A good-looking portfolio will be one of the first ports of call for employers looking for web developers. Ideally, you want that portfolio to showcase not just your technical skills but also your creativity and your original thinking. While it is possible to simply get some website models from Google and then build them yourself, the best alternative will always be to come up with a project of your own.
You may think you are not the naturally creative type, but very often the problem is not that people don’t have any ideas – only that they don’t know how to look for them.
In this article we will not offer pre-packaged ideas for you to plug into your portfolio (although, of course, we will present examples where relevant). Instead, we will suggest some avenues of thought that you can take if you are struggling to come up with something of your own. Your next great project is inside you – it’s just a matter of finding out how to unearth it.
Think of what you know
Probably the first thing that people think of when trying to come up with an idea – and with reason – is whatever it is they know how to do really well. For those who have studied at university, this most often relates to the object of their studies, but it doesn’t have to. For this example, even being highly proficient with a particular videogame counts.
Once you have identified a skill you have, consider how that skill can be put to use, and try finding a way that this can be complemented through a website (if your carpentry skills let you build a table, you may consider a website that finds optimal furniture designs). Alternatively, think of ways that a website can assist those who have your skill, ideally by providing something more than an online How To.
Your field of expertise may have practical or conceptual applications, so design your website around that. For example, if you studied something related to logistics, think of a website that can optimise some form of transport, like booking, planning and tracking trains, planes, and taxis. If you studied philosophy, maybe a website that helps you track down quotes or even just concepts, or that can rearrange existing philosophical texts in interesting ways.
Remember, the application doesn’t have to be practical or useful to everyone – it just has to allow you to share, or at least deploy, something that you know. We once had a student who played poker online, and he developed an app able to express the value of any given hand according to a scoring metric and report it in real time. That’s an excellent example of the sort of nook you can fit your expertise in.
Think of what you use
One simple way to look for ideas is to just open your last bank statement and see where your money goes most regularly. Have you been spending more than most people would on expensive cheese or fine whisky, or on superhero comic books, or on events of any particular kind? The fact that you invest resources on these things means you probably already have some knowledge about them.
Once you have identified something that you use/attend/consume on a regular basis, one distinction you should probably make before thinking of what website to build is whether the category it belongs to is static or dynamic. A dynamic category is one for which there are constant updates, like sports (but also things that are more niche, eg. Warhammer figurines). A static category, evidently, stays more or less the same over time. This distinction will almost certainly inform the nature of your website.
A website about a dynamic category should include (or even be entirely built around) functions that let you stay up to date, like news aggregators. For a static category, you will want functions that help you cultivate that hobby while being something a bit more than just another Wiki on the subject. One of our students, for example, came up with a website that helps users interested in botany to monitor the health of their plants. Regardless of the category, these hypothetical websites would probably benefit from community-building functions too, like a forum or a chat.
Ideally, you should relate the website to your individual experience, for the good and for the bad. After all, whatever it is you like doing, there almost certainly is a website about it already, so focus on the aspects that make it unique to you. That’s where the originality will come from.
Think of those close to you
If there is nothing about yourself that immediately inspires you, think about your family and your friends. Do you know anyone who is facing some kind of (manageable) trouble, or an obstacle that may be alleviated in any way? Or can you think of something they might like to have or receive, like a gift? Then perhaps that is something you can build.
The website doesn’t have to be tailored specifically to the person that gave you the idea. If you have a friend whose career is stagnating, you could build a website that automatically evaluates and compares CVs, but without being limited to the industry in which your friend works.
An excellent example of this sort of thing was a team of our students who came up with a simplified social media platform for the elderly. If your grandfather is missing out on something good that belongs to your generation, maybe you could help him bridge that gap?
Think of how you feel
Not everyone is prone to self-reflection, but for those who are, it can be an infinite source of ideas. What is it that moves you, exhausts you, inspires you, excites you, depresses you? Can the positive stimuli be replicated, or perhaps enhanced, by a website?
Consider some of the things that move you, and see if you can get others to experience them in a similar way, perhaps by reproducing their conditions online. Or alternatively think of what affects you negatively, and how you can mitigate its effects. We once had a student who developed an app that did nothing but show visual patterns and play sounds that were intended to alleviate anxiety.
This is also one of the fields where you can be most creative, since the way we experience emotions is so unique and subjective. Again, remember that what you come up with doesn’t have to be universal, just as long as it adds at least a little bit of value to the lives of some people.
Copy and improve
Your portfolio doesn’t have to be composed only of radically innovative ideas. As Lady Evolution teaches us, sometimes it’s enough to take something that already exists and tweak it in a way that reveals insight and skill. You may build a clone of Amazon, but with a special feature you came up with. As long as you highlight the feature to your prospective visitors, that’s still interesting.
The final example I will steal from our students is that of a search engine which displayed three search bars simultaneously, allowing you to combine different searches and visualize them together. The logic and the algorithms of the search engine had been developed from scratch, so it was a good showcase for an employer – but it was also a sufficiently interesting concept in its own right, and built with further unique features to take advantage of that concept.
Again, the key thing to bear in mind when producing something that already exists is to relate it to your personal experience. Tweak something so that it tangibly, demonstrably improves your experience or the experience of someone you know, and that will be enough, even if it doesn’t work for absolutely everyone.
Feeling like your mind has gone completely blank when trying to come up with an idea is a very common experience. Very often, though, our minds go blank simply because we don’t know where to begin, or because we expect an idea to come into our heads fully formed, instead of trying to build it step-by-step.
Creativity is a processm and for all but for a very fortunate and gifted few, it doesn’t happen in an instant. If you’re looking for ideas, just start from your own experience, from who and where you are, and think outwards from there. And make sure to give yourself as many days, weeks or even months as you need. Good things come a lot easier when you do not force them.