Ask LH: Am I Allowed To Use An Ex-Employer’s Website In My Design Portfolio?

Hey Lifehacker, I’m a recently-minted freelance web developer learning how to make my way in the world of solo business. In preparing an online portfolio to present to potential clients/employers, I have included several examples of websites that I built at the advertising agency for which I used to work. In each case I’ve been careful to credit the designer and the agency for the design while honestly describing what my part in the project was and how I accomplished the work.

I’m somewhat unclear on whether it’s considered good practice to use projects on which I worked (but which I did not initiate or manage) as examples of my skill. I’ve been considering calling my old boss for approval to use these sites in my public portfolio. Is this necessary? Thanks, Fresh Freelancer

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Dear FF,

It’s good manners to inform your ex-employers of any content you intend to showcase in your portfolio. Generally speaking, this shouldn’t be an issue for most customer-facing websites or campaigns, although you may need to exert more caution if the project was never released publicly. If in doubt, ask permission! The important thing is to credit each piece of work in detail with a specific rundown of your personal contributions.

Also, remember that any designs you produced will usually be the legal property of the company you worked for. This can lead to accusations of plagiarism if you replicate the same code at the request of a new employer. Nobody expects you to re-invent the wheel for every project, but using identical interface designs, fonts, layouts and icons is obviously a bad idea.

We also sent your query to Megan Clegg, a New York based UX/UI designer, currently designing at iHeartRadio. Here’s what she had to say:

If you worked for an agency on a contract or as a full-time employee but didn’t sign any NDAs, you should be in the clear. No need to ask permission. If you still feel iffy about it, one option is to set up a “private” portfolio — either behind a password, or have one that the client has to request to see.
You’ve already taken all the necessary steps to avoid stepping on any creative toes, and it’s perfectly fine to show projects that you were only a small part of (as long as it’s spelled out). Websites are a team effort and a lot of your future clients will appreciate knowing you’re capable of working well on one.

If any web designers or developers happen to be reading, feel free to posit your own two cents in the comments section below.


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