Applying for a Product Design Internship? 3 Portfolio Tips

What Hiring Managers Look for

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How excited I feel for a student when I see their fantastic design portfolio, because I know they have a bright future. Photo by Mert Guller on Unsplash

Disclaimer: These thoughts are my own and are based on conversations with other fellow hiring managers and recruiters in product design.

Alright, let’s take a look at this portfolio.

Ok, good, this first project is solid. Shows their full process, and has high-quality deliverables. I’m already thinking about scheduling a call with this student.

Oh, but wait. There’s a typo. It happens. But there’s another. And a few tiny, unreadable images. Hate those.

Was this a team project? Did they do the final visual design on their own?

What are they studying again? This site is awkward to navigate. I can’t find the About Me section. Ah, there it is. Hmm, they don’t talk about any unique interests. That’s too bad. School is the perfect time to explore various interests. I’ll click a little more, but…

Put your best foot forward and get that interview.

You’ve invested so much time in making your portfolio. Spent countless late nights laying out just the right content.

But before you submit your portfolio for a product design internship, give yourself the best chance of securing an interview by:

First, nail the basics.

You don’t have to have it all figured out.

We’re looking for potential.

Not potential to be a successful full-time product designer, but potential to be a successful intern. (During the internship is when we’ll evaluate if you have potential to be successful as an entry level designer.)

And to be a successful intern, where you’re a full, contributing member of the team, you need to be able to deliver the basics. We might ask ourself (as my colleague once stated), “Can I put this person on a small project, and with guidance, could they deliver work that we’d want to ship?”

So, for one or two key projects, show us a good bit of the following (Emphasis on show. Don’t tell us with long paragraphs of text. Show us with images, so it’s easy to scan your work, and we can be confident you can present your visual work effectively.).

The basics:

Simply put, we’re looking to see that you’ve got a grasp of the product design process and have worked with a team. (Everything you’ll do during your internship will be with a team.)

Realistically, we might scan one or two projects super quickly in just a few seconds to determine if you’ve covered all the basics in the process and have high-quality deliverables. If so, we’ll invest more time in reading the content and exploring the rest of your site. In total, we might look at a portfolio site for less than three minutes before making a decision about an interview.

Secondly, don’t doom your chances. Avoid common mistakes.

Time-crunched hiring managers may have dozens, or even hundreds, of portfolios to review. So, when you make multiple, easily-avoidable mistakes, you give them good reason to move on to the next candidate.

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How I feel when I see intern candidates making the same portfolio mistakes over and over again. Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Avoid the following:

Lastly, demonstrate an authentic desire to grow.

Overall, an internship is one big growth opportunity. You get to grow your career and the company grows with your arrival and with your unique perspectives.

Successful interns will come in with a willingness to develop new skills and be coached. You’ll have mentors who are eager to pass on their skills. Mentors aren’t looking for someone who thinks they have it all figured out.

So, demonstrate your skills development in your portfolio.

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How I feel when I see design intern candidates pursuing challenging creative pursuits and crushing it. Photo by 张 学欢 on Unsplash

One easy place to describe your development is in your intro, such as “I’m a former software engineer pursuing a graduate degree in UX design and looking to grow my visual design skills.” You might add a twist about how your unique experience creates value that makes you stand out, “Industrial Design major with growing UI design skills. Looking to create seamless physical and digital customer experiences.”

On your About Me section, describe your unique interests or pursuits that demonstrate your curiosity an eagerness to learn new things. Perhaps you’ve started doing more photography. Or sewing. Show some of it. Maybe you have a blog where you critique movies, or video games, or sushi restaurants. Maybe you’re minoring in Music. Talk about why that interests you.

Self-awareness of your skills gaps goes a long way towards your development. No experience designing for Android? Stand out by completing a side project where you get to explore Android. Didn’t get much formal instruction in motion design or prototyping? Show how you took an initiative to learn those skills via online tutorials or from peers at meetups. It’s not about the quality of the end results, it’s about demonstrating growth.

Show us that you seek inspiration and opportunities for growth, and we’ll understand that you could use those discoveries and learnings to ultimately improve your design work (and the experiences of our end users).

Creating a portfolio is hard.

And when applying for a job, you’ll make mistakes. It’s okay. Learn and keep applying. (As a design student, I applied to ten companies for internships before I got my first interview.)

And regardless of the outcome of your internship application, you should be confident that you’re growing your understanding of the product design process, presenting your work in the best light, and being true to your own interests.

Ultimately, internships are incredibly valuable in determining the type of work you do, and don’t, want to do. So, here’s hoping you can tweak your portfolio to position yourself to secure an internship where you’ll have fun, do great design, and grow.

The Author

Eric Burns is curious and inspired by other creatives who pursue their passions. As a hybrid UX researcher and product designer, he leads initiatives related to hiring and growth for Uber’s product design team. Previously at Uber, he managed design teams building HR tech, and he led design efforts across experimentation products and Uber Freight. He honed his design skills at frog design. Ask him about electric vehicles and driving with Uber.

Written by

Full-time Dad. UX Designer. Design Manager. Design Ops Specialist. Uber and frog design Alum. Husband. Electric Vehicles Nut.

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