12 Rules for Designing the Most Engaging Portfolio

Lalatendu Satpathy
Oct 26, 2020 · 8 min read

When you are looking for a new position and presenting yourself and your work to a diverse group of audiences, how do you connect with them? How do you engage them throughout your portfolio presentation? What are the ah-ha moments they will remember while they are making their hiring decision? These are some of the fundamental questions you need to consider before designing your portfolio.

The best way to answer some of these questions is through storytelling. Remember, you are the character of your story, so how do you ensure that your audience will like you, admire you, and would love to work with you?

Emma Coats, Pixar’s Storyboard artist, shared some of her observations and insights in a series of tweets on storytelling. I found these lessons/quotes to be beneficial for storytelling while making your portfolio. All the quotes in this article are from her tweets, and hopefully, this will give you a framework for designing your portfolio.

#1 You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.

Audience cheering
Audience cheering
Source: pexels.com

This way, you will engage the audience and ensure they have the answers to their questions from your portfolio.

#2 What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

A photo from Bug Life
A photo from Bug Life
Source: Pixar.com

The essence of your story is the meat of your portfolio. Take out anything that is not important for the story, and show your audience why they should care for you. If you are looking for a leadership position, make leadership the main focus of your portfolio. If you are looking for a product designer position, show designs where you have made the most significant impact. At the end of your interview, you should leave a long-lasting impression in their mind.

#3 You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

A photo from movie Moana
A photo from movie Moana
Source: Disney.com

Don’t focus only on mocks or processes; show your audience how did you get there. What were your struggles, and how did you overcome them? Make it real. People will remember your struggle and cheer for your success.

#4 Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

A photo from movie moana.
A photo from movie moana.
Source: Disney.com

Start your portfolio in a word document without any mocks or graphics. Write your portfolio as a story. Create a theme for your portfolio and write with your best ending. Now read it aloud and record your story. Listen to your story. If you don’t like it, rewrite it. It’s easy to rewrite in a word document instead of changing your portfolio.

#5 Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

Image for post
Image for post
Source: Finding Dory.” (Pixar/Disney via AP)

Even, though, this may not apply literally to your projects. But, the essence of this rule is to bring empathy and show the struggle. When you are talking about your project, tell your audience what the struggle people were facing before your solution and how heroically you solved the problem.

#6 What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

A photo from Toy Story 4
A photo from Toy Story 4
Source: pixar.com

Apart from all the things you are good at, show them what you were not good at and how you struggled, and finally overcome it. For example, you always struggle with research, and you didn’t have a researcher to work on your project. The research was very critical for the success of your project. You tried it yourself. You struggled and learned from your mistakes and finally got something that added value to your project. Show them how you went above and beyond to achieve something.

#7 Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

A photo from WallE
A photo from WallE
Source: pixar.com

Before you decide which projects to choose, write down all the projects you have done and ask yourself why you must show the project? How is this project aligned with your story? What is the heart of the project, and why should your audience care about it?

#8 What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

A photo from movie Brave
A photo from movie Brave
Source: pixar.com

Tell the audience why you are showing the projects and telling the story behind them. Show them quantitative and qualitative data to show what was at stake. Please give them a reason why they should listen to your story and cheer for you. Bring some real quotes from users or stakeholders telling you what was at stake and how your project changed their lives or how they work.

#9 Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

The last scene from disney movie Frozen
The last scene from disney movie Frozen
Source: Disney.com

Most of the portfolio I have reviewed ends abruptly with a thank you slide or a summary slide. Think about it, if you were making a movie for Pixar, do you think your audience will like it when you end the movie with a summary. The answer is a big NO. At the end of your portfolio review or interview, they will remember the beginning and the end of the story. So, if your ending is boring, that is what they will remember. So, before you get deeper into your story, start with a theme and work on the ending first, which is difficult, and that is why you should start from there. Make your ending memorable.

#10 Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

A work in progress photo from Toy Story 4
A work in progress photo from Toy Story 4
Source: pixar.com

It’s essential to get started and not focus on perfection. Remember, the key is the story and not all the details to start with. Make sure you are telling the story in a way that will keep the audience engaged. They feel the pain when the character is struggling and smile when the character is happy. So, don’t worry if you are not getting all the details correct. You can always do better next time.

#11 Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

A sketch photo of Toy Story 4 showing Andy’s desk
A sketch photo of Toy Story 4 showing Andy’s desk
Source: pixar.com

Remember, this is your story, and you are the hero of this story. Pull apart all the projects you want to present, find out what you like in them. Now, go back to the story you have written in your word document. See where they fit in. Throw away anything not fitting to the theme of your story.

#12 Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

Image for post
Image for post
Source: pixar.com

Once you have your story and all the supporting artifacts for your story, put them on a storyboard. Again, you don’t need any PowerPoint or keynote: just paper and a pencil. Now, tell your story and record it. Listen to your own story. Find out the gaps and update your storyboard. It’s important to get your story on a paper; as Ema Coats says, it is never coming out if it stays in your head.

This is an ongoing process and will need a few iterations before you can perfect it. So, if your story is not perfect yet, let it go and come back to in again.

Finally, once your story is done, please put them in your presentation. Then, the final step is to practice. Remember, storytelling is also about how you tell the story. So, practice, practice, and practice. Record your presentation and listen to it.

Here is a final tip, don’t go and interview with companies you want to work with. Start with companies you are not sure of and use them as your practice ground, and once you are ready, interview for your dream job.

Summary

Here are the rules we discussed in this article.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +756K people. Follow to join our community.

Lalatendu Satpathy

Written by

Design Director @ SAP | Architect | Writer for UX Collective and The Startup

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +756K people. Follow to join our community.

Lalatendu Satpathy

Written by

Design Director @ SAP | Architect | Writer for UX Collective and The Startup

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +756K people. Follow to join our community.

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