Build your design portfolio around one awesome story

There’s plenty of great advice out there for making a design portfolio, much of it written by excellent designers who hire other excellent designers. If you’re a designer, you should do what they say.

Me? You should be skeptical of my advice—I’m a solid designer, but not amazing, and I’ve actively avoided being a manager. I don’t hire people. What do I know? But I have gotten a few design jobs over the years. Here’s my advice.

1. Pick one project. JUST ONE!

What’s the coolest thing you’ve worked on? Doesn’t matter if it wasn’t really that cool (the coolest project in my first portfolio was the portfolio itself). I define “cool” as “interesting”. Not the prettiest. Not the famous-est. What was the most interesting thing you’ve worked on? Which project do you understand best from start to finish?

That’s your project. Forget everything else. It’s okay if your portfolio only has one focal point. You’ll learn enough from crafting this one story that you’ll become more articulate about the other projects.

But really you only need one. If you have an hour to present your portfolio, or an hour in an interview, one deep well-told project can get you there.

Okay, got the one project in mind? Let’s go.

2. Squeeze out the best possible story

Now figure out how to tell the best possible story about that project. I’m not just saying put images of your process and some obligatory text. I mean tell a damn story. I want a hero’s journey with five acts. I’m not even joking—I want you to build some mystery and suspense.

Write it down on paper first. Jot down notes about the storyline of the project. I mean like if the project was a movie or a mystery, what was the plot?

“We wanted to x for our customers/we thought y was a really cool opportunity… but we didn’t know how to do it or if it was possible…”

Okay, now I’m interested! Introduce the characters:

“I was the lead designer, working closely with a product manager and an engineer. The three of us had this crazy idea…”

How did you get there?

“We each sketched… we disagreed about… we decided to test… we needed to find out, so we…”

Tell it like a great story, you know? Keep up the mystery, make it human, make it simple. In the end, what happened? What did you learn? Was it a success? No, it wasn’t. Nothing is completely a success, so what did you learn from the parts that failed? What did you learn from the nasty parts of the process? What would you do differently next time?

3. Find images to support the points in your story

This is obvious because it’s a design portfolio, duh, of course you’ll have images. There’s one thing though—above all else, collect images to tell the story. Sure, make it look good, make it look like you’re a good designer, yada yada. But if some of the images suck and the story is great, that’s better than a nondescript good-looking design portfolio. Tell the story! As you look for images, you may be reminded of different twists and turns in the plot, and if they’re good, add them to your notes.

4. Practice telling the story out loud

Nope, not time to build the portfolio yet. Just put them in Keynote or Powerpoint. Flip through the images and tell the story. Ideally, you should present it — to your boss or colleague or team at work, at a meet up, at a conference if you can, but whatever. Find a place to present it and do it. The stress of presenting will make you practice and master the story better.

You should be able to make your story interesting to somebody who is not in design or technology — somebody who is not remotely in your line of work. You should have friends like that—if you don’t, stop reading this stupid post and make some—and they should be your target audience, not some imaginary design expert. Learn to tell your story in plain language, without jargon or acronyms. Learn to tell it without the images. Learn to make it compelling, and, if possible, funny.

Read Made to Stick. It isn’t about design or products or business — it’s about telling memorable stories. And, as it turns out, that’s what design and products and business are all about, as it turns out. And that’s what you are to your potential new team. You’re a story. You better make it interesting.

5. Tell the same story over and over and over again

Practice at work. Practice with your friends. Practice with a significant other. Telling a story to a person who just heard it yesterday is harder than telling it to a stranger. It’s high altitude training.

Practice by yourself, saying it out loud. Giving a presentation to one person is harder than giving it to an audience. I’ve spent sooo many hours giving presentations to myself. It’s awkward but every time is one more repetition. Every time you learn. The more times you tell the story, the better it gets, and the better you get. Tell it, tell it, tell it.

Here’s the secret: You are developing the skill of synthesizing work into a narrative about why and what matters. You are leveling up. The story isn’t a trick to make yourself look better—the story is the way to be better.

6. Lastly, make your portfolio

Once you’ve got the story simplified and crisp and great, turn it into a web page or a blog post so people can view it even if you aren’t there. How should you do it? I dunno, and I don’t really care, but you better do your homework and do a good job. It seems to matter.

Read the posts at the top of the page. Look at other portfolios. Run some web searches and pick good ones… I’m not here to tell you what everybody else is gonna tell you better. I will say that if you make your portfolio site work like a slide deck, with a tight narrative… that’s probably not a terrible idea. Worked for me.

I will say you should consider including a video/screencast of you telling the story. You made your story totally kickass by now, right? It’s your secret weapon, so feature that bad boy.

7. Make it pretty

Haha! That headline is partly here just to make all you designers mad. But it’s also true: “Make it pretty” should be the last thing you do. Your portfolio should look good. It should demonstrate that you care about craftsmanship and detail and you’ve got the skills to deliver quality. But for god’s sake, don’t start there.

That’s all I got

If you do these things, you’ll have totally mastered one story and figured out the “why” and “how” behind your key project. You’ll understand the business side, the product side, and the people side. You’ll have crafted a product, in fact, out of the story itself. You’ll be better prepared as an interviewee, and you’ll have a portfolio piece that (hopefully) stands out from the rest.

I can’t guarantee this approach will work. It’s what I did, and it got me jobs when I wasn’t qualified—which was true for any job I ever got, at Oakley, Microsoft, Google, or Google Ventures, or when I pitched the Sprint book to my agents. But telling a good story always helped. With a story, a portfolio hangs together.

This is my portfolio from 2006, which I used to get a job at Google. I know it’s laughable nowadays (I built it in Flash, if you can imagine!) but the key thing that still holds up is the idea of stepping through a story with short, clear headlines and text explaining each point. It’s like a slide deck on a web page. And yeah, I know there are other projects in the left nav, but they were thin—it was all about Encarta, baby!

If you’re curious, here’s a video of me telling a story about a sprint (the story is at 27 minutes). This is a story I’ve told a million times, so it’s very simplified, but maybe you’ll see what I mean about the what and how and why and everything.