Portfolios are the Status Quo: So What?
I was flattered to have my post featured on Tavern (private beta) as part of a daily question prompt: “Are portfolios even necessary?” This question generated a lot of fantastic discussion, so here’s my follow-up contribution.
There is one fact that I can’t disagree with: the technology industry still loves portfolios. As many people have loudly and repeatedly pointed out to me, clients and employers still expect them. I will lose business, opportunities, and if you listen to the hype, all respect, by choosing to not have a portfolio. My personal experience indicates that not everyone is so single-mindedly judgmental, but alas, there are definitely people who will reject me out of hand as a rank amateur because of my portfoliolessness.
Oh well. So what? I still strongly believe that portfolios are an outdated and limited communication tool propelled primarily by inertia from the print design industry. Even aside from the fact that UX design is SO FAR from print design as to be laughable, portfolios haven’t been critically examined in many years. UX designers are supposed to try to improve how people experience the world: why don’t we extend the same critical eye to our own practices?
One defense of portfolios: you can have portfolios focused on process, rather than finished products. Unfortunately, I have yet to see such a portfolio truly capture the messiness and complexity of the real-world design process. I will say it again: the core skill of a great designer is empathy — not artistic ability, not analysis skills. Tell me, how do you really capture empathy in a portfolio?I know my best work has come out of having a deep, trusting relationship with my clients. Every conversation about their kids, their funding situation, their favorite restaurants — THESE also are critical to our work together. They need to trust me to do the best thing for their product and their users.
Another fact that portfolio advocates hate to acknowledge: portfolios are as much shaped by circumstances outside of your control as they are by your own voice and talent. Work on a subpar team? Have a bad manager? Have demanding clients who are terrible at building products? Guess what? That work is, at best, mediocre, and, at worst, unusable. Over the course of a career, these negative influences will hopefully prove irrelevant after you have more control over your work. Unfortunately, portfolios are often viewed as most critical for junior designers, who are the exact people most vulnerable to factors outside their control. I’d hate to risk overlooking a talented individual because their portfolio wasn’t “good” enough. Or, even worse, I wouldn’t want to hire someone who sucks primarily because they had an impressive portfolio propped up by talented collaborators.
Portfolios are tools that primarily benefit prospective employers, rather than designers. THEY are the ones who have a stake in keeping portfolios around. I don’t see what a portfolio does any better than a good LinkedIn profile or resume does — it gives a limited context and evidence that someone has experience. Great. Unfortunately, in the same way that resume keyword screening enables lazy hiring practices, portfolio screening does the same.
If you’re an awesome designer with a good reputation, no one is going to give a crap if you don’t have a portfolio. Hiring for ANY job is very often done by word of mouth, and designers are no different.
Things are changing. Like good engineers, good designers are in very high demand. This means WE should be shaping the conversation around hiring, not employers. Portfolios are the subpar product of inertia, and it’s time we rethink the industry standard for hiring designers. Step up! Question the the status quo! Let’s use our UX design powers for good and really figure out the BEST way to collaborate with our stakeholders on hiring practices.