The portfolio you send is not the one you present

How to make your design portfolio work for you

Product designer portfolios come in all shapes and sizes, and I saw a lot of them while I was taking part in a recent Portfolio Masterclass ran by The Dots. I found myself giving the same piece of advice again and again to potential candidates:

When applying for a design role, the portfolio you send isn’t the same one you present at your interview.

The work you show may be the same, but the way you package it up at each stage should be different. To give yourself the best chance, think about the purpose and the context of your portfolio at each given stage in the hiring process.

The initial application

The purpose of your portfolio here is to get the designer looking at it excited enough to want to know more — either by inviting you for a Skype chat or an in-person interview. Design your portfolio for this outcome.

In an initial application you may get asked to submit your portfolio as a website or a PDF. There are pros and cons to both:

With a website, the viewer is free to explore and you have little control over her journey moving between pieces of work. To compensate for this, the layout you choose can encourage a desired path. Couple this with curating the selection and ordering of your work. Make it easy: lead with your best work.

Also, think about the viewer’s context in this scenario. She will be looking through a lot of portfolios. You can show loads of work, but it won’t all get seen. Make sure it is tailored to the role and company, a generic one size fits all approach won’t cut it.

Write about your process too. I’m not talking about an essay (it won’t get read) but include things like: What was your role in each piece of work? Who else worked on it? How long was the project? This is the opportunity to sell the story of how you work. At Made by Many we love to get a glimpse of how you think, so include sketches, prototypes, user research, documentation of collaborative workshops and iterations of your ideas.

But don’t forget to show the thing you designed too.

With a PDF you have more control over the narrative and order in which you want the viewer to move through your work. Take advantage of this linear format to craft your story.

Again, don’t be afraid to write about your process but use the finer control you have over how this content gets displayed. Show off your design chops. Typeset your text properly, use impactful quotes, imagery and sketches alongside your mockups.

Be selective in the number of pieces you show. With lots of portfolios for the viewer to get through, three or four is more than enough at this stage.

In-person interview

The purpose of your portfolio now is to support you during the interview. It’s you who’s being interviewed, not your portfolio.

Focus the interviewer’s attention on you and what you are saying. Drop the lengthy write-ups from the previous stage, and use them as the basis of your script. Leaving paragraphs of text on screen during an interview is an open invitation for it to be read — you risk losing your audience to your portfolio.

Instead, go big and bold. Be inventive with how you display your work. When narrating, read the room and add colour where necessary. This is something a static portfolio doesn’t afford you.

Be prepared to jump around your projects during the interview. Know your work inside out. If the interviewer asks “Can you show me some work that demonstrates your system thinking” you should know where to look.

Most of the candidates I saw at the Portfolio Masterclass made this simple mistake. They were showing a portfolio that wasn’t designed for presenting. Shift the emphasis of your portfolio at each stage to give yourself a better chance of landing the job.

Made by Many is a new type of consulting company that brings together product design, business strategy and software engineering as a unified discipline. For 10 years we’ve been helping forward-looking companies to re-imagine their customer experiences, create new models for growth and build new capabilities. See our work.

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