Why is designing a website for yourself or writing your professional bio so much more difficult than client work?
Why are there so many designers with terribly out-dated portfolio websites?
Why are there so many articles on the web about “Personal branding”?
The answer for each of these question is the same: humans have a blind spot. We are unable to ever truly understand how others see us. That is what makes personal branding, designing your own website, or writing your bio so difficult.
I just wrote and designed a new website for myself. And I worked on it for much longer than I would any other project.
As I was sitting revising the homepage for the upteenth time, thinking about every reaction people might have to seeing a huge photo of my ugly mug, I realized it’s actually not that big of a deal. I was overthinking it.
But that’s natural when we consider our professional personas. We try to find a way to present a version of ourselves that others will like, but the truth is we’ll never really know what others think.
You can try to take a step back and be neutral and treat your own project like you would a client’s, but science says we can’t. We will fail. We are unable to be neutral observers because we are part of the closed system we want to observe.
Like I said, it’s a blind spot.
So what do you do when you need to write up a resume, bio, or update your professional website?
You can go read all the advice about personal branding:
But the truth is that most people are pretty boring. Way too boring to be a brand.
For most of us, being our authentic selves online would involve a disproportionate amount of posting about doing the dishes and grocery shopping. I don’t know about you, but that’s a bit too authentic for me.
Also, being your authentic self online requires knowing your authentic self first. And that is a daunting task.
Further, I personally hope it’s impossible to reduce an entire human being into a marketing slogan. I find the very idea a bit depressing.
This is why I find most advice about personal branding to be a sham. Discovering your authentic self and presenting it to the world is too much pressure—and it’s not even useful from a business perspective.
We still have to find a way to market ourselves, get hired, and make a living. And for many, that means having an online presence and some kind of brand.
Instead of worrying about what others think of us like we did in high school, the answer is simply to ask others to do the one thing you would otherwise never want them to do:
Ask others to put you in a box. Tell them to stick a label on your forehead.
You are “the person who does X.”
Marie Poulin is the design strategy gal.
Justin Jackson is the marketing guy.
Amy Hoy is the bootstrapping gal.
Jane Portman is the UI design gal.
Brennan Dunn is the raise your freelance rates guy.
Mariah Coz is the online courses gal.
Paul Jarvis is the freelancing guy.
Jarrod Drysdale is the design guy.
That’s actually not so bad, right?
People don’t need to know every detail of your life and personality in order to trust you and hire you. They just need to know the aspects of you that matter to them.
So wrap up those aspects of yourself into a tidy package that you give to others. This is your branded self.
Your authentic self is something precious that you should reserve for the people you are close to. It is complex and beautiful but too difficult to communicate quickly, which makes it useless for branding.
Your branded self is the slice of your authentic self that you present so that people outside your inner circle can connect with you more easily and quickly. Especially in a professional setting.
To be clear, your branded self is not dishonest—only simpler. You’re leaving some things out not to hide but because that makes it easier for people to start getting to know you.
When you have this clearer, simpler idea of yourself in mind, it becomes a bit easier to write your bio or design your portfolio website because you don’t have to play the high school guessing game of what others think. You choose a specific picture of yourself to share, and you share it.
Sure, your branded self is a bit like a staged selfie. It’s a snapshot. But you have to start somewhere.
Which sounds better:
“Hi, nice to meet you. If you want to hire me, first watch this 5-hour documentary about my childhood.”
“Hi, nice to meet you. I make websites for a living, how about you?”
Personal branding advocates will read that and respond that there are many people who make websites for a living, and that statement doesn’t make you sound unique. And they are right. But most people won’t want to hear your life story either.
So, you can easily end up sharing too much of yourself, or too little. Success lies somewhere in between.
Sharing too little is just as ineffective as oversharing. For example, I’ve seen countless designer and agency websites with huge headlines on their homepages that are nearly identical: some slight variation of “We make beautiful, engaging, innovative websites.”
And they animate the headline, set it in a nice typeface, and slap a swanky logo next to it. But they all still seem kind of the same.
Your branded self is not just a job title. Every designer thinks they make great websites. This claim won’t build trust or convince people to hire you.
Personal branding advocates might tell you to ask yourself: “What makes me unique?” Which, again, is a difficult question to answer.
A better question is “What value do I have to offer?” Value is not beautiful websites and experiences. Value is all about the outcome and results you can deliver.
Marketers use a strategy called the Unique Value Proposition, or UVP.
Your branded self needs a UVP. Not a job title, list of deliverables you make, or a documentary about your childhood, but a simple statement that shows why you are uniquely valuable.
Frankly, writing UVPs is very hard work. Writing a good one requires that you understand who your audience is, what they want, and how you can serve them. Just being a designer, developer, or whatever doesn’t make you unique or even valuable.
A UVP for your personal brand should indicate how you are different from your peers and who you seek to serve.
Your UVP is the box you want people to put you in. It’s the label you are proud to have stamped on your forehead. And it is the reason people will trust and hire you.
The key to personal branding is: focus on how you can help others, not how you want to present yourself.
Design's Iron Fist is a collection of essays with advice for both design learners and professional designers. It's been featured as one of the best free design books by the Creative Bloq and the AIGA.
Enter your email address and I'll send it to you along with my newsletter. You'll get 1 email per week on average. More details here.