As a freelance web consultant, I help clients develop (or strengthen) a digital identity. This means designing and writing for portfolio websites, determining what work to showcase, integrating social media platforms—it means bringing together any and all of my client’s digital identities into one holistic brand. At the heart of what I do, I’m a storyteller. I help clients tell their stories through their about me content, their color palette, their website design, their social media platforms, their portfolio pieces. The trick is getting these stories all on the same page so they’re sending out a consistent message.
When I started job searching again last year, I hadn’t updated my portfolio website since graduating from college in 2016. In the digital world, that is a long time to go without updating your portfolio. Part of the issue was that I wasn’t generating a lot of new portfolio pieces (a combination of my health issues and a stagnating job situation), but still! No excuses.
Keeping up in online spaces can feel impossible because they change so quickly; the beauty and beast of the digital world is in its immediacy. Maintaining a digital identity requires consistent attention, and I was not giving my digital identity the attention it needed. I was remaining somewhat consistent on my blog (and at times, that was even a stretch), but my portfolio website was something I was only in the habit of updating for class presentations and the initial job search out of college. After graduation, that routine was broken and I didn’t seek out a replacement because it didn’t feel like I “needed” to—until I started job searching again and realized that I did need to.
At the time of my website overhaul, I was going through a massive professional identity crisis which made grounding my digital identity feel impossible. I was entrenched in self-doubt and a lack of current projects to showcase, but what I did have was the relative consistency of my blogging. I started blogging my freshman year of college as a way to keep myself writing, but over time my blog has become the space that has most defined my digital presence. I brand myself as a storyteller, and my blog is the place in which I tell my own story; it just seemed natural to combine the two. Merging my blog and portfolio site solved two immediate issues: my lack of updated professional digital presence and my lack of cohesion across platforms. Plus, my blog site always felt a little “unfinished” apart from the posts since I didn’t want to invest the time into reworking other website content a second time.
Honestly, I was kind of my own client from hell. I had no clear sense of what I wanted (or even who I was), no desire to showcase what I could do (especially since, at the time, I didn’t feel like I could do much), but at the same time I had no flexibility because I knew I didn’t want that. Once I cut through the noise of self-doubt, I was able to land on a much better digital representation of myself and since then I’ve been more strategic in cultivating my online identity. Some things I learned through this process were:
Know who you are and what you can do.
I may help clients tell their stories in the most effective way possible, but I can’t create something out of nothing. The same held true when I was my own client—you can’t shape a story’s rhetorical impact until you have the story. When I first started job searching after graduation, I was all over the place when it came to my end goal. Grad school? Project management? Communications? Web design? Journalism? The best thing about an English and Professional Writing degree is that it translates to virtually every field…the worst thing about an English and Professional Writing degree is that it translates to virtually every field. Why couldn’t I have just gone to vet school to be a vet, like Boyfriend?
After sufficient panic, I met with a professor to discuss my resume and realized I had two problems: I wasn’t focused and I wasn’t good at talking about my accomplishments. We made a list of the things I was good at (writing, editing, designing, web authoring, etc.) and the things I was interested in (community engagement, helping people, etc.); then, we figured out what types of jobs brought the two together. Building a resume is quite similar to cultivating your digital identity: once you know who you are and what you can do, it’s easier to shape your story to fit the types of opportunities you’re looking for. Once you’re able to shape your story effectively, you get a lot more callbacks.
Design your brand for the professional you want to be.
Once I had a clear sense of who I was and what I could do, it was easier to tailor my messaging for the type of professional I wanted to be. My brand is rooted in my identity as a storyteller: someone who uses words, colors, typography, design, and web tools to communicate. I chose to use “storyteller” as my anchor because I have been writing stories since I was five years old, and my professional strengths all boil down to that essential truth: I like to tell stories—mine, my company’s, my clients’. Once I had my brand anchor, I was able to think about the rhetorical implications of “storyteller”— creative, intuitive, visionary, fun, etc. Take time to examine the rhetoric of your brand anchor and make sure it matches your intention. As a creative professional, all those adjectives work well to describe the type of professional (and person) I am.
Be true to yourself and don’t fear stereotypes.
I am a vibrant human, so I like bright colors—especially pink lipstick. When I went through a redesign of my portfolio, I thought a lot about the colors and accent font I would use. I wanted to play into the fun and youthful aspects of my personality, but I was afraid of seeming “too girly” if I used a pink lipstick or—the horror—a script accent font. Going through the design process, I kept coming back to my favorite lipstick and a really pretty script font for some of those pops of personality.
The more I reflected on it, the stupider it seemed to not make a design or style choice I felt solid in simply because I was afraid of seeming to feminine—hello, internalized misogyny! “Feminine” doesn’t mean “weak” or “less capable,” and I realized my fear of being stereotyped was grounded in my fear of seeming lesser. So I wore the pink lipstick in my portfolio pictures because I like pink. It’s fun and youthful and bright like me. I used a script font for my accents because it was elegant and feminine and creative like me. If someone’s going to take that as an excuse to look at me as less capable than the dude who uses all gray and block font on his website, I probably don’t want to work with them anyway.
The biggest challenge I faced when I did an audit of my digital identities was a lack of consistency. One of the first, easiest things I did to fix this was to make my short bios match on all my platforms (“I like to pet fluffy creatures and eat food. Also, I write things!”). The benefit of being a creative professional is that my personal digital identity and professional digital identity mesh well together—if I was an accountant or a lawyer, that combination process probably wouldn’t go too well! For me and my chosen field, combining personal and professional made sense. It’s up to you to make the call on whether that’s right for you. After I made my messaging more consistent, I realized it made sense to bring my blog and portfolio together to share a digital home. It’s easier on me because it’s just one website to update, and it makes it easier to showcase the writing I do on my blog since, really, it’s a portfolio piece!
Creating and maintaining a digital identity is not easy if you want to do it right, but it’s essential in today’s increasingly online world. For me, what was most important was finding my voice and staying true to it, owning my skills, and developing more cohesion in my digital presence. Taking on myself as a client has made me more confident in my ability to serve others as they craft their online identities and has also given me a stronger sense of self, both personally and professionally.
What are some of your strategies for maintaining a digital identity? What are some of the things you struggle with? Let me know in the comments below!