How to make a winning strategic /service design portfolio.

Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash

In the last few weeks I have been asked several times by students and colleagues about how to build a service / strategic design portfolio. In spite of thinking that there is no absolute answer to this question, I believe there are some basic aspects to consider when presenting our personal work as service/ strategic designers.

But firstly, let’s start from the beginning!

What is a portfolio?

The portfolio is the principal tool that we, designers, use to showcase our work. Our goal should not be showing all the projects that we have worked on, but the skills that make us special to get the desired job. We need to demonstrate what we are capable to do and what kind of value we can add to the potential employer.

What makes a strategic/ service design portfolio different from a traditional portfolio?

Since this article focuses on how to build a strategic and service design portfolio, it is important to mention that the design discipline has evolved considerably in the last decade and this has affected the way we should showcase our work.

Historically, the portfolio was used mainly by graphic designers to show their “art”. Nowadays, we are not only showing beautiful graphic pieces, but also methods, design tools, and the strategic decisions taken during the process that lead to choose and implement the “final” solution.

Wearing my future boss shoes.

An interesting exercise before starting the portfolio is to think if you were your future lead, director… What would she/he like to see about myself to hire me? It should not be difficult for us since empathy is one of our core capabilities as designers ;)

Most likely she would like to evaluate your…

1. Skills. You need to be able to show what you are capable to do: which skills you master, which ones you have applied often and which ones you are developing. Are you T-shaped or π shaped? Generalist or specialist?

2. Attitude. Your portfolio should represent you. It must project your personality. Proactive, adaptable, ready to face new challenges, curious and eager to learn… How can I do this? For instance adding a Lessons learnt section in your projects: next time I would do it differently because… This shows your critical thinking and your willingness to improve continuously.

3. Experience. Working for different industries, international clients, use of variety of design tools, project and client management skills… They seek for a balanced combination of hard and soft skills.

4. Team fit. What can you add to the team? Example: Expertise in creative facilitation, ethnography or storyboarding/ sketching. Normally service and strategic designers are generalists, so our profiles are hybrid and therefore more adaptable to the needs of the team. If you know the department you might join, you can check their profiles in Linkedin and highlight your strenghts in the specific gaps detected within the team.

Once you have imagined what your future boss might expect from your portfolio, it is time to get your hands dirty. We recommend you to follow these principles:

Keep it simple.

No more than 4 projects. Design directors do not have time to read your portfolio more than 10 minutes. It is vital to synthesize and show a selection of your projects that fit with the vacancy you are applying for and the company’s profile.

For instance if you are applying for a Digital design consultancy (e.g Fjord), it is important to show them you are able to extract important insights from qualitative research and applying those to the final digital product in specific features (user flows, app architecture…)

The process is as important as the final result.

Explaining the brief, the design process (research, synthesis, ideation, selection & validation) and the results is the basic structure to present a project. Again, the project is just the context where your skills are applied, make sure you show your superpowers. On the other hand, do not write too much, make room for questions in a later stage of the recruitment process.

Talk the same language.

Customer journey, blueprint, stakeholder mapping, generative sessions, holistic approach, ROI, … are recurrent concepts within the discipline. The usage of these terms in the portfolio let the reader understand that you are familiar with the jargon and you feel comfortable applying it in practice. However, do not fill it with buzzwords, this might penalize you, like Google algorithm does with unnecessary keywords!

Measurable Impact.

The impact of the final solution is key to demonstrate its success in the real world. We need to have measurable results of our solutions that shows that it was not just an idea. For instance, a deliverable such a CX strategy needs to be consolidated with metrics to justify its impact in the business and therefore the value added by the application of strategic/service design. As an example, Bridgeable helped Telus to get 15% improvement in end-to-end cost reduction.

Be visual my friend.

Infographics and pictures can explain complex concepts better than plain text. Pictures of co-creation sessions, usability tests, ideation workshops, prototyping sessions… with users and clients illustrate your capabilities and tell a lot about the variety of methods applied.

Think about your portfolio as a design project

You main goal is to demonstrate your strategic and service design skills, but do not forget that your portfolio will also present your writing skills, information architecture skills, eye for detail… The format is also a decision to be made. Being digital without doubt, it could be a well designed PDF, a personal website, Behance, Dribble… that depends on the designer’s taste.

To wrap up and make these recommendations more tangible, I found some good examples of strategic/ service design portfolios:

Lilith Hasbeck , Petri Pennanen, Maria Hock, Amy Lee , Judit Boros, Erika Lauro and my portfolio (and hopefully you can add more names in the comments ;))

Moreover, I recommend this interesting reading: Portfolio Advice from Mark Hurrell, head of Design at GOV. UK and this discussion on Practical Service Design Slack community about Service design portfolios.

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