3 Steps to a Design Portfolio That Tells Your Story

Your design portfolio is about more than your finished work: it’s a place to showcase your process and passion.

More talented designers are coming on the scene every year, turning up the heat in an already competitive hiring market. Leading employers are raising the bar: today, even the most impressive design skills aren’t enough to set candidates apart from the crowd. To find the best fits for their projects, teams, and cultures, forward-thinking companies are looking deeper.

If there’s one major trend my colleagues and I are seeing in the design job market, it’s that non-technical qualities like creative problem solving and emotional intelligence are rising to the top of companies’ hiring criteria. Hiring managers are thinking less about the design itself, and more about design thinking — shifting their focus from what you do to how you do it.

You may think of these as “soft” or intangible skills, but in reality they’re not soft at all — and they do drive tangible results. At the end of the day, it’s these strengths that separate qualified candidates from amazing ones; and when it comes to showcasing them, your portfolio is your most valuable asset.

Whether or not you’re seeking a new job, taking your portfolio in a more holistic direction is a valuable opportunity to reflect on your approach, your differentiators, and why you love what you do. In an industry where evolution is essential, that’s always a good thing!

Ready to get started? Here are the 3 most effective ways to create a portfolio that goes beyond your work itself — and tells the story that makes you one of a kind

1. Highlight your “how.”

Humans are naturally drawn to stories — and that includes hiring managers! The most important upgrade to make to your portfolio this year is to shift your focus from product to process. After all, it’s not your past work that will translate to your next job; it’s the way you approach a complex problem and see it through to a successful solution.

Hiring managers are thinking less about the design itself, and more about design thinking — shifting their focus from what you do to how you do it.

If you’re not already familiar with the S.T.A.R. method, it’s time to be. This framework — situation, task, action, result — can be applied to virtually any type of work, and is your best friend when it comes to turning static artifacts into compelling narratives. S.T.A.R. brings forward the most important parts of the project, and helps demonstrate your focus on business objectives and measurable results.

Guide your audience on these journeys using both text and images. Hold onto work product like sketches, wireframes, user flows, mood boards, and prototypes, as these are perfect ways to illustrate your thought process and work style.

Not an amazing writer? Not a problem: flowery language isnât just unnecessary in your project descriptions – it can be distracting. Focus on clarity, and of course, always proofread. If you can quickly give the reader the core information they care about, you’re already ahead of the game.Â

2. Express your personal brand, but don’t let it run the show.

Your design portfolio should leave your audience with a sense of who you are as an individual: the strengths, interests, values, and point of view that set you apart from others in your field. Incorporating your personal brand into your portfolio can be a huge asset – as long as you strike the right balance.

I see two kinds of mistakes here: generic portfolios that lack a distinctive voice, and overly personalized ones in which the designer him or herself overshadows their work. The key to getting it right? Instead of “me, me, me,” think “me and you.” As my colleague Danielle Henderson Evans explains in her awesome guide to personal branding, this isn’t just about self-description; the point is to convey the unique value you bring to the people and companies you work with.

For starters, don’t lead with a huge photo of yourself or a long introduction on your home page. Open with a concise sentence or two about who you are and what you do, and put the rest of your “about me” content in a separate section. The viewer can go there to learn more, and they’re most likely to do that once you’ve already drawn them in through your project stories.

Is there a certain company or type of company you’d love to work for? Take a look at the “values” or “beliefs” sections of their websites. If their outlook strongly aligns with yours, keep this information in mind as you shape your portfolio content. But of course, be yourself: if you simply parrot their values, or shoehorn your brand into what you think your dream company wants, you won’t be helping anyone.

3. Show that you’re constantly evolving.

Especially as a designer, your portfolio is an extension of your work — so use it to show that you’re on the pulse of the latest industry developments. Today’s leading companies are constantly moving forward, and they need people who have what it takes to evolve with them.

Keep revisiting your design portfolio throughout your career — not just to update your work, but to make sure that the aesthetic, areas of focus, and overall feel are still true to who you are.

As you curate your work samples, pick projects that demonstrate your knowledge of emerging technologies and trends. Focus on digital rather than print projects, and include mobile work if you have it. Hybrid skill sets are increasingly in demand, so highlight projects that brought out your breadth and versatility.

In every aspect of your portfolio, think hard about ease and accessibility. A user-first approach is critical in all of today’s hottest design jobs — so even if you’re not pursuing a job in UX, your portfolio needs to embody these principles. Your website should function flawlessly on a range of devices, as many hiring managers and recruiters will be looking at it on their phones.

Above all else, keep revisiting your design portfolio throughout your career — not just to update your work, but to make sure that the aesthetic, areas of focus, and overall feel are still true to who you are. Remember: once your stellar portfolio lands you the interview, you’ll have to take it from there by bringing it to life. Be prepared to talk about your process in even greater depth, and to explain your design choices clearly and confidently.

Ready for your refresh? Take these three steps, and you’ll quickly see an improvement in your portfolio and employability.