Good designers write portfolio case studies. Great designers write stories.
Put yourself in the shoes of a designer interviewer for a second.
Their main goal is to understand if there’s evidence in a candidate’s past that demonstrates they could be the right fit for their company. Their imperfect company. Their organization where there are challenges and where things go wrong, where there’s a stated culture, including how designers work with peers.
Now they’re probably reviewing hundreds of portfolios a month, trying to find clues to paint a picture of each prospective designer.
How could you cut through the noise and help the interviewer do their job? Ultimately, you’ll benefit from it by getting a new opportunity.
You’ve probably already read articles about building a design portfolio. If you haven’t, I’ll save you some time: don’t show design visuals alone. User experience is way more than how things look and feel. You also have to write about processes, challenges, teamwork, the result… which are generally captured in a case study format.
Better opportunities found my way when I took things to the next level by writing stories instead of use cases on my portfolio. Interviewers, podcasters, and online journalists were able to glimpse who I am as a person. Not just my designer side.
Understand the difference between a story and a case study.
A case study generally describes a project and the process of designing for it. While I agree with this definition, I find many people only emphasize the positives of their work. They jump to the solution, and their readers get half of the story.
A compelling story covers the project and process but also covers:
- The business impact of the people problem you solved
- What happened around the project
- How you think about design
- Your work and self values
- Your interaction with other people
- Your trade-offs and push-backs
- What went wrong in the project, and how you overcame it
- The impact on the audience both short and long term
- The effect on the design maturity of your company
- What you learned from this project that changed your behavior
It boils down to a better representation of your full-self as opposed to just your work-self.
Portfolio’s stories cut through the noise because they help interviewers access essential information in a digestible way. They show who you are as a person and what your values are. They make it easier to picture what it would be like to collaborate with you. Culture and human factors are critical when it comes to working with someone.
Show what went wrong.
I mentioned case studies only emphasizing the positives of a project, which sounds valuable, but I find them counterproductive.
When I read uses cases on designers’ portfolios, they tend to illustrate the perfect design process. Everything went perfectly according to plan. No challenges. A joyful ride.
While it’s tempting to write such perfect use cases omitting what went wrong as an attempt to present the best version of oneself, it’s best to resist that temptation.
First, it’s hard to believe everything went so well. Second, interviewers need to know how designers react in a real-life environment where things are messy and complicated, where it’ll be impossible to execute a perfect design plan.
People stand out when they highlight struggles, challenges, and how they overcame them.
My stories show that I don’t always have the time or resources I need. Sometimes I can’t talk to customers, get qualitative data, or design the best solutions because of technical limitations. I talk about arranging research while researchers are on holiday…
These stories unblocked conversations with journalists or recruiters that I couldn’t have had in the past when I was only writing positive case studies.
Write only two or three stories.
I recommend only write two or three stories, more than that can backfire, showing how you struggle to select and rank your own work. If readers have too many options to pick from, they will face choice paralysis and prioritize your design work themselves.
One or two good stories are usually enough to convince an interviewer to reach out. Understand portfolios get your foot in the door, so there’s no need to give all information upfront. Your goal is to get that first interview.
Switch your perspective
Writing stories is design work. Stories make an interviewer’s job easier by showing off the person and not just the project. If you’d abstract this, it’s solving a person’s problem by easing access to crucial information, a usual design task!
Therefore if you’re a designer, you’re well-equipped to write your stories. You just have to switch your perspective and see writing for your portfolio as a design project — one of the most impactful of your career.
If you’re currently interviewing for a job or prospecting, stories give you a competitive advantage to be noticed by an interviewer. You’ll also have prepared facts to answer behavioral questions, showing the world not just what work you did but how and why you succeeded.