5 Ways to Improve Your Design Portfolio Today
Lessons learned from screening hundreds of candidates for top tech companies
I just got home from a speed-dating-style design mentorship event, and I’m equal parts exhausted and energized. I’m exhausted because I’m an introvert, and talking to strangers for two hours is physically and emotionally depleting. I’m energized because talking with students and early-career designers reminds me why I got into this field.
One thing stuck out to me at this event, and it validated what I’ve been seeing for years: Portfolios often focus on the wrong things and are too damn long.
Here is the advice I gave to young designers tonight, which I want to give to all designers looking for feedback on their portfolios.
A quick note before diving in: This advice is largely geared towards building a stand-out online portfolio. There are different objectives and contexts for sharing an online portfolio and an in-person portfolio review. I believe the goal of an online portfolio is to quickly catch the attention of a recruiter or hiring manager and entice them to reach out. The goal of an in-person portfolio review is to dive into one or two projects and provide much more detail about the problem, the solution and how you got from one to the other. Therefore, some of the strongest candidates I’ve come across have created two versions of each portfolio item.
1. Focus on product thinking and craft
At a glance, your portfolio project should convey that you are a strong product thinker and your designs possess a high level of polish and craft. The candidates I see most often proceed to the next round are especially solid in product thinking, interaction design and visual design, in addition to other skills.
When looking at a portfolio project, here is the (non-exhaustive) list of things I am looking out for as an interviewer:
- What is the human problem you’re solving?
- How do you know it’s a real human problem (i.e. what research insights or data backs it up)?
- Why does the business care about this? What business metrics or outcomes might the solution affect?
- What was the actual outcome of this work?
- Was it successful? Did you meet or exceed the business metrics? If not, why?
- Knowing what you know now, what might you go back and do differently?
- Did you work within existing pattern libraries or OS guidelines? Or did you develop something new? Either way, why?
- How did the use of color, typography and other design choices help you solve the problem you identified?
- Do you have rationale for each design decision, big and small?
- What was the hardest interaction design problem you came across?
- How many iterations did you go through? How did you choose the end solution?
- What is one example of how this started out more complex and you simplified it over time?
- How do you use design to guide the user to an intended outcome?
- Did you prototype the flow, adding motion design to ensure it’s a quality experience?
This is a lot to cover, and adding it all would create a pretty long portfolio. Consider what is most important to show on an online portfolio. And be sure to have answers to these questions, and more, in person.
1. To reduce the length of your portfolio, try focusing only on product thinking, visual design and interaction design.
2. If you want to highlight your interaction design skills, include a prototype with micro-interactions and animations. It shows a level of craft and attention to detail that is desirable in a well-rounded designer.
2. Be interactive, not static
Prototyping used to be icing on the cake; it has become table-stakes. There are two main types of prototyping: clickable static mocks using a tool like InVision, or rich animations and motion design using tools like Origami or Framer. Clickable static mocks are fine and serve a purpose. But when I’m trying to determine level of craft, I want to see rich, animated prototypes.
Taking it one step further — when possible — include demos of the app or website in production. On a spectrum with sketches on the left and prototypes and production apps on the right, lean toward the right.
1. If you aren’t already, familiarize yourself with tools like Origami, Framer or Principle.
2. To gain inspiration for what is possible, browse Dribbble, where designers often upload interesting new motion design concepts.
3. Include a prototype with every portfolio project.
3. Choose your projects wisely
Your portfolio doesn’t need to have 20+ projects. In fact, it shouldn’t. Select three to five projects that showcase you as a well-rounded product designer. Maybe one project is heavy on product thinking and strategy, while another exhibits your visual and motion design skills.
For an in-person portfolio review, when you only have 30 minutes, it’s best to structure it like this:
Project 1 (15 minutes)
This should be a big, meaty project and should highlight you as a generalist. During this project you worked with the product manager to define the strategy. You developed some frameworks for how to think about the problem. Maybe you worked with others, but you had a hand in the entire design process and launched a feature or product.
Project 2 (7 minutes)
This should be a smaller project, or only focus on one part of a larger project. Instead of walking through all of your contributions, highlight one. Share exciting visual design explorations you made, or new innovative motion design interactions you prototyped.
Project 3 (2 minutes)
This is a single slide with a prototype. It’s the metaphorical mic drop. For example: “Oh yeah, and with a few weeks left before the project deadline, we designed and developed a companion Apple Watch app. It received 30,000 downloads and led to a 3% increase in our business goal.”
Between starting 2 minutes late (because it always happens), and leaving 4 minutes for questions, you will just barely fit this all into your 30 minute window.
1. Don’t showcase too many projects in your portfolio. Pick the top 3–5 with each highlighting a different aspect of you as a designer.
2. For in-person interviews, spend time deep-diving into one project, less on a second, and only a minute or two on a third.
4. Don’t talk about your process
Of all my advice, this will be the most controversial — but hear me out. I have conducted hundreds of interviews, and the number one mistake I see made is too much emphasis on process. At times, interviewees will spend half their time on process to the neglect of more important points.
Specifically, I see a lot of photos of people putting sticky notes on walls, sketches on napkins and diagrams of well-known design processes.
Don’t get me wrong, these are things you should do. The problem: They’re things all designers are expected to do, so talking about it is wasting time. The truth is, good process doesn’t always lead to good design, so I say skip it.
1. In your online portfolio, don’t spend more than a sentence on your process.
2. Include more detail about your process if it is somewhat unique or important to the outcome.
5. Tell a story, not an outline
The purpose of an online portfolio is to get a recruiter or a hiring manager just interested enough to want to talk to you in person. I did a random audit of design portfolios from new to experienced designers and found that the average portfolio project is over 1,300 words.
But length alone is not an issue. Almost every portfolio I see has the same format. They look and read like an outline, not a well-crafted story. They always have a header, followed by a paragraph and an image repeated over and over. These sections often include:
- Project Overview: Design Challenge, My Role, Problem (People and Business)
- Design Process: Competitive Analysis, Heuristic Review, User Research, User Personas, User Stories, Affinity Diagramming, Usability Testing
- Solution: Sketches, Flow Diagrams, Wireframes, Design Specs, Prototype
- Outcome: Metrics, Retrospective / What I Learned
This list makes it easy to understand why the average portfolio project length is 1,300 words. But hiring managers and recruiters are sifting through tens or hundreds of resumes and portfolios each week. Think about the hours, days and weeks you spent meticulously documenting your process and solution only to find out — or likely not find out — that not a single person has read it in its entirety.
Finally, this outline format makes for somewhat uninteresting reading. Instead, tell a story, focusing on the most interesting and impactful parts of the project. Grab the reviewer’s attention and convey the major points at the beginning, in case they don’t read through to the end.
My format preference is a brief description of the project that touches on the problem, the solution and the outcome (user and/or business), paired with a prototype. Because this is often not enough space to tell the full story, a “learn more” button or link to the full write-up is often necessary. But again, the hiring manager will likely not click that.
This can all be summed up as: Tell a cohesive story. It should have a beginning, middle and end. More than anything, it should be interesting and get people excited to learn more about you.
1. Challenge yourself to edit down the length of your portfolio projects. Can you get it down to 500 words? 200 words? 100 words?!
2. How would you explain your portfolio project to someone not in the technology or design field? How would you explain it to a child? These thought exercises will likely lead you to more of a narrative than an outline format.
3. Try fitting everything noteworthy “above the fold,” or at least before you think most people would drop off.
4. Try telling the story of each project using only four elements from the list above: problem, solution, prototype and outcome.
More than anything, be yourself
Of course, a lot of this is over-generalized and might not always make sense given your specific situation or goal. But this is advice I have given so often that it finally made sense to write it down.
So take my advice with a grain of salt and be your authentic self. Share your work with passion and others will be excited to work with you. Please comment and let me know if it has helped you or if you have any questions.
Special thanks to Tri D. for his brilliant illustration work.