How to design your portfolio review to get the job you deserve: Tales from the other side of the recruiting table.

Sammy J ready with his portfolio presentation. (Pulp Fiction,

First, some background.

Three months ago, during dinner-time, without any dinner, I was knee deep in the fully reclined seatback in front of me on a plane from Texas back to Providence, Rhode Island. I now live in Austin, a place with the unique distinction of being able to drive for 5 hours straight in any given direction without nearing a border.

“The best country in the USA.” (

I was flying back for portfolio reviews, looking forward to returning to my alma mater RISD (Rhode Island School of Design). I chose the college after visiting many other universities and art schools, and one of the things that struck me was the breadth and audacity of the work I saw around campus. I still think of the admissions tour winding around laser-cut life-size NASA modules and pierced feather-earringed printmakers. The sun shone warm and the future was rainbows.

I remember the fragile nervous hope I felt when I submitted my portfolio, the disappointment of rejection from other schools, and finally my disbelief with my acceptance — I didn’t touch the ground for weeks. The leap from college to working life is in its own way brave and wonderfully tangible, but I was excited to be back amongst the making again.

A weird thing happened over the course of many days reviewing work at RISD. The discursive, boundary-pushing, zig-when-others-zag creativity became the baseline for my expectations, and what caught my eye was rigor. To define it more precisely: intelligence comprehensively applied to answer a question.

I realized in the less than two years since I graduated, my thinking about problem-solving had fundamentally changed. To surprise with cleverness and dazzle with uniqueness is a great feat, but I gained a lot more respect for the ability to sit down with the intention of answering a question, designing a method, and adapting it over days, weeks, or sometimes even months to deliver an answer. And because your users are constantly changing (personas are never done!) your process has to scale with you.

Sol LeWitt: All about that process. (Sol LeWitt, Wall Painting,

In much the same way that artists make the leap from outcome-centered to process-driven, I see this not as a rejection of what I learned in school but rather an evolution. If RISD taught me to curiously make and explore, IBM Design taught me how to relentlessly plan and adapt.

Across that recruiting table, I’m looking for people who share that interest.

The Review.

When I review design portfolios, I’m excited when people talk about user research. Just as you need to listen before you speak, you have to understand before you design.

Here are some considerations to kickstart that understanding:
You are the designer, your mind is the product, and I am your user.

your design prompt:

How can you best improve my user experience as a portfolio reviewer?

your user:

Yours truly worked a full day the previous day before leaving just early enough to catch a 5:40 pm flight that landed today at midnight.

your constraints:

  • We are in a large room, and there will likely be someone talking loudly right beside you.
  • However many bars of wifi you see, it will soon bear the load of an entire graduating class trying to load their squarespaces at the same time.
  • I have all of 10 mins to make an uncomfortable amount of assumptions about you from your presentation and make a decision. The quicker and easier it is for me to get to the most relevant work, the better off we both are. Prioritize your work so that if we do run out of our wonderful but brief time together, I’ll remember the best and most relevant work first. Two to three projects is realistic. On that note, there is no need to walk through each iteration and permutation you tested, just the ones that provided crucial insights for your end product.
  • I don’t expect everyone to have read all the job descriptions (researcher, UX designer, visual, FED) but the more you know ahead, the more precious time you can spend communicating your design process, confidence, fire-in-the-eyes, etc. instead of me communicating things that can be found on our website. A good thing to shoot for is you talking for at least two thirds of the whole ten minutes.
  • Finally, even if I’m just reviewing your portfolio application remotely, same goes — I have the same amount of time, just have less context about who you are and what I should look at first.
One thousand full-bleed Squarespaces descend upon you. (300,

your product:

ie: your mind and your thinking process.

  1. What was the question you were trying to answer/solve?
    Frame the problem. When I see the constraints it was applied within, I can see your creativity more clearly.
  2. Why did you choose the method you did?
    Why is this the most impactful/efficient way to solve it?
  3. What did you discover and make?
    What interesting and actionable thing did you discover? It needs to be non-obvious to have value — if I could have guessed it, someone likely wouldn’t have prioritized the time and money for you to research and design it.
  4. How does it work?
    Bonus points for showing solid consideration behind the guts of how a product, service, or system would work IRL. What do you foresee being easy or a major friction point?

your other product:

ie: you as a potential collaborator.

In addition to your work, I really care about how you do your work. By that I mean knowing: 1.) what you are passionate about, 2.) how you collaborate, and yes 3.) how you respond. This can be communicated through the presentation of your work and also when I ask questions.

  1. What you are passionate about.
    This is obvious, but knowing what drives you helps me understand what kinds of problems you like solving. We’re both hoping we have the same things in mind, but like most relationships, it’s honestly better for both of us to find out sooner rather than later if it’s not.
  2. How you collaborate.
    Thinking transparently means being very open with your ideas and being able to explain your whole thought process. It strikes me as both humble and useful when designers mention caveats in their method of inquiry or design. On the opposite end of transparency it is possible to expose your audience to too much, but like a good museum curator, your job here is to shield from the unnecessary and distracting. Interesting facts are fun, but if I am learning about something that does not in some way help me understand you or your thinking process, it is a waste of time and a disservice to you. 
    Objective agility is not only a lack of defensiveness, but also the ability to hop on other people’s trains of thought. Defend your ideas with the conviction that you did it the best way you knew how, but be open to feedback and quickly move, ideate, and build with your critics.
  3. How you answer questions.
    How do you respond to the unexpected? Don’t worry about speed here, quick wits and nimble neurons are great for navigating unruly workshops and improvising during user interviews, but that’s only a fraction of actual day-to-day work, and can be largely addressed with good planning. Listening objectively and responding thoughtfully is always a good strategy. Never be afraid to restate what you heard in your own words, it actually helps me (and users) to be confident that you understand and care about precision.
    How do you adapt to difficult questions that broaden scope or grapple with strategy? ex:
  • If you were the CEO of a company that made this product — what do you foresee as being the biggest challenges to getting this from an idea to a tangible product on the market?
  • If I was an investor — how is this objectively different and better than what is out there?
  • What is/how does this inform strategy? — I saw a lot of social impact-focused projects this year, which I am so tremendously happy about, but I especially appreciate if you can present a solid business logic beyond should to can be self-sustaining because…

In summary:

You are an awesome designer and have no doubt ruthlessly applied thoughtful design to everything else in your portfolio, now do it for the thing that will get you a job, dammit.

Your prompt: How can you best improve my user experience as a portfolio reviewer?
Your user: Me, the reviewer.
Your constraints: time, time, and less time.
Your product: Your thought process & how you collaborate.

Apply the same empathy, creativity, and rigor you do with your projects to how you present your portfolio, and your interviewers will reward you in return.

At the beginning the briefcase was your portfolio, this time its your illustrious career in designing enterprise software. (Pulp Fiction,

* * *

Josh Shiau is a User Researcher and Designer for IBM Watson Health. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions. He lives in a mud hut in Austin, Texas and loves to chat about community, culture, and creating. Say hello!

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