An abstract painting of a head looking at a post-it notes stuck to a wall
Illustration by Peter Dickison

How focusing on process is ruining your design portfolio

Mark Parnell
Designing Atlassian
9 min readJan 9, 2023


In 1935, 102 cane toads were introduced to Australia to control the population of cane beetles and French’s beetles that threatened the profitable sugar cane industry. Fast forward to today, there are now an estimated 200 million cane toads in Australia, an invasive plague that destroys native species and spreads disease.

A map of Australia showing that cane toads have spread across the northern third of the continent

Well-intended solutions can often backfire and have deleterious consequences. So it goes with design portfolios. In the misty past, those hiring for design roles (and especially those hiring for UX design roles) were tired of reviewing portfolios that contained only finished design work. “There it is!” the interviewee would say, and smile, confident that the work spoke for itself. Yet without any context, it was almost impossible to really judge if a piece of design work had been successful. What was the goal of the work? How did you collaborate with the client? What other directions did you try? How did customers affect the outcome? What was your personal contribution? And so on.

As a result, designers were advised to show their process in their design portfolios. As a hiring manager and as someone that has sat through scores of portfolio reviews with eager designers, the consequence of such advice has been this: too many designers now showcase their process far more than they do their designs.

It’s worth noting that while portfolios will be reviewed and candidates filtered out before any formal interview process starts (typically by recruiters) there’s usually (as there is at Atlassian) a “portfolio review” stage in the interview process, where the candidate walks the interviewers through several case studies from their past work. The design portfolio is thus much more a thing to be presented and discussed than something to be reviewed alone.

I doubt I’m alone, among design interviewers, to have sat through portfolios with endless bullet points about company context, pictures of walls of post-it notes, vague sketches, and long descriptions of how user testing was set up. This is then followed by an almost embarrassed sharing of the output at the very end, often at postage stamp sizes, before the interviewee moves on to talk about the impact of the project.

So why do I find this problematic? Isn’t it good that the onus is on the messy process of delivering good design? First, as I’ve argued before, following process is no guarantee that good design has happened. You could follow every step in the archetypal design process and still deliver subpar crap if your design decisions are poor. Second, and more importantly, as a hiring manager what I want to see from a design portfolio is that the candidate can design. Some context is still important and, to that end, some sharing of process and context is essential.

After you’ve shared some process and context, however, the majority of time spent during a portfolio review should be spent looking at your designs. And of course, not just looking at them but discussing them. Why was this solution chosen? What was the biggest trade-off you made? Why did you lay things out in the way you did? Why did you choose the nomenclature that you used? What are you least proud of in the flow? What compromises did you make due to technical limitations? I learn much more about how well you can design by seeing how well you can articulate and reflect on design decisions. I learn rather less from hoary old cliches about the design process that an interviewee thinks I want to hear.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions

How did we get to a place where process dominates nearly every design portfolio I see? I spoke to Atlassian’s recruiters and confirmed that we do emphasise that we want to see portfolios that balance process with discussion of the final designs, so I don’t think the problem lies there. I then looked at the top ~10 search results for “UX portfolio guide” to see what sort of advice designers were getting.

The advice is unanimous: focus on process! The emphasis on process varies from UX Bootcamp, which suggests…

Start by telling me what the goal of your work was and show me what the product looked like when you found it (the “beginning”). Then talk about your process, who you worked with, and in what way. Did you conduct design thinking sessions? Co-discovery? Co-design? Did you validate the designs with customers or users? Show me the sketches or wireframes or walls of post-its that you created as part of that process. Lastly, what was the final product? Show me the “end”.

…(but does go on to encourage you to share artefacts and defend design decisions) to the more extreme…

UX Design Institute

Ensure that problem-solving and process take centre stage

Remember in maths exams where you were always told to show your workings? The same applies to your UX portfolio.

In fact, this is a non-negotiable golden rule. Hiring managers want to see how you work and solve problems — it’s not enough to only show the final solution.

And so on. Here are a few more:

Career Foundry

The single most important thing you can do to make sure your UX portfolio grabs attention, regardless of your level, is this: show process.

Show you can do the graft and hard work that comes before the pretty pictures.


Now that we’ve gone through the must-have sections of a UX portfolio and some examples of effective case studies, let’s take a look at some additional tips and best practices to refer to when building your portfolio.

Showcase your process, not just the finished product. Don’t skip steps.

Document your process and include visuals in your case studies. Show your design process in action through photos, sketches, and screenshots.

Use emotive language to show empathy. This is particularly important when giving background on the problem you set out to solve.

Tie great UX back to business value (how does solving a user problem impact the business in a positive way?).


Your Approach

This is perhaps the most important section because it shows how you go from interpreting a brief to creating results-driven designs. Go over things like the research you carried out, ideation, wireframing, and design iterations. You can include screenshots of how the work evolved at every stage of the process for added impact.

So what are recruiters looking for? When it comes to the portfolio, they want you to display a variety of projects and talk about the process that you used to create your designs.


Show your process!

One more time for the people in the back; defining your process is one of the most important steps to take when seeking any UX design job. They don’t want just to see the end result; they want to know how you got there. Why? Because they want to be confident you can do it again (and again and again). All those times your mean 10th-grade math teacher made you show your work is about to all make sense. Mockups, iterations, ideation, user research, prototypes, wireframes, user flows, user testing, personas, usability testing, mood boards, style guides and anything in between all need to be shown in some way, shape or form. This is whether you’re using a portfolio site or a portfolio app. It doesn’t have to all be crammed together, it just is a lot of information the bean-counters and head honchos want to see. The type of work you’ve chosen requires it. They want to see and understand how you got from “point U” to “point X.” See what we did there…

Norman/Nielsen Group

Remember, the final screenshots only tell part of the story. Hiring managers want to understand how you work and giving them a glimpse of your process will help them envision how you fit in with their teams.

Show process images. Rather than showing the polished UI and visual designs that display company-specific information, showcase your process for these projects. Highlight communication skills like workshop facilitation or early design concepts through sketches or black-and-white wireframes.

I have more examples, but I suspect these are enough to make my point.

A better portfolio review

A couple of themes in all this advice seem clear. First, that candidates should share lots of pictures of in-progress work — sketches, walls of post-it notes, etc. As a hiring manager, I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I’ve been shown photos of walls of post-it notes. To design candidates I say: please, please stop showing walls of post-it notes in your portfolio. I can imagine what a wall of post-it notes looks like, having seen them before, and will probably believe you if that’s what you say you did. It really adds nothing to my appreciation of you as a designer.

Rows of multicoloured post-it notes stuck to a whiteboard
“But Mark, why have you included this picture of post-it notes when I can imagine what they look like”- MY POINT EXACTLY! Photo by Hugo Rocha on Unsplash

More importantly, a second theme emerges. While most advice does encourage designers to share their finished work, it is only as the end of a story, a coda to a case study that is not the most important part of what needs to be shared. So while the advice designers are getting doesn’t tell them not to focus on discussing design work, it so overwhelmingly tells them to include their design process as the core part of what they share that there is inevitably less focus on design itself.

Although just sharing finished work without any context is unacceptable, I feel the pendulum has swung so far the other way that I’m all too often not seeing designers present and discuss design during portfolio reviews. Design managers want to hire designers that can design, not simply designers that can describe a process.

I believe that hiring managers and recruiters should encourage designers to share only enough context about the problem and process for us to appreciate their designs, and then have them focus on discussing the designs and articulating the hard design decisions that they had to make. This will require us to be very explicit, given the preponderance of (in my view, not very good) advice that is out there.

Hiring managers should also look to rate candidates on a pre-defined set of skills and how these are evinced in a candidate’s portfolio — product thinking, visual design, interaction design, storytelling, etc. Doing so helps to ensure that candidates must demonstrate strong core skills before they can progress further in the hiring process.

Finally, if the role is so junior that we don’t expect candidates to have many examples of delivered design work, why request a portfolio at all? I don’t need to ask a candidate to prepare a slide deck to see if they understand a design process; if I want to see if they can design, there are more appropriate design tasks to give them than sharing a slide deck.

Guidance to design candidates

My advice to designers? Do share some process in your design portfolios, but just enough to provide hiring managers with context. Make the centrepiece of the portfolio the sharing and discussion of artefacts. If you share sketches, for instance, don’t just show a sketch in passing but discuss what interactions or features you initially explored, and what made you evolve the design. As you share the actual designs, discuss how you collaborated with the team, what parts were your repsonsibility and how user feedback shaped it. If you want us to understand your interaction design skills, share videos, click-throughs and prototypes.

Discuss more than just how the output works, and frame the discussion around the design artefacts themselves, instead of around slides of bullet points.

Guidance to design manager candidates

I have another bee in my bonnet about design manager portfolio reviews, where the design manager doesn’t discuss how they managed the team. What rituals did they set up? How did they help the team grow? Design managers: talk about how you manage in your portfolios, in addition to discussing output. We want to understand not just the craft outcomes that your team delivered, but how your management helped the team achieve those outcomes.

Ultimately, a design portfolio is for designs

When hiring designers, we have portfolio reviews precisely because we are interested in the quality of output. If all we cared about in a portfolio review was process, then there wouldn’t be portfolio reviews as such. Instead, every interview process for every role in a company would require interviewees to go through a slide deck about their previous work.

I don’t think that’s what we want from a design portfolio.



Mark Parnell
Designing Atlassian

Product designer @Atlassian. Sydney-based pedant and recovering laowai.