DESIGN CAREER

10 tips to organize your design portfolio

How to showcase your work in a way that helps hiring managers grasp your skills and experience

Slava Shestopalov 🇺🇦
Design Bridges
Published in
10 min readAug 10, 2023

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I’ve been on both sides — hiring designers as well as applying for jobs. And I noticed that the achievements of many highly-qualified designers somehow get obscured in the process. In this article, I share 10 ways to optimize your portfolio for clarity and engagement.

1. Clearly separate case studies

Hiring managers don’t read portfolios; they scan them. That’s why super-clear navigation is crucial, especially if you showcase experience with multiple companies, several digital products of a company, and several features within each product.

Insufficient contrast between different portfolio parts.

Don’t rely on slide titles only; they are too easy to overlook while scanning a portfolio. Instead, insert divider slides with high-contrast heading styles to show your readers where they are. Besides, you can provide helpful context on divider slides, for example, the key facts about a company’s industry or the high-level description of a product you worked on.

Well-visible information architecture of a portfolio.

On the web, however, a nested structure when you have a company page, then product pages inside, and then feature pages within projects won’t work as nicely as in a slide deck. In this case, I recommend sticking to a flat structure and providing important company and product information in the intro sections.

Case study cards with clues to the associated companies and products.

If you have 2–3 case studies with identical intros because they were completed within the same product of the same company, it’s not a problem. But if there are 4+ related case studies, you should probably consider combining some of them or leaving only a couple of the most impressive ones; otherwise, your experience may not look diverse and compelling enough.

2. Don’t sacrifice a story in favor of outputs

Your best visual designs were created without user interviews. You conducted a prioritizing workshop, but that project didn’t result in any digital product. A mobile app you are proud of was done for a client who never shared post-launch analytics with you. Sounds familiar?

Lots of experience doesn’t guarantee a good portfolio. If you tried different tools and methods and worked in various domains and roles, you may still lack end-to-end projects. As a result, you subconsciously tend to pump up your portfolio with all the nice outputs to prove you can cope with work of a certain complexity.

Output-based portfolio with valuable examples of work but no storyline.

Unfortunately, it’ll look messy and unclear to someone who learned about your existence just a minute ago, i.e., a hiring manager. Instead, focus on telling a story even if it won’t include all the best pieces.

Story-based case study with all design steps explained.

It’s better to put some effort into sifting through your design archive to complete the story rather than insert an amazing standalone output that doesn’t fit anything.

  • You created high-quality interfaces, but there were no user interviews on this particular project? Don’t panic. What alternative sources of UX insights did you use? Customer support tickets? Market trend reports? Subject matter expert interviews? Write a list of the key insights that informed your design decisions.
  • Great project but no access to post-launch analysis? What other KPIs did you impact? Did you capture any qualitative gains during testing with users? Maybe, you helped a company launch an MVP or attract an impressive sum of investments?

As you might’ve noticed, I don’t speak about the “ideal” design process for a simple reason: it doesn’t exist. Design is never linear, and all projects are unique. The point is to show and explain your path from the kick-off to the final result in the portfolio.

3. Add bottom navigation to long case studies

Comprehensive case studies, usually expected for senior positions, occupy quite a few slides. On the one hand, they tell how profoundly you’ve tackled a complex problem, but on the other, they are harder to digest and navigate.

Breadcrumbs showing project stages at the bottom of the slides.

So, if you have to share a lot, ensure the hiring team won’t get lost while viewing it. And one of the handy methods is adding “breadcrumbs” with project stages at the bottom of each slide. Besides, it’s a way to demonstrate your design process without an additional theoretical slide with generic diagrams from the internet.

4. Make case study cards more informative

If you choose to present your portfolio on the web — as a custom site or via a documentation tool like Notion — you’ll likely have a set of “picture + title” cards leading to different case studies. And while there is nothing wrong with this format, you may miss an opportunity to give people useful clues before they click on a project link.

Minimalist “picture + title” vs. informative project cards.

Of course, such intros shouldn’t take up too much space because it’ll only make things worse. Here is what you can mention:

  • Short product description (a toll road payment app for the American market; a cloud-based suite of apps for construction planning).
  • Company profile (a global oilfield services company; a European SaaS provider in the area of project management).
  • Platform (site, web app, mobile app).
  • Design task/challenge (revamp the user onboarding based on UX research and top-reported issues; identify and eliminate major usability problems in an e-learning system).
  • Key result (5% increase in conversion; 2x faster learnability of the product; €1.5M annual revenue increase).
  • Role (design lead, senior designer, UX consultant), etc.
Case study cards with short intros.

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5. Add highlights before case studies

A page with case studies is an excellent place to show your additional value and unique experience so that hiring managers better understand what the case studies below demonstrate.

Three bullet points or info cards are sufficient for a summary.

You’ll spend 10 minutes composing a couple of bullet points, but it will help hiring folks, especially if they opened your portfolio ahead of the resume. For example, if you prepared 3 detailed case studies but designed 15 mobile apps throughout your career, it’s worth noting because it won’t be evident from case studies only.

An example of highlights above case studies.

Several ideas of what to mention in the “Highlights”:

  • experience in different industries and domains (ridesharing, e-learning, aircraft engineering, banking);
  • unique skills and superpowers (data visualization, customer discovery, team facilitation, advanced prototyping);
  • years of experience (5+ years in design leadership roles; 10 years of UX consulting experience);
  • achievements (designed 4 mobile apps from scratch; launched a successful startup; designed a feature that earned $1M in revenue), etc.

6. Caption complex artifacts

Research has shown 75 usability issues in the old solution. During an ideation workshop, you came up with 50 feature ideas. A new solution prototype included over 120 mockups. Sounds familiar?

Most design projects are too complex to be presented in their entirety, even if you apply all the best practices. That’s why you should caption screenshots of workshop canvases, large sets of mockups, or complex diagrams. Otherwise, details on the inserted images will be illegible. And even if you add links to the originals, hiring managers aren’t likely to explore them in detail.

Interview script and report screenshots vs. the key UX insights next to the screenshots.

What to write in captions? Something not apparent from just looking at an image, of course, for example:

  • prioritizing workshop canvas → 5 main topics chosen by the team;
  • user interview report → 4 most critical user problems;
  • customer journey map → 3 top customer pain points and 3 promising opportunities to relieve them;
  • usability testing report → 5 key usability issues to fix;
  • prototype screenshots → hypotheses about 3 key interactions (why they are supposed to work for users).
A plain prototype screenshot vs. the most important prototype parts with annotations.

7. Don’t hide “non-fancy” stuff

Perfectionists, hear me out: non-fancy things can make your case study more compelling. Sometimes the old version of the digital product you redesigned might be really ugly, and you don’t want to include this UX nightmare on your well-structured and visually balanced slides. But the “before/after” comparison tells a much better story than just sharing the final, perfectly polished picture.

Showing the final interface vs. comparing the old and new one side by side.

Apart from the pretty common “before/after” format, you can include a more detailed analysis of the old solution and map user complaints on the corresponding parts of its interface. Of course, it’s better to insert such a slide somewhere in the middle where it logically belongs.

User pain points mapped on the screenshot of the old solution.

This is what your story logic may look like:

  1. Grab initial attention by showing a hero image with the new design solution and the executive summary.
  2. Then proceed to a step-by-step story about the project, including the old solution accompanied by a list of UX problems.
  3. And finish your story by showcasing the new solution and its proven efficiency.

8. Keep the right balance of text and visuals

Regardless of whether you choose a slide deck or website format for your portfolio, the content should appear both informative and engaging for the hiring team. You can achieve that by maintaining a reasonable balance of text (explanations and captions) and visuals (sketches, photos, mockups, and diagrams).

It’s essential to maintain a good balance of textual and visual content.

Well-illustrated portfolios are attractive but may not reveal your problem-solving skills; text-rich case studies tell the story but don’t expose your visual skills and may feel boring. That’s why a text-visual ratio from 50/50 to 25/75 percent works so well.

9. Showcase the work you want to do

Everyone’s path in design is unique. For example, I studied journalism, then got a print designer job, and finally found my passion in web design. There were periods when most of what I could show to a potential employer was not what I wanted to do in a new job. That’s why my early portfolios failed so often.

Showcase work you are passionate about doing.

I know it’s hard when you don’t have a huge experience yet, but you should mercilessly edit out all the projects that aren’t connected to the vacancy you are applying for. For instance:

  • Going to switch from brand identity to software design? Then squeeze everything from the only 2 web projects where you were lucky to participate and reduce those 10 slides with logos to one or two and place them at the very end.
  • Does working in UX consulting sound exciting? Then don’t start your portfolio with a bunch of fancy landing page projects. Instead, try to find all the complex interfaces, interaction diagrams, and design workshops in your archive.

10. Managerial work is worth a portfolio too

Design case studies are pretty common, but how would you showcase leadership work when you apply for a lead designer, design manager, or head of design role? I personally see no significant difference in presenting hands-on and managerial accomplishments. You structure design projects from a problem to launch, and in the same way, you can articulate management stuff, such as:

  • introducing new processes and templates in the team;
  • strategic planning and annual roadmapping;
  • knowledge-sharing and team development initiatives;
  • successful design sales (in UX consultancies);
  • cross-functional collaboration improvements, and so on.
Leadership projects are essential for leadership roles.

Besides, separate leadership projects can help you unclog your hands-on case studies. For instance, in the course of a design project, you introduced a new process and reused it later, improving your team’s efficiency. Then it makes sense to describe both parts as two different case studies with different goals and KPIs.

Here is an outline for a managerial case study:

  • Initiation: how did you identify a problem and stakeholders?
  • Research: what information did you gather?
  • Ideation: what solution did you propose? Why?
  • Testing: how well did it work? What did you change/improve?
  • Introduction: how did you encourage people to adopt it?
  • Results: what did you gain? What KPIs improved?

Summary

A good portfolio is essential; it often speaks louder than certificates, diplomas, and resumes. Unlike many other professions, it’s a powerful designer’s cheat code that we take for granted. But a strong portfolio doesn’t appear from thin air — it requires a lot of effort to prepare properly, so it’s easier to do it iteratively.

Of course, all the points above are my humble recommendations, and it’s up to you how to use them. And don’t forget to stay true to yourself because if you “optimize” your digital self too much, you might get hired by a team where you don’t belong for a job you hate doing.

Meanwhile, some further reading on the topic:

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Slava Shestopalov 🇺🇦
Design Bridges

Design leader and somewhat of a travel blogger. Author of “Design Bridges” and “5 a.m. Magazine” · savelife.in.ua/en/donate-en