All creatives need a personal website: for many years, this has been considered a guiding maxim. What better way to flash your skills and previous projects than a custom design with your very own domain name? And what simpler way to connect with prospective clients than a clearly marked “Contact Me” page with a mailto hyperlink?
But with art directors and managers now trawling through social media streams for inspiration—and often finding collaborators along the way—a personal website may no longer be the best way for getting your name out there. A personal website takes substantial time to create and update, whereas social networks can quickly communicate what you’re about (and without the added burden of service fees). So, one might ask: is a self-designed online portfolio still required or relevant? We speak with designers working in different areas of the industry to explore how the function of a personal website has shifted in the age of social networking.
“It’s not just work that attracts new clients but your personality. Social media communicates both what you do and how you do it”
—Amanda-Li Kollberg and Siri Lee Lindskrog, co-founders of Studio jetzt-immer
Social media has become a natural extension of in-person networks, and for us, it’s been very effective for getting clients.
People we met at some birthday party ten years ago, or people we went to high school with, follow what we’re doing because we post our work on our personal Facebook pages. And then some of these people we thought we’d never talk to again end up in positions to hire designers and they reach out to us. When you post your work online, you remind people of your existence and what you do. If they happen to be looking for a designer, they might remember having connected with our work, prompting them to reach out.
“On Instagram, we don’t just upload our final work but also behind-the-scenes glimpses of our process.”
Social media has the added potential of highlighting not just what you do but how you do it. On Instagram, we don’t just upload our final work but also behind-the-scenes glimpses of our process. Our stories show us traveling to teach workshops and printing posters, for example; they have a huge role in communicating who we are as people and how we work. We think that’s really important because a design team doesn’t necessarily get chosen by a client only when they have the best work. Often it’s because they’re nice people to work with. A client is going to think about what kind of people they want to spend time with if they have to be around them for eight hours a day. Instagram shows the human side of a studio.
We’ve definitely had clients who have followed us closely on social and understood our personality before hiring us. A school in Denmark recently got in contact with us regarding a project and said, “you have the perfect personality for this.” It was putting on an event with typography and animation but also a performance and dance. We were like, “Dance? How did they know that Siri is a dancer?” It’s because they follow our Instagram, of course.
When we graduated years ago, there was so much emphasis on creating your studio website. But now, when we ask people how they found us, it’s always via another channel. Websites have become a second step: First, you have the personal connection, then the website legitimizes you. But in a time that’s so personality-driven, we can imagine that the generation below us—who are growing up only on those mediums—won’t need a website any more.
“You have freedom and control with your website. It stands out far more than a 3 x 3 grid of expandable pictures”
—Ben Wegscheider, creative director and founder of Bureau Cool
On social platforms, everything is very unified and uniform: grids make all content appear similar, which doesn’t necessarily showcase your work in the best and most effective way.
A website, on the other hand, is your portfolio, and the portfolio’s design can be just as much a part of the portfolio as the rest of the content. It can set the tone for your work and it shows your direction—and if you’re a web designer, it can show off your abilities, too. A lot of my clients will reference my site when they approach me; they’ll mention that it’s how they picked up on my name. They remember it as it sticks out a bit more than others. I designed it to communicate the atmosphere of my studio, and I think of it as a sculpture—as a world that encapsulates Bureau Cool’s tone and energy.
“You ultimately don’t have control over your own content and work [on social media], and could potentially even lose ownership.”
You limit yourself if you don’t have a website, because every social or portfolio platform has its limitations. On Instagram, for instance, nobody writes long descriptions of work. People don’t read on Instagram, they just look at things. With a personal website, you have your own space so you can work out how to put all of your content together and display it in the most suitable way. You’re not confined to small image sizes. And if you’re only visible on social media, what happens if they change their algorithm or the design of the content’s presentation? You ultimately don’t have control over your own content and work, and could potentially even lose ownership.
If designers only consider how their work is going to be presented in a grid because of the layout of social media platforms, then that’s also having a homogenizing effect on design itself. I’ve noticed that a lot of design is starting to look so similar on these platforms—there’s a lack of design that breaks from the rules, or experiments with new treatments, because people are designing for the grid and the “like” button. The blank canvas of a website pushes you to do more; it gives you the space to play in a very flexible way.
“Illustrations tend to live well on social media. But for more complex design projects, personal websites might be better.”
—Tala Safié, art director at The New York Times
I’m both an art director and a freelance graphic designer. And so for me, social media—especially Instagram—has a very different function depending on which hat I’m wearing.
As an art director, Instagram has become integral for finding new people to work with. Illustrators sometimes find and follow me there: they know I’m an art director because other illustrators that I work with tag me when they upload a new piece. If I like their work, I’ll often follow them back. Or I’ll use the save tool so that I can find them again later.
Instagram makes sense for illustrators. I have a giant Google Doc where I put all the names of people that I come across online along with their website and handle. I’ll go to their website to understand a bit more about how they divide their personal, editorial, and client work. That can be important as I usually want to see how they work with an article and whether they’re good at responding to text. But I find that it’s on Instagram that illustrators post most of their recent work, and increasingly, I’ve noticed that they don’t regularly update their websites. So if I want to get a good idea of how an illustrator currently works, then Instagram is the place to go.
Instagram gives exposure to illustrators far more than websites. I wouldn’t hesitate to hire someone if they didn’t have a website and it wouldn’t bother me at all. In fact, a couple people on my Google Doc don’t have websites and only use social media. But I don’t think the same idea holds true for a graphic designer. I definitely don’t use Instagram like an illustrator uses it.
“If I want to get a good idea of how an illustrator currently works, then Instagram is the place to go.”
A website is important for graphic designers because it allows them to divide and present their work however they see fit, without being bound to Instagram’s timeline, grid, or image specs. I use Instagram more as an informal blog or diary rather than a portfolio. I’d rather display my work on my website where I have room and freedom to organize my projects and provide more context around them.
My work as a graphic designer doesn’t follow a particular aesthetic; it’s often context-specific and responds to the specificity of a brief. Unlike illustrators, posting images of all of my work doesn’t necessarily increase my chances of getting hired: the diverse nature of the projects I work on doesn’t reflect one distinguished polished aesthetic that is appealing to someone who is quickly scrolling through my Instagram feed. It might appear as inconsistent and a little confusing.
Ultimately, what platform you choose to showcase yourself on really depends on the nature of your work, how you want to talk about it, and how you want to show the different skill sets that you have.
Madeleine Morley is a design and architecture writer based in Berlin. She studied English literature at Cambridge University and went on to complete an MA in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She has written for Creative Review, AIGA, Monotype, magCulture, AnOther, and The Guardian among others.