What’s more versatile than a resume, more portable than the large binders of yore, and flexible enough to serve freelancers and first-time job-seekers, individuals and teams, even companies?

A digital portfolio, of course.

While the term might conjure images of a soon-to-be-graduating art student pounding the pavement, lugging a large binder stuffed with his coursework, a digital portfolio is not necessarily about art or even about a job search.

According to Joseph Fournier, a learning infrastructure designer at Anthem, any collection of digital content can be called a digital portfolio. “It can be focused on showcasing a single person’s skills, providing information about the kinds of services an organization (or team) can offer, showing a timeline progression of events or growth, or any myriad of other things in between.”

A digital portfolio might include a resume, but it doesn’t have to; that depends on the goal of the creator. If the portfolio creator has earned digital credentials, such as badges or certificates, these can be included as part of a resume. But the true value of the portfolio is in illustrating the creator’s skills.

It’s possible to create a portfolio using any of a wide variety of tools. Creators should—again—consider goals. When seeking a job where skill in particular tools is relevant, it’s essential to include examples of work created using those tools. Other considerations when choosing tools include how easy it will be for potential clients or employers to access and share the work and how easy it will be to keep the portfolio current.

While there are few limitations on what a digital portfolio can accomplish, there are “a few characteristics that are essential for today’s digital portfolios,” Fournier said in an email interview.

Essential elements of a digital portfolio

Ease of access: A digital portfolio should be accessible via the Internet. In some cases, where the audience is entirely internal, placing the portfolio on a company intranet might suffice. But generally, the purpose—and a key benefit—of a digital portfolio is that is easily shared with potential employers, collaborators, or customers; and using responsive design ensures that they can view it using a wide variety of devices. Choosing tools that allow display on and sharing among multiple platforms makes it easier for more people to view the contents.

Clarity: The goal of the portfolio and its creator should be clear. The design and each element should be clean, clear, and related to the ultimate goal. For a freelancer or job-seeker, the goal of showcasing skills and accomplishments requires a different makeup than for a team or corporation hoping to sell a product. All portfolio builders should look beyond their own goals, though, and anticipate viewers’ needs. “The main purpose of a portfolio is to make it easy for viewers to understand work, usually so they can make a decision—whether buying, hiring, or adopting,” Fournier said. “Make it easy for your portfolio viewers to use your product to achieve their goals.”

Context: Many items in a digital portfolio will not be self-explanatory, so the creator should ensure that each item offers sufficient context. “It should provide information beyond pure marketing and product information, such as how-to content and the backstory around how the materials came to be,” Fournier said. If a job-seeker is showcasing technical skills, for example, she might include a narrative explaining how she used a particular tool to create one of the projects in the portfolio.

Security: A disadvantage to a digital, easily shared portfolio is the potential for works to be copied. Thus a desire for open access should be balanced with the need for security. “If you’re concerned with security, there are a number of options. It depends upon the level of security required,” Fournier said. “PDFs and many other file formats offer password protection as a simple gatekeeper mechanism. You certainly can hide your portfolio in a password-protected website, but in most cases, that may not be necessary.” Fournier advises planning for security when choosing portfolio elements. “I like to think of security in the design phase and design out any elements that would be compromising,” Fournier said.

A question of integrity

Many freelancers and job-seekers are stymied by the question of samples. While students are free to use their own projects in a portfolio, those who create work for pay are often constrained by contractual obligations to employers.

Fournier described a candidate who showed him top-notch samples—that were protected under a nondisclosure agreement. He did not invite the candidate back. “If, however, that individual had taken the time to clearly describe the accomplishments and provide relevant illustrations of skills they’d demonstrated, without compromising confidentiality, they probably would have been asked back for another interview.”

Sharing proprietary content is never a good idea. Instead, Fournier suggests, use generic text and images, and include “a description of the learning challenge and how the construct addressed it. The important thing is to convey conceptually what you can do and to demonstrate that. But in no case should you compromise confidentiality,” he said. “Most potential employers will respect your decision not to share proprietary samples. You may have to invest a little time to demonstrate what you could do for them—which, after all, is the real question they’re hoping to answer by viewing your portfolio.”

Learn more

Joseph Fournier will present a session, “Creating an Interactive Portfolio,” at Learning Solutions 2017 Conference & Expo, March 22 – 24 in Orlando, Florida.