What’s the story?

All designers have been there, the dreaded creation of a portfolio. Hours turn into days, days turn into weeks, and weeks can even turn into months. It’s not easy, and often leaves you feeling either proud or defeated. I've been approached by dozens of people for advice or feedback on their portfolio over the years. Having sat on both sides of a small design agency and a large corporation, what strikes me is a large proportion of portfolios lack story. Or at least those intended to be presented face to face.

Don’t get me wrong, a glossy portfolio can be a great hook to get someone’s attention. It’s a chance to showcase your skills and talent whether it’s perfecting that render or even getting a product or service out there in the real world. But that’s just it, it’s a hook. Demonstrating how you work and think will tell someone much more about your ability rather than the shiny render at the end.

I often relay a story of my first interview when advising people either ‘dusting down’ their portfolio or even creating their first. I remember it well. Fresh out of university thirteen years ago I was asked to present the method and approach used on a project. To a degree I was relieved as I obsessively used ‘design research’ to identify problems and opportunities (probably as I was less interested in the execution). I knew if I had an insight I had an avenue in which to explore that real need. In the nineties and early noughties no-one talked about Design Thinking, Design Methods or the Double Diamond. Digital cameras barely even existed to capture my view on the world, so I painstakingly scanned in photographs of my observations, documenting the insights. I managed to create a compelling and coherent story about why there was a need, how I got there and what the product idea was to answer the need. I managed to sell the product to Lowe Alpine and launched globally. But just because it was commercially sought after that wasn't a golden ticket for interview success. I responded to what I had been asked to present, which has always stuck with me. People are often more interested in understanding how you've approached something, not necessarily what the final result was.

Creating a portfolio can be a labour of love for designers. But frustrations can set in and confused messages can occur. My advice is to consider a two-tiered approach. Firstly, create a ‘snapshot’ portfolio to get yourself noticed and shortlisted. This should be a carefully considered selection of your best and most appropriate work tailored for the role you are applying for. This is the hook I mentioned earlier. A top level overview that will impress the person recruiting for the role to build confidence that you’re a potential match. I often ask people to consider being on the other side assessing the applicants. ‘Imagine you've just received thirty portfolios and your schedule is jam packed with phone calls, meetings and emails — how are you going to make an impression in a matter of seconds?’ Not with a 32mb pdf, 196 pages long I hope. Designers are good at demonstrating empathy, but when under pressure it’s easy to forget.

So the second part of the approach. Now that you’ve been shortlisted and you’ve got the opportunity to meet face to face, consider your story. I often notice the change in expression when I advise this to people. Having worked tirelessly crafting a portfolio it can be a tough piece of advice to follow. People often propose to simply talk through what they’ve already submitted. But think about it, you have less than one hour to make the pitch. Do you want to share everything at a thin level (of which they have already seen)? Or do you want to consider a few examples at a detailed level? The Story!

The ‘Why, How, What’’ almost appears to be part of a unique vocabulary (if you’ve not heard it before). Simon Sinek coined the model known as the Golden Circle and published ‘Start with the Why’1. He uses this model for people and companies to discover their purpose or belief. Understandably, it can sound incredibly abstract and can often lead to misinterpretation. However this structure in approach is completely transferable for you to create your story.

Consider the following approach to build a compelling case study and story:

Why was there a need? Outline the problem or ambition identified.

How did you approach the investigation or project? Lots of people have adopted the Design Council’s Double Diamond model — Discover, Define, Develop, Deliver. I’m a big fan of it and it’s a successfully tried and tested approach across the world. This for me is the fascinating aspect of all presentations and interviews. A demonstration of your journey through this and the learnings that surfaced to generate ideas (not just the idea itself).

What was the result or impact of your work? This should circle back to ‘why’ there was a need and demonstrate that you have answered this.

I’ve consistently followed and shared the Why, How, What approach over the years. However, I’d not considered a two tiered approach until several years into my career. I immediately noticed the impact, it worked. I wish someone shared that with me sooner. What amazes me is that professionals often fall into the trap and ‘how’ they’ve approached a challenge almost gets glossed over. It unveils so much more about you than any perfect render or sales figure can.

Summary of a two-tiered approach:

  1. Think about your hook — consider how you want to get noticed. What are your best projects that will best reflect your work and what the recruiter is looking for?
  2. What’s your story (why, how, what) when you get the opportunity to meet face to face?

1. Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action, Simon Sinek, 2011

(all views are my own)