Toying with Convention

‘I’m a designer, here’s my desk’

Why do so many designer portfolios include prominent workspace photographs? This is me, this is my environment, these are my tools. How you portray where you work tells the world about what you hold to be important, and the level of attention invested in setting the scene implies the same rigour in your work.

Everyone does it. You don’t even need to have a decent workspace any longer, you can just fake it with a pre-made template.

A million generic desktop mockups, just waiting to display your work

Joining in

I recently updated my personal portfolio site, and wanted to play along. The fun isn’t in trying to completely subvert existing norms. That demonstrates either a contempt for your audience, or risks communicating that you don’t understand the context you’re operating within. I saw value in participating in this long tradition.

The fun (with both little projects like this and with digital product design at large) is trying to understand why a convention has taken root, and what the base values are that are worth reinforcing. Then we can work to extend those base values using novel concepts or combinations of emerging technologies.

Yet, the adoption of a stale convention seems like an awful way to self promote — the worst kind of templated conformism. A portfolio site deserves to be a unique representation of your work and your approach.

A good soundtrack for the remainder of your reading experience

My first instinct was to lift from the Roots’ What They Do video — call it out while gloriously indulging. But, that felt a bit too critical and overly negative. Questlove didn’t make too many friends with that approach.

Could some form of desk-shot be both obvious and oblique? It might play with the trope, be fun. Even feel a little new, maybe.

Breaking it down

A primary design objective is to ensure that this reads as unique, and not templated. Images can be faked too easily, so let’s try a video. And let’s try embedding the name card in-situ, so it doesn’t feel like an overlay.

So, let’s start with the second-order desktop, the desktop inside the laptop. I started by simply typing my name into the screen, letting it sit there.


A little lame, and overly static. What if the desktop could come alive? Not only does the image become a video, but the video contains an in-situ animation. What if the ghost in the machine is corrupting your very earnest efforts to promote yourself? Too high-concept. Don’t overthink it (too late). Let’s try combining screencasts and Hyperlapse.

First, I took a screenshot of the desktop. Then I opened it up in Photoshop, set up Quicktime, and recorded my activity in that window. Added my name, corrupted it, transformed it further. The first few attempts were too rushed — remember that we’ll be speeding this up 12x.

Next: I put a bit more effort into refining the set up of the physical desktop scene. A carefully chosen pile of eclectic books, but nothing too pretentious. A few plants. Hide the rest of the clutter, and carefully line everything up at right angles.

This was all extremely improvised. No professional equipment here — just an iPhone and an improvised tripod (created by elevating the phone to the desired filming height using and old chair and a tub of my son’s Duplo). Had to work hard to ignore the dog’s judgemental stares.

Sometimes it’s better not to learn how the sausage is made

Now, the fun part. We’re all set up, and ready to roll. After queueing up the screencaptured recording of the Photoshop distortions to play full screen on the laptop, I tried a few dozen versions of walking stiffly in and out of frame.

One drawback of the aggressive image stabilization in Hyperlapse is that it causes sway from a fully stationary camera. It’s an eccentricity that we’ll have to live with.

After getting the basic steps down, I kept experimenting with the process. I tried a few more version:, speeding up the name editing, slowing it down. At night, during the day, at the office, at different desks. Same kind of thing in a phone. On the TV.

A discarded test using the same technique of distorting the phone’s home screen, and then playing that video back on the device.

In the end I used one of the desktop versions on my portfolio landing page, but not as the hero. As the hero it felt too harsh, too spastic. It’s subtly playing with the convention, but not in an overly-sarcastic way. It works at face value, but still feels a little new. Different enough.

Thanks for reading. You can check out the final version in context at