always takes a combination of both images and text. A client might look at your portfolio pieces and think, “That’s cool!” but totally miss the boat on why it’s really special. You have to lay it out for them.

      If you’re passionate about the blogging idea, go for it! You never know what’ll stick until you try. I think what will make clients interested in “new features” though is if you connect those features back to their problems and goals, but not the features themselves.

      Hope that answers your question 🙂


      1. Thanks for your thoughtful response. I suppose the best answer is to give it a try and, as you say, see what sticks.

  9. Great advice! I am going to add some of the other contact options to my site right now. Hopefully that will encourage more people to feel comfortable reaching out to me.

    Thank you for the post!

  10. Hello, I was wondering if could message me privately about my site. Also I wanted to ask you about how much of a developer does a designer have to be? I struggle back and forth learning to code things and then trying to get back in designing not going as fast. Is there a distinction between designer and developer in the place you work? I find it frustrating trying to specialize in something while trying to a Jack of all trades at the same time. Also do you believe in the showing the best work 10 to 15 pieces or flood your work with new available good pieces each time to show clients versatility.? I wish I could just make an Infographic my software knowledge but what if somebody asks you to do something you never heard of doing or software you never worked on?

    Thank you for taking the time to read my message. Your response will be most appreciated.

    1. Hey Alan,

      I’ll try to find some time to give you notes privately!

      As far as your first question, my partner and I have always stuck with our passions. She’s passionate about design. I’m passionate about copy & design (though I’m not nearly as talented a designer as she is so in our company I mostly write).

      Our other partner lives and breathes code, so we let him and our other developers handle that.

      Before we had in-house coders though, we outsourced it (actually, that’s why we started our company Reliable, because that outsourcing led to a lot of horror stories). But in general, I think when everyone focuses on their biggest passions, you end up with better products. So if design is your passion, or coding is, I’d focus on that and let someone else handle the other stuff.

      Maybe you can partner with a fellow freelancer with complimentary strengths, or you’re of course welcome to reach out to Reliable for help too 🙂

      As far as how many pieces to show, I definitely recommend quality over quantity. On our agency’s website redesign, we’re starting off with just 4 or 5 projects I believe. We feel that those more than anything showcase our potential, talents, and range of work, so that’s what we’re showcasing.

      I think it’s really more about how you portray your projects rather than how many.

      If someone asks you to do something for a software you’ve never heard or worked on, I’d probably just tell them you don’t work with that language. On the other hand, if you feel you can create what they want in a language you do know, let them know.

      Maybe their decision isn’t set it stone.

      Hope this answers your questions!


  11. It’s been on my list for ages to update my portfolio, make it more meaty, add to each ones story and include a my testimonials from my clients. I reckon your post is a sign…
    P.S Please don’t look at my portfolio now, it’s a #mess! lol!

  12. David I really appreciate what you said about explaining yourself on your website – particularly your portfolio. I find a lot of the time clients know they “like XYZ website” but they aren’t sure why. Explaining yourself, personalizing the experience and laying out what it is you’ve done for previous clients helps new ones see what it is you do and how you might help them.

    I do have a question though with respect to this though. It’s a constant question for me: How much should I explain myself? I don’t want to give TOO much information and overwhelm potential clients and partners, but I want to give enough that they can make an informed and inspired decision to contact me. Do you think there’s a magic formula for the amount and type of information to include on your portfolio/website? Rates, business philosophy, services, etc…? Love to hear your thoughts.

    Happy Monday to you!

    1. Hey Kristy,

      100% on point with everything you said in your first paragraph.

      To answer your question, I’d do this to start out: Take some time not worrying about what’s “too much” or “too little” and just write out everything you’d want a potential client to know about each of your services. DOn’t stop until you get out every last thought.

      Then go through and see which points are the most important relative to what problems clients face. Talk about those points first in your copy. Then mention the other stuff, but just don’t highlight it as much. Then see if you can communicate everything more concisely in a revised edit.

      But don’t sacrifice the power of the message just trying to get your word count down!

      I find that as long as you’re speaking to what people are looking for, the # of words is pretty irrelevant. If you structure your copy / typography in a way where skimmers can pick up what they’re looking for (through large sub-headlines that convey important messages, bolding, highlighting, etc.), and thorough readers can as well, you’re good to go.

      Hope this answers your question. Feel free to ask more if it doesn’t 🙂

      Thanks so much for your comment,

  13. Yes I’d love to have you and your readers critique my site. I am not a programmer so I built it using WordPress. I’m not getting much traffic nor hits. Your comments will be greatly appreciated.


    1. Calvin I will take a look later my man and give you some thoughts 🙂

      On a quick glance, I think your site could be helped a lot by the advice in this post:

      And I’d consider re-structuring your portfolio like this post talks about so you can explain your design process and what problems you’re solving with each of your pieces a bit more. That stuff matters to potential clients as much as the design itself.

      Thanks for your comment,

  14. Perhaps people could care less but the expression which is often misused is couldn’t care less.

    Some good points though. Thanks.

    1. Hey Frank,

      When I’m writing on a medium like a blog, my biggest goal is to connect to people, so I try to take a very conversational tone. Sometimes things flow out that way that aren’t technically “right”, but they get the point across anyway, and they connect more because I’m talking how people actually talk (hope that makes sense).

      I’m glad you liked the post though, thanks for sharing your thoughts.


  15. Thanks, David! What do you think about listing prices, like $XX for logos, $XX for brochures, etc? On the one hand it lets everyone know how much you charge so they can under bid you, but on the other hand, maybe it keeps away the people who aren’t serious. My biggest problem is the people who do contact me want things for $150. I would like to avoid spending a lot of time pursuing leads that don’t pan out.

    1. Hey Mike,

      If your website is attracting people looking for something quick ‘n cheap, it might be time to really re-evaluate your site and see what is attracting that kind of request.

      On the other hand – if you really do get a lot of those requests, maybe you could figure out a product / service that caters to those? If they’re asking for it, why not give it? And maybe over time they’ll turn into higher-paying customers as they get to know you better.

      But if that’s not what you want to do at all, I’d definitely figure out what about your site is attracting those requests. We rarely, if ever, get requests like that because we’ve gotten good at communicating that we’re not the cheap option.

      Feel free to post your site if you’d like me to take a look 😉

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, really appreciate it,

  16. Hi David
    Your article has hit a sore spot for me. I feel like my website is quite easy to read and its obvious what I do (I think anyway 🙂 I can also see through analytics that I have many viewers. But I don’t get a lot of people contacting me.

    What you said about the contact page and how people like to get into contact with services is so true. The reason why I went with a contact page only is because I don’t want my email and phone bombarded with junk and spam.

    I always wonder what other people do and I thought this was a good time to ask 🙂

    Thanks for a great article.

    1. Hey Cath,

      I had a feeling I’d hit some sore spots 🙂 I’m glad, because it’s the only way to get better!

      If I had to wade through spam because having my contact info brought me more business that way, I’d happily do it. It’s about what your visitors want / feel comfortable with, even if it makes life a bit more difficult for you. Little sacrifices like those build up in big ways to show clients that you really have their best interest at heart.

      With that said, we’ve never had a problem with spam. And I’ve found that spammers who are really committed to their craft will find a way to email you anyway 😉

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, I really appreciate it.


      1. Thanks David

        Funnily after I wrote this to you today and had more thoughts on your article thats exactly the way I began to think too. 🙂

        I already have another email set up for ‘unknown’ people to contact me on and then I reply to the non spammers with my actual email. So perhaps I should do the same with a phone…

        Thanks for your help 🙂


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