How to Use Storytelling to Rock Your Portfolio Review

By Kathrine Becker

For designers, the mantra “Show, don’t tell” often means: visualize your thinking and professional experience in a deck. Ah, the glorious deck. The PDF, the Keynote, the over-achieving Squarespace portfolio.

When it comes to portfolio reviews, your deck is a crutch. It’s a visual aid. If interviewers could learn everything they need to know about you from a PDF, why would they need to meet you in person?

In portfolio reviews, you need to show them that you know how to tell.

[Enter: Story.]

Storytelling isn’t about being articulate. It doesn’t mean, “Entertain whilst presenting!” and it certainly isn’t confined to opening your presentation with an anecdote. (Anecdon’t, more like.) (I mean, anecdo sometimes, just know that anecdotes are separate from the storytelling we’re talking about here.)

Storytelling on a higher level

In your personal story as a design candidate, your central conflict is that these people don’t know you yet. Savvy designers will recognize this as an “opportunity area.” The portfolio review is a chance to establish your identity in your interviewer’s mind — who you are, and how you think.

6 tips to rock your portfolio review using storytelling

1. Structure: Episodic storytelling

Think about the structure of your portfolio review like a TV series. Over the course of a season (aka, your deck) you’ll reveal an overarching thesis about yourself, and individual projects will serve as episodes. The conflicts presented and resolved in the episodes (your projects’ problems and solutions) are subplots, which all support your thesis. Like so:

Note: The deck itself looks back at past work, while your narration has a forward momentum.

2. Thesis: Establishing your identity

In the storytelling realm, identity is established by demonstrating what you want, why you want it, and where you’re going.

Examine your body of work — every product, case study, experiment and side project you’ve ever worked on — and reflect. You might be tempted to include only the most successful/beautiful/clever projects in your portfolio, but don’t be fooled: your identity is not bound by successful/beautiful/clever projects. You are not a screenshot on legs.

We want to shift the focus away from the work, and onto how the work impacted you as a human. Which project combination tells the most compelling story about you?

Each of your projects revealed something to you about yourself. A case study may have reaffirmed or wholly crushed your passion for a given industry. Maybe the problem space exposed you to a new way of thinking. Designers are insightful people, so I’m sure you learned something.

Which constraints — not projects — which conflicts best demonstrate how you became the designer you are today? Which experiences informed the creative and systemic processes you use now?

Pick those projects, and craft your thesis around why you chose them.

3. Flow: Move beyond chronology

Relying on chronology alone to bring cohesiveness to your deck is… well it isn’t bad, but it isn’t very rich. You can do better! I believe in you.

Use the insights you built your thesis on as transitions, or “reveals,” to propel your story from one episode to the next. (Think: forward momentum.) You’ll still speak at length about each project, but your story will come alive in those transitions by tying each episode back to your thesis while also connecting them to one another.

Generic-yet-effective examples: “Project A revealed to me my fascination with Industry X, and I was thrilled when Project B allowed me to dig deeper into it.” Or, “Experience Y made me realize I am driven by Concept Z, and I decided to never take another project that didn’t involve it in some way — like Project C, which I’ll talk about now.”

4. Points of conflict: You need’em.

As a storyteller, your job is to choose the conflicts which tell the most compelling story about you. “I made this, it shipped, I’m swell,” is not a compelling story. You can do better! I continue to believe in you.

Beyond our Personal Greatest Hits, we all have projects that died on delivery, or were never-done-before/never-done-again, and I have great news: these don’t need to hide in the appendix, dreary, forlorn and forgotten.

Failed / shelved / never-shipped material
Beyond discussing why a project was shelved, interviewers will want to know: What was your approach to this unique set of constraints? What new things did you learn in order to problem-solve in this space? If the project hadn’t died, how would you approach a Phase 2? (Just be sure to talk about setbacks without being disparaging towards others. Bitterness will sour your interview pretty quickly.)

Examples of work that don’t match the job description
If the problem we’re trying to solve has never been solved before, then of course no one will have experience with this challenge,” says Victor Lombardi, a Design Director with Capital One’s Commercial Bank team.

“We want to see that someone has worked with never-before-encountered problems.”

Victor told us straight-up, “We don’t want to just see the solutions; we want to see the problem you faced and how you dealt with all of the constraints to come up with a solution — implemented or not. How did you TRY to solve the problem?”

5. Fleshing it out: BYO Point of View

You don’t need to give a manifesto, but incorporating an authentic point of view demonstrates an awareness of more than just yourself, your prototypes, your wireframes. It also serves your thesis by helping interviewers understand what’s goin’ on in that noggin.

So have an opinion! Put a stake in the ground and bring your perspective on the world. How do you see emerging practices and technology impacting your industry (as it relates to your projects, and beyond)? What’s your hand-off strategy? What trends have you noticed in corporate life, and are they harmful or helpful to human-centered design?

6. Delivery: Treat the review like a conversation

Start-to-finish oratory with flawless delivery and built-in jokes can feel cold and impersonal in a room full of strangers. Break up that monologue!

Create space for dialogue by:

  • Pausing after discussing your first project to ask if there are any questions — is it resonating? Check that you’re reviewing work they care about.
  • Preparing more than enough work to fill the time. You’ll be ready to shift the direction of the conversation if needed, and interviewers will quietly notice your breadth of work.
  • Being present and thoughtful. If a question throws you for a loop, take 10 seconds to think through your answer. The silence isn’t awkward; it authenticates whatever comes out of your mouth because you considered it first.
  • Bringing your curiosity with you. If your open-ended questions meet crickets, use closed questions (yes/no, one word responses) to break the silence. Make it easy for your interviewers to interact with you.

If the central conflict of this meeting is that these people don’t know you yet, then portfolio-review-as-conversation serves as the ideal environment for your future team to learn about your motivations, your raison d’etre and your path. It’s casual, without being informal.

Show the work; tell the story.

No one wants to build a relationship with your deck. Interviewers want to understand who you are.

Even if you don’t know who you are yet doesn’t mean that you aren’t. You are. You exist. And people are going to craft a narrative about your identity whether you actively participate in that process or not. So participate! Figure your story out and bring it. And I mean, BRING IT, people. I so believe in you.


BTW — if your portfolio is ready, ONE Design is hiring.

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Many thanks to Victor Lombardi, Jennifer Bove, Joe Lamantia, Andrea Fineman and Melissa May for contributing to research on this article. Artwork by Kathrine Becker. Edited by Jessica Saia.
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Kathrine Becker is a lucky bum. As the writer-in-residence for ONE Design’s Events & Publishing team, she uses storycraft to support over 400 designers at Capital One.