Product Design Portfolio Advice

Apple MacBook Pro laptop beside Apple Magic Mouse on a wooden table in front of a white and black chair.

At work, I have the privilege of reviewing all product design candidate portfolios for all positions — interns to leads. I have now reviewed over 800 individual portfolios and here are some key insights on the ones that have landed an interview:

Know the audience.

A portfolio’s sole purpose is to showcase previous work and hopefully land a new gig. With that said, it is important to highlight what you’ve done but most importantly what you want to be doing in a future role.

Remember that this is a representation of who you are as a product designer. Period. Always keep in mind that you’re the only person on the planet that has all of the context to the project(s) your showcasing, so ensure that the hiring manager understands:

  1. Why did you work on this project?

Be a story teller.

Those of us working in product design are lucky that we get to represent our users via empathetic visual narratives. Too often candidates craft a portfolio piece as if it were a pseudo resume by only listing out completed tasks in a chronological order. Don’t do this. Make sure that you are showcasing an empathetic narrative that captivates the audience.

Think this is too fluffy of an ask? Or it’s asking for too much?

Consider this, if you’re able to achieve an empathetic narrative and you’re able to persuade the reader of your portfolio piece, then the hiring manager now knows that you’re capable of getting others to buy into your design strategy at their company.

Focus on the work that you want to be doing and not necessarily on the work you’ve already done.

This one took me a while to achieve when I worked on my own portfolio because it is easy to get stuck on listing out all of aspects of a project that you contributed in — but don’t. Remember that hiring managers are looking to see if you can alleviate a pain-point for them. They are seeing if what you’re offering alleviates a specific set of needs. Unicorn or 10x designers only exist on twitter or are super rare that good hiring managers know this, so why not highlight what part of your craft you’d rather be focusing on instead?

If you don’t like building prototypes, don’t focus your portfolio on prototypes. If you want to show that you can do it but don’t want that to be a significant part of your practice, then mention that you built it but don’t make it a highlight of the project.

For example, one of my mentees has experience with the full product design cycle. The mentee doesn’t enjoy running user testing at the discovery and usability testing phases but loves contributing to the design strategy, solving for user workflows and building prototypes. So, I advised my mentee to highlight the areas that they wanted to market for their next role: design strategy, interaction design and prototyping.

My mentee is now in a new gig solely focusing on all of the areas that they explicitly outlined in their portfolio. 🕺🕺🕺

If you’re new to the industry, you might be tempted to flex the skills that you have. You might be feeling like you’re in a Catch-22, if you don’t say that you can do a little bit of everything then you might not get hired. Or worse, you’re too “new” to know what you really like or don’t like doing. I hear you. I’m guessing that you have a couple of freelance projects or class/pet projects that you’re going to showcase in your portfolio? If so take a pause and reflect on which aspect of the design process you’d enjoyed the most and which you’d enjoyed least. Reflecting will hopefully give you a bit of guidance on what you’d want to focus on for a future product design role.

Like with all great design, practice restraint.

Grammar matters.

Remember, like your resume, the portfolio is your pitch to land a gig. Our job is to be constantly communicating across varies channels and audiences in both verbal and written communication; therefore it’s imperative that the portfolio is free of any typos or grammatical errors.

Acronyms.

Please write out all acronyms followed by the acronym itself. If you need to explain an internal term, please do so. Keep in mind that 9 times out of 10 the folks reviewing your portfolio have no clue into the idiosyncrasies of your previous projects.

For example, instead of writing this: “I like working with ENG in my projects. Write it like this: “I like to work with engineers (ENG) in my projects.”

In summary, the best portfolios have left hiring managers wanting to know more about a project. The best portfolios have left me wanting to schedule an interview to speak with the candidate to go deeper on their experience and their learnings.

If you ever want to chat about your portfolio, book time on my calendly

Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash

DesignOps Manager, triathlete, baker, avid reader, captain sarcasm. He/Him/El

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