Is It Time To Ditch Your Portfolio?

When I first started designing I didn’t know who Paul Rand, Milton Glaser, or Massimo Vignelli were. 14 years later, I’m still not that well versed in their work; which is to say: I’m a designer heavily influenced by the internet.

Circa 2002 I was drooling over the work of 2Advanced, a studio specializing in Flash websites. Two designers in particular: Eric Jordan and Elder Jerez Jr. I mention them, because they were my definition of great design. Their shit was gold. 2Advanced was from the future (the web) — where the focus of design, as I knew it, was heading.

The 2Advanced website drove big companies right to their doorstep with bags of money. They were an agency; their portfolio brought them clients looking for the same kinds of work they were presenting. That’s the goal, right? To showcase your work in ways that will inspire people to pay you to create more of the work that you want to be making. Their approach to a portfolio outlined how I would showcase my work.

How we’re attracting new clients or finding new roles isn’t much different today. Only now, we have new mediums like Dribbble and Behance that are capable of delivering more clients than our portfolios could in a lifetime. These sites are major outlets for inspiration; our windows into the world of design trends. Suddenly, finding one source to model your approach after isn’t as simple as mimicking 2Advanced.

So where do you look when you want to level up in your career? How do you attract new kinds of work, the stuff you’ve never done before? Not a new job title, but the challenges in the work you’re doing…

No one tells you that at some point in your career, your goals are going to change; that how you present your work will largely determine the type of opportunities knocking at your door.

So, what do you show in your portfolio when you want to level-up?

It seems like there’s an unspoken practice for this; it feels unintentional, and in effect: confusing.

**Note: the images are illustrative; not reflective of the author’s design role.**

Mike of Creative Mints (Bakery Website)
  • If you’re presenting glamour shots (above), you’re inviting your audience to critique your work based on its aesthetic. You’re asking them to passively engage. Every detail is perfectly rendered and most of your work isn’t live.

You might be: a visual designer, a concept artist, a production designer, or a UI designer.

Teehan + Lax (Krush)
  • If you’re presenting full case studies including process shots with lengthy descriptions, and you speak of a holistic approach to design. Your portfolio may have fewer pieces, but the depth is there, and you do well with problem-solving work.

You might be: a senior designer, a UX designer, an interaction designer, or a product designer.

Simone Magurno (Serious Situations)
  • If you talk about concepts and showcase final product designs that actually shipped — you were involved in a much larger effort, and you understood the business needs at a complex, cross-platform, level. You place your emphasis on design systems and infrastructure.

You’re likely a design lead, a staff designer, creative director, or some sweet-ass blend of all the things.

Fabio Sasso (website)
  • When you show nothing at all… You’ve scrapped your portfolio. The work you’ve crafted, and can take the most credit for, might be pretty dated. If you have a website at all, it displays your accolades, your speaking engagements, or a blurb about the depth of your career. Your focus is building teams of designers and designing how they work together. You’re concerned with the culture of the company and the impact of design in the world outside your 4 walls.

You might just be: a design director, design manager, a principle designer, or a VP of design.

These nuances in presentation reflect our ever-so unimaginative way of voicing what we do best. Ask yourself: “what does the next step in my design career look like?” and “Will my portfolio be the vehicle I use to get me there?”

Just like when I was new to the game, I went looking for designers that had mastered the types of work I aspired to. I wanted to find the modern day 2Advanced my younger-self would have downright copied. I wanted to fake it until I made it, because my portfolio was only luring in the same kinds of work I was already good at.

Think of a designer that inspires you. Not a hall-of-famer, like Paul Rand, just someone you discovered on the internet. A designer that’s a few rungs up the career ladder; someone doing work you’ve always imagined would be perfect for you.

Then, search for them:

The results aren’t stellar. So many landing pages or linkedIn profiles. Sometimes you’ll even find a portfolio that’s 10 years old. Maybe their work just isn’t public, maybe they’ve been somewhere for a long time, or maybe they’ve come through some back door; who knows.

What I know, is that the results aren’t defining what my portfolio should showcase, in order to make my next career move.

Spend some time thinking about what strengths you have; the ones that will set the stage for your next role, and make an outline. A check list that you can use to guage how well your portfolio voices what you want next. Mine looks like this:

( ) I’m a thinker: I want a role that’s heavy on the conceptual problem solving.

  • Are there well documented case studies that articulate input & impact?
  • Is it clear you solved many complex elements of a given problem?

( ) I’m experienced: I don’t want to specialize in any one aspect of design. I like to run the gamut and I’ve done it all before.

  • Is there a breadth of work that sheds light on each step of your career?
  • Does the work say “I’m consistently good at what I do.”?
  • Does the work reflect every aspect of the design process?

( ) I like to explore: I want to collaborate and push the boundaries. I want to surround myself with a team of individuals that never settle for par.

  • How outside the box are your solutions?
  • Do you clearly understand constraints before breaking the rules?
  • Are you motivated (think side projects and self-starter types)?

( ) I’m a leader: I want to drive the vision *sometimes* and I recognize when it’s time to let others steer.

  • Are there clear “big wins” in your case studies that you pushed hard for?
  • Is there work that was highly collaborative — not solely your own?

( ) I get results: I want to pull my weight and I like when my team is competitive.

  • Does my work encourage others to push the limits?
  • Are there examples that show direct increase in company metrics as a result of my work?

How do you shape your portfolio so that the work you’re looking for is clear? Whatever approach you take, be intentional about it. Don’t let someone land on your unless you truly believe that’s the stepping stone you needed to get you where you’re going next.

I’m Eric Lobdell, a Designer and aspiring creative director. I’m passionate about making things for people to use, and I’m always up for coffee.