I’m a designer and have been a hiring manager of designers for more than 14 years. During that time, I’ve screened thousands of résumés and design portfolios, and interviewed many hundreds of candidates. Suffice to say, I’ve seen some rather, uh, interesting portfolios over the years — running the gamut from the good, to the bad, to the indifferent, to the downright bizarre.
I had always assumed that the attributes of a good portfolio were self-evident, and yet I’ve seen many fall prey to the same mistakes. So, here are –for what it’s worth — some tips about improving your portfolio and avoiding common pitfalls.
The best or bust!
To me, showing only the best work in your portfolio is about as self-evident as it gets, and yet –time and again — I see candidates willfully highlight the deficiencies of specific portfolio pieces or bemoan the poor choices that their clients made (“I can’t believe they chose *that* version of the logo!”). Sometimes I’m left to see work that is clearly sub-standard. A portfolio should only show work that you’re unequivocally proud of. Period. As the old anonymous quote goes: “Every job is a self-portrait of the person who does it. Autograph your work with excellence.”
One important caveat is that a portfolio may show excellence in a particular area (say, illustration only), whereas another portfolio may purport to showcase the well-roundedness of a candidate (say, a UX designer, who has experience conducting design research, and intermediate skills in front-end development). In the case of an “all-rounder” portfolio, there will likely be things you do better, like UX design, and other things you might not be as strong in, like visual design. In that case, it’s a judgment call. Is the net benefit of showcasing a wider variety of skills –say, to fit within a small team where versatility is valued— higher than emphasizing a particular skill alone? The key can also be in positioning. In the aforementioned UX designer example, if you’re targeting your portfolio to a small- or medium-sized company where skills across the full gamut of design are highly-desired, then you might want to quantify your skills as “advanced” in some areas, and “intermediate” in others. Regardless, try and put yourself in the shoes of the hiring manager and determine what skills –or range of skills — they’re looking for. To me, the quality of your portfolio is only as good as your weakest project.
I’m sorry, but…
Which brings me to my next tip: don’t apologize. If there are unique limitations or constraints for a particular project, feel free to spell them out. Design is purpose-driven and all about overcoming constraints to deliver something of value to your customer. That’s a natural part of design. The project should still stand on its merits, though. Apologizing your way through a portfolio tells the hiring manager that your work isn’t up to standard. Instead, frame each project, ensuring that the customer or business objectives are clear, and the compelling aspects of the design are detailed, regardless of constraints. You should be unabashedly proud of all your portfolio work, and be prepared to enthusiastically describe why each piece is great.
Tell a story
Better yet, tell a great (and concise) story! Since a design can be evaluated as to how well it achieves its stated purpose, there’s probably an interesting story lurking in there. Frame your “story of design” around a laudable purpose to maximize the impact. Perhaps your design solves a unique customer need; simplifies an intractable problem; or provides a more intuitive, pleasurable experience. By all means include a beginning, middle, and happy ending to your story that addresses a real customer problem. Be selective about the artifacts and descriptions to include to support your story, though. Don’t include sketches and ideation just for the purpose of including artifacts — make sure that they support the story in some way, and demonstrate your creativity in solving the problem. Perhaps you conducted some design research that yielded a key “actionable insight”, or decided to apply an unconventional design pattern to address an identified customer “pain point”. Highlight that expertise, and weave it seamlessly into the story. As Michael Margolis said: “Story telling is about connecting to other people and helping people to see what you see.”
Your design portfolio should showcase your unique skills, and differentiate you from the pack. What are your special skills? What are your “super powers”? Why should the hiring manager choose you over other candidates? Determining what your “super power” is requires introspection and honesty. Complete an inventory of your skills, and sort them in order of proficiency. Can you provide examples of things that you do really well? Remember, a portfolio is about showing, not telling. A hiring manager won’t be persuaded to appreciate a poor design by fancy words alone. As the old Marx Brother’s quote goes: “Who are you going to trust, me or your lying eyes?”
Testing 1, 2, 3…
Feedback and critique are critically important to improving your portfolio. Seek out trusted colleagues (design and otherwise), and get them to provide their honest assessment. It’s important to filter that feedback through the lens of your own design experience, though. We don’t ask customers to design for us; it’s up to us as designers to carefully consider a customer’s pain points and values, and design a solution that meets those needs. In the same way with colleagues, get them to frame their feedback in terms of what isn’t clear, or doesn’t resonate, or isn’t compelling. It’s up to you as a designer to process that feedback and improve the designs and presentation of your portfolio accordingly.
Portfolio à la carte
Where possible, consider catering to specific design opportunities. If you’re planning to move from one team to another, understand the dynamics of the team and the product / technical domain first. What skills does that team value? What kinds of “super powers” are they looking for? If you’re looking at a different company, try and ascertain what the needs of the design team are. It’s helpful to carefully parse the job descriptions to give you clues about where to focus your portfolio. It’s also useful to build up a library of design pieces that can be mixed and matched at a moment’s notice, because you never know when that next opportunity will come along. Just remember that each incarnation of a portfolio has to represent a coherent whole, not a bunch of mis-matched parts. So, carefully review each version of your portfolio to make sure it flows and tells a compelling narrative of you and your skills.
For your portfolio, everything needs to be designed. You need great stories, relevant examples, demonstration of desired skills, and it all has to come together in a consistent and well-designed package. Be meticulous in your attention to detail. The presentation of the content is arguably as important as the content itself, but it’s also a delicate balance to ensure that the presentation doesn’t overwhelm the content. And presentation isn’t only visual design — I’ve seen otherwise strong portfolios undone by poor or inconsistent navigation, or puzzling interaction. If you’re a UX designer, you don’t have to invent the next navigational paradigm with your portfolio! Well, you can if you want, but just make sure it’s intuitive and consistent.
All for one and one for all!
One of my lingering pet peeves as a design hiring manager is the occasional uncertainty over what parts of the portfolio were actually created by the candidate. Design is often a team sport, and it’s completely acceptable to be responsible for specific portions of a design, but not others. (In fact, a good demonstration of team work in itself is highly desirable). However, if it is a team project, spell out what you did, and be specific. Taking credit for other people’s work –whether implicitly or explicitly — is a big no-no, and is a disqualifying factor for me.
Content is king
The expression “content is king” has been most recently attributed to Bill Gates, but the etymology stretches further back than that. Regardless, Bill Gates wrote in 1996: “Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet, just as it was in broadcasting. The television revolution that began half a century ago spawned a number of industries, including the manufacturing of TV sets, but the long-term winners were those who used the medium to deliver information and entertainment.”
From a designer’s perspective, I think the key passage is “us(ing) the medium to deliver information…”. In this highly-social and highly-connected world, it’s not enough to have a great portfolio, you have to be out there, both seen and heard. At IBM, the measure of an employee’s “eminence” –both internally within the company and externally, across the industry — is an important contributor to career success. So, remember that your portfolio is one aspect of your eminence, but not the only one. Top designers in the industry use the internet as a platform to share their views on design, and showcase their design excellence. So, learn to write great stories of design, and share them with a wide audience!
Gord is a Senior Design Manager and Studio Manager at IBM Studios Toronto, Warden. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.