Dear portfolio…

Every week, several designer portfolios find their way into my inbox. Most are looking for direction en route to their final destination. Knowing that these carefully constructed vessels tend to carry with them the hopes and dreams of their creators, I want to pull back the curtain on my review process to give greater transparency into how I pick apart each of these efforts.


My inbox is dinging again. Or maybe that was Slack. Did I just get another DM on Twitter? Nope, that one was email.

With five email inboxes flooding into the same space, I’ve largely tuned the noise out. But the growl notification still pops up, and I almost immediately see the subject line that says “Could you take a look at my portfolio.”

To be completely honest, it is an honor every time a designer sends their work my way for review.

Regardless of whether they are someone who attended a conference I was speaking at or if they are a student of mine at Bloc, the person on the other end of the request is looking for the same thing. They want to make whatever they have better than it is.

Here is the test that I apply to all that land in front of me.


Hello, little portfolio.

Where did you come from?

Can I tell who sent you my way without referring back to the email?

Do I know what type of work your creator wants to do?

I’m sure you are full of beautiful work, but before we start I want to know more about how you are built. Did your creator leave any easter eggs for me to discover under the hood? Let’s find out.

Inspect element

The markup of your portfolio says nearly as much about you as the work inside of your portfolio. How you have chosen to construct your portfolio tells the recipient who you are and what type of design work you are qualified to perform.

When your portfolio is relatively simple, why add a lot of extra weight with frameworks?

Custom build

This portfolio shows the work of a designer who could potentially do anything. They clearly have written their own site from scratch. I don’t know how much of this site is broken at this point, but knowing that they did it on their own carries a lot of weight with me. Even if it is imperfect, I see someone who at a least runs hard at things that they might not be awesome at. If it turns out that the portfolio is awesome, I am very confident that they will get the job that they are seeking (provided that they aren’t a total head case when you talk to them).

Frameworks like Foundation are fine, provided you can justify the added weight.

Frameworks

Wow, I remember seeing a really fancy nav bar on this site when I came in. How the hell did they do that while still using Foundation (or Bootstrap). This is a person who can build prototypes quickly, but I’m not sure how much they know and how much they are simply pulling in from a framework. They can clearly build their own stuff, but I want to know more about why they are using a framework for their own site. Their answer to this question will tell me whether this is a really smart or lazy move. That said, I bet it is responsive and that’s never a bad thing. This is also the time I stop and begin resizing my browser to discover how you are using media queries.

Yes, it is very easy to tell you simply bought a template for your portfolio. No, you didn’t fool anyone.

Template portfolios

This is the work of someone looking for a visual design position. Maybe a UX position. Clearly not interested in a prototyping or front-end developer position. These are fine and everyone deserves to have a decent looking website. I just hope I don’t see a skill list that includes prototyping or Javascript.

Also, template portfolios like Squarespace or Coroflot are easy, quick, and popular. Unfortunately, they look very similar to one another and you can generally spot them without opening up the inspector tools. In that regard, these sites are sort of like ordering food at Taco Bell. Gimme ten bucks of whatever, because taste doesn’t matter all that much.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t designers that get jobs simply by having a template portfolio, but how hard is it to throw Bootstrap onto Github and hook up your URL? Not very.

Behance, Dribbble, etc…

A Behance URL tells me that I don’t event really need to review the source code. This is a UX designer that wants to talk process — which is great, but they aren’t comfortable with the visual side of design. For an excellent example of a well done UX portfolio on Behance, look no further than LaiYee Lori’s work.

The opposite reaction can be reached by opening a Dribbble URL. This is a visual designer that is all about how it looks. I personally consider Dribbble a great community for seeing awesome work but find it to be limiting when you are on the hunt for a job. It’s fine to have and could expose your work to people who might otherwise miss it, but I wouldn’t make it my calling card when applying for work.

‘The work’

Nothing is more important in your portfolio than the work you include in it.

There is no room for error here. This is the best possible depiction of the work you have created. If you are going to have a broken link, a misspelled headline, a structural issue in the design of your portfolio itself — don’t let that happen here.

But past that, what do you show when you show your work?

Designers vary greatly and much of it will depend on age. Designers who have been around a while don’t do a lot of job seeking and tend to turn their portfolios into photo galleries. These greatest hits portfolios are fun to look at, but they are terrible examples for new designers to emulate when creating their own portfolios.

So why isn’t a great looking portfolio enough to get someone a job?

Because I wouldn’t really know what they did. Sure it looks great but I don’t know the problem they were trying to solve. I can’t see the context surrounding what they built.

If I’m simply looking at a picture of something that looks nice I have to do a lot more work to determine if I am interested because twenty years of design experience tells me that a picture of past work isn’t a reliable indicator of future success.

Your process is far more important to me than the actual finished product that we tend to hold up in our minds as ‘the work.’

Your messy process matters more than any perfect solution. The more rough sketches I find, the better I feel.

Did you perform user research for the project before you started building?

What tools and methods did you employ in that effort?

What problems did you discover?

How did you go about working through those with your client?

How did you test your solutions?

Did you collaborate with a team or do this by yourself?

Did it launch?

How did it do?

Did you follow-up post launch and make adjustments?

And those are just my questions for UX designers.

For visual designers I want to know more about information architecture, branding and type. Fucking type. If you are a designer and you don’t discuss your type selections in detail you are dead to me. Not really. I still love you, but I love type more.

Hello, front-end developers. Tell me how the app I am looking at is constructed. Better yet, can you tell me why you built it?

What trendy javascript framework is powering this shiny trinket? Is it Angular? React? Ember? How about the CSS? It’s actually Sass, isn’t it? Can I go clone it from Github and take a peek under the hood? Above all, have you been honest about what portion of the project is yours and what part the rest of your team built. There is absolutely no shame in working on a project with a team. That just proves that you aren’t Ted Cruz.

Wait, you say that you are a rainbow-farting unicorns that can do all of these things? Go grab any job that you want. My assistance should only be sought when you go spend your piles of unicorn cash.

I know you are thinking that I am pretty hard on these poor portfolios, but I do no favors to people if I pull punches.

Either I ask the questions or your potential employer will. If you want that job, you’re going to have to answer these questions eventually.

About you

What am I going to find when I select the ‘about you’ link on your portfolio?

Opinions will vary greatly among professionals, but most will tell you that this is where you write something safe. You list your skills and you provide a link to allow people to contact you.

That answer is death.

Unless you are a piece of cardboard, you are more interesting than that and you have things to bring into the mix that make you the right fit for a job somewhere.

The fact is simple. You need one job, one place where you will thrive and grow.

If you don’t put yourself out there and tell your story you are missing a huge opportunity to separate yourself from the other 50 candidates that also have roughly the same skills and experience.

Are there boundaries to this? Sure. Don’t claim to be the Zodiac killer.

Talk about God. Talk about politics. Talk about family. Talk about struggle.

You don’t have to talk about those specific things but you do need to talk about the things that explain why you are who you are. Why do you exist? That should be in the one document that you created to showcase what you can do.

So talk about the things that you are passionate about. That is the only way you are going to find the other passionate people who want to work with you.

The things you say will repel a percentage of job opportunities away from you. Those are jobs you would have regretted taking anyway.

For every job your passion pushes away, another will gravitate toward you. Those are the opportunities for growth and happiness. And that is what this entire process is about.

Who you are is as important as what you do. Both deserve equal time.


And that’s it.

Sure, the quality of the work that appears in a portfolio will vary greatly but how portfolio is made means nearly as much as the work displayed.

Most of it comes down to communication.

Whether or not a designer can communicate the process they use to produce the work you see (or don’t see in the cases of NDAs) is more important than the work itself.

Those that also possess the ability to explain why they are a designer and not a banker will also have a decided advantage.

So work on explaining what you do and why it matters to you.

That’s way more important than a pile of pixels.