Hey there, design reader!
Welcome to Week 14 of UX Academy! What a whirlwind! As you may remember, I rewarded myself for reaching the UX Academy halfway mark by taking a much-needed (and largely tech-free) vacation, which reminded me just how valuable downtime is in feeding both body and mind. Now, as I jump back into the coursework and start gearing up for the final phase, the very hefty task of personal branding is at the forefront—of both the curriculum and my brain space.
There’s no time to waste—whole careers are in the making (no pressure)!
A brand new world
We live in a world of branding. Everyone—from stay-at-home mom blogger, to teenage Instagram star—has some sort of personal brand they’re using to represent themselves to the digital masses. The only question now is whether that branding succeeds in the new digital world where we all live and work.
As you might have suspected, the first part of Phase 2 of UX Academy—before launching into the “capstone” projects—is centered around developing individual portfolios and—gulp—a personal brand, aka my waking nightmare.
Why does the idea of building my personal brand give me such anxiety—especially when it is commonly accepted as a “non-negotiable” of the modern age? Well, because on the surface I suppose it seems egotistical, or even disingenuous. Like how the word “networking” makes the action of connecting with your peers for potential, mutually beneficial gain seem unpalatable. It sounds ugly, and self-serving.
A little light animation on my current online portfolio that, even after three years, still makes me feel a little embarrassed.
“Hey, there! Look at meee! I do all of these things, better than anyone! So much so that you should give me all the monies!”
I know, I know. This has the air of Imposter Syndrome about it: how can I represent myself as some successful [insert desired occupation here] when I’m only [insert self-doubt here]? But, much like the classic affliction, personal branding turns out to be way less scary than it seems at first.
In reality, in the age of everything as brand fodder, we as individuals have a unique opportunity to break free from the confines of the traditional workplace dynamic between employee and employer. With a personal brand, we have the chance to create a new narrative in which we are the primary asset to our own success—a free agent, able to move about the world and our careers with both more space and flexibility.
While I may understand why a strong personal brand is necessary, however, that doesn’t make it an easy thing to build—and maintain—despite all the guides and how-tos out there. But like all things in UX design, it starts by defining the problem. What exactly do I want my personal brand to do? What do I really want to do with my career? And how can I present myself to make it happen?
Before UX Academy, I was never too good at this.
A longtime freelancer with a variety of work-related skills I needed to showcase, I’ve had many iterations of an online presence over the years, by way of a series of relatively basic portfolio focused websites, almost all of which I built myself on Wordpress.
On my first attempt I had no idea what sort of platform and image of myself I was trying to build, and the result was a wishy-washy mash-up of past work without any real and distinguishable thread of personality or qualifications running through it.
In short, my first attempt back in 2011 was a webpage, but it wasn't a brand.
My first portfolio website, circa 2011. All I can say it, egads!
This is what that first attempt looked like. I know, please don’t judge me too harshly. I was young, hungry, and not at all in the designer camp… yet.
Piecemealing it all together—forever?
When I graduated college, my first journalism job was managing a hyperlocal news blog for my centrally located Seattle neighborhood. This job ended up being an incredibly fun and highly autonomous gig that involved doing a little bit of pretty much everything: I was part writer, reporter, photographer, editor, administrator, community liaison, sometimes web developer—you name it.
My old web design portfolio—it’s so ugly I can’t even look.
From day one I struggled to find a way to showcase all of my work and the services I offered, cleanly and effectively, in one online home. And as a result, I ended up with a pretty flimsy personal brand that continued to attract small-time projects for a couple hundred dollars a pop, perpetuating the same hard hustle week after week, month after month.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this hustle would become the recipe for my future career—the secret sauce that set me apart. At the time I assumed I would keep on hustling until I found that one full-time job that could become the be-all-and-end-all of my freelance life, giving me everything I needed—both financially and intellectually—all in one place.
A short-lived attempt at a personal blog, circa 2010. Brought to you by the Wayback Machine.
Of course, when I did finally land that full time job, I quickly discovered that the hustle had broken me for pretty much any kind of normal 9-to-5 work in the future. Once you get a taste of operating as your own boss, it’s hard to go back to any other way.
After I accepted that my future would probably continue to be freelance, however, leveraging my brand started to get easier.
Rebranding is cyclical
A few years ago, when met with a career crossroads and quite a bit of downtime between jobs, I decided to dig into the agonizing endeavor of revamping my brand and building a new, more beautiful—and hopefully more powerful—online portfolio.
The landing page of my current portfolio site, 2015–present.
I’m not embarrassed to say that developing my current website, which is now starting to get woefully out of date, took me the better part of six months—and I never even finished uploading my actual portfolio pieces to it. The result was sufficient, but it never really satisfied my vision, and instead I dropped the entire endeavor and left the site unfinished.
It was, of course, a massive improvement on my original site, which—as you can see—was text (and typo) heavy.
Suffice it to say, I did not want to go through that long and arduous process all over again. That’s the irony of personal branding, and the problem that many of us face: we only end up putting the time into developing our portfolio sites when we’re looking for work. Once we find it, we oftentimes abandon our brand or give up maintaining it, revisiting it again only years later, the next time we’re shopping around for a new job.
But the more work I put into my personal brand, the more I realized maintaining a portfolio—especially if my goal post-UXA is to continue to build my freelance business—is going to be an ongoing process, requiring regular maintenance and curation. Just like tending to a garden, a few minor and regular updates will keep things clean and pruned for months or even years to come.
Finally defining the goals
I decided instead to approach it from a usability perspective and get right down to what the ultimate goal is: to showcase my work and build my brand so that it will, hopefully, get me more and better work (in exchange for money, of course) as a result.
Reminding myself of the problem I was trying to solve did help cut through all the gunk and second-guessing that we creative folk find often find ourselves hung up on… at least for the most part.
Instead of looking at myself as the user of my portfolio, I began to shift my thinking to the real end-user (potential clients and future employers), and reposition myself as the client.
My business goal: to gain future clients or employment opportunities.
The user’s goal: to understand what I have to offer, and assess whether I am qualified and capable of handling the work they have in mind.
To serve these goals, my relationship with the portfolio would have to change. Instead of being a hurdle I begrudgingly hurl myself over every three or four years as I make the lap on my personal brand, I would instead have to think of it as an exercise in creative evolution. A portfolio as a sandbox—a place to experiment and play, revisit and iterate regularly.
One portfolio, two portfolio? Red portfolio, blue portfolio??
Given my UX design career goals, my Phase 1 mentor had recommended that I build my business—and my brand—around a name other than my own. In so doing, he said I could then present myself as head of the company, and use the brand to leverage myself and my experience to gain greater and more prestigious clients and projects.
It was an exciting idea, but one that would require building yet another brand independent of my existing online portfolio. Yippee—double the work!
The working list of URLs I currently own (and that’s just with one company). Clearly, I have a problem…
I'm a habitual URL hoarder—I have a habit of buying a new one every time I come up with an idea for a new project. This is also the source of the systematic disappearance of a large portion of my already tight disposable income, but that’s a story for another day… (It's my problem, and one day I'll deal with it. Maybe.)
When I began working on my rebranding efforts, I found myself struggling with the same question of how to divvy up all the areas of my work and showcase them, adequately, and in one place. I put the question to my fellow students in a Group Crit, and was surprised to find that many of them suggested a similar segmented branding effort—i.e., having two separate portfolios to showcase the two very different kinds of work I do—in this case my freelance writing and UX design work.
Much like a resume will have different versions catered to specific jobs, this too made sense, but I wondered—would this segment my audience? Divide my potential? What about the places where the two seemingly distinct arenas overlap—with book design, for example?
Lay the foundation first, then build upon it
Eager to maximize my time and improve my personal brand for this next iteration, I put the question to my new Phase 2 mentor, who thoroughly endorsed the advice my Phase 1 mentor had given me!
But it didn’t have to happen all at once, he said. His recommendation was to move forward with the personal brand I’d already developed, tweaking and reiterating and bolstering its reach, adding to it as I go.
A first draft at some personal brand logo sketching.
And as I expand it to include more UX design work, the portfolio will naturally highlight these elements. As I continue to grow as a designer and gear my portfolio toward my capstone projects, I can then begin to slowly develop a design-specific brand for the future—which I can dedicate more time to developing if and when the time is right (definitely after UX Academy ends).
Personal brand logo sketching, continued.
My new motto: Take it one project at a time (and in smaller bites).
Until next week, happy designing (and personal branding)!
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