Avoid these 5 things when building your design portfolio — Part 1

For some reason when working on our own design portfolio, all the things we usually praise about good design seem to be forgotten as we work on our portfolio in perfect isolation.

While reviewing many portfolios myself through Semplice, I’d like to share the 5 most common mistakes designers make when designing their portfolios. Keep in mind, these things are always relative depending on what you want to achieve. Pick the ones that are relevant to you.

1. The generic bullshit intro

As with everything you design — Question every single element and ask yourself is it really needed? While reviewing hundreds of portfolios, one of the most common things I discovered are headlines such as: “I craft meaningful experiences” or “I push perfect pixels.” combined with a random stock photo of a macbook sitting on a desk.

These intros not only take up a lot of space, but are also used by 90% of other designers and do not contribute anything to your uniqueness as a designer.

Simply remove the intro, or replace it with simple facts about who you are or your title instead of wishy washy marketing speech. I’m not saying this to bash anyone, but simply because I want you to have the best portfolio possible.

PS: Let’s make the reverse test in case you believe it works: If a client choses you just based on an empty intro, I might also ask myself if I even want to work with that kind of client.

2. Showing too much work

There are many reasons for avoiding too much work in your portfolio, but here are some reasons you might have not thought about.

a.) Wanting to show too much work is the main reason why most designers never finish their portfolio in the first place. Limiting yourself is actually a good design exercise, it makes you focus on the essentials.

b.) No one will go through all of your work, I promise.

c.) Showing too much work basically means “I have no opinion about my work, here is all the shit I did since year 1999, just sort it out for yourself.”

The process of editing your selection is the most important aspect of creating your portfolio, and it’s the process itself that will make you a better designer. Analyzing your work and thoughtfully removing projects from your portfolio is painful but also the best way to grow as a designer.

3. Unsolicited Redesigns for
Fortune500 companies

You know, I love unsolicited redesigns because they are not only a great tool for exercising your design sensibilities when just starting out, but they are also a good way to generate hype & attention in the design community. If the only reason you do them is to generate attention, keep doing them.

The point is, as a designer we shine when solving hard problems, or at least attempting to solve them. But doing a quick visual re-design of nike.com, apple.com or any other Fortune500 company is not only lazy but also easy because you’re doing it for a company that is already very successful and has fantastic assets/products to work with in the first place.

I always love to see unsolicited redesigns that are focused on real problems, companies that aren’t yet successful, products that are struggling and are neither hip or cool.

Being a good (product) designer means being a good problem solver. Cherry picking the problem is of course totally up to you, but it also reveals a lot about you and your work ethics. Unsolicited redesigns are a fantastic source to practice your skills, but focus your motivation on the problem and not the shiny brand (unless your only goal is to work for company xyz).

Please keep doing Unsolicited redesigns as an exercise because they are fun & quick to do, but in the context of building a strong portfolio I recommend avoiding it, especially if 90% of your work ends up being unsolicited redesigns.

4. Hiding your responsibilities

Let me give you a real life example: I remember reviewing a couple portfolios for a Senior Designer role. While going through some designers I found at least 6 portfolios who showcased exactly the same work for Nike.

Neither of them outlined what they actually did on the project, which of course caused trust issues immediately. Who did what? Did any one of them actually worked on it? How many more designers worked on this?

When working for bigger clients this is a common issue, but it can be solved easily by adding a detailed description about your responsibilities on each project, plus the people you collaborated with. Handle it the way movies do, with a list of detailed credits at the end.

Leaving out the details about a project usually makes the viewer suspicious, especially if I spot inconsistencies when comparing it to other projects in your portfolio which seem to differ in quality.

5. Making your portfolio a piece of art

Often we use our own website as a creative outlet. We think of it as our own creative playground where we can finally express ourselves, after all these limiting client projects. In general, there is nothing wrong with that.

We treat it as our personal experiment & without noticing it first, we created a piece of art. What we end up with is a website that is slow and playful to an extent that it becomes un-useable. If you like to get hired by certain companies, imagine the people who have to review your portfolio. Their time is usually limited and the amount of portfolios to review is a draining task.

If I need to complete a puzzle first just to find the navigation, I’m very likely to dismiss a portfolio immediately, even if the work is outstanding.

Think of your portfolio as the space in a museum.
Clean, easy to navigate & with full focus on the work itself.

Focusing on the usability of your portfolio is as much as important as the work you like to showcase.

While this sounds almost too obvious, it’s still one of the main reasons why so many portfolios get rejected during the review process.

Conclusion

If you avoid these 5 things above you’re probably on a pretty good way to build a fantastic & effective showcase of your work.

Please reach out to me on Twitter if you have any questions or comments, which I’m sure you have. (:

Keep on rocking,
Tobias

I’m Tobias, a Product Design Lead at Spotify NYC. Founder of Semplice, Advisor & UX at memomi — www.vanschneider.com