5 Things Designers Should Spend Time On Besides Your Design Portfolio
The design portfolio has amazingly elbowed its way into becoming the single most valuable piece of work a designer must create and maintain to have a successful career in UX design. I have touched on this subject before and proudly show my own portfolios from years past. I advise students and give workshops on how to make portfolios compelling. But behind all of this i have a nagging belief that:
Design portfolios are overrated
At first glance this reads like clickbait (though, this already made an appearance in a very clickbait-y article a few weeks ago). But to be clear, I’m not saying design portfolios aren’t important, only that we put entirely too much emphasis on their value to a student’s job aspirations, or a designer’s career success.
Why design portfolios are overrated
Before highlighting more valuable activities for job-seeking designers, I need establish what portfolios don’t do well.
For the designers, portfolios over-emphasize proving value and competency in the hiring process. Of all my design hires, reviewing the portfolio is a tiny piece of the process. In fact most UX designers will find themselves interviewing with non-designers who pay little attention to a portfolio. After all, why would a lead developer care how good your portfolio is if they don’t believe they can collaborate with you? A product manager cares little about your visual design if they don’t believe you know how to translate business requirements into product. Portfolios don’t help you establish rapport with cross-functional teams.
Portfolios also don’t help you find good opportunities to begin with. A beautiful portfolio isn’t worth much if you haven’t spent the time finding the opportunity that matches your skillset.
Portfolios also don’t help communicate a lot of the soft skills that go with the design practice: communication, writing, presenting, etc.
As a designer, I worried constantly about my portfolio when I was looking for a new job. And as I peruse dribbble and Designer News, or talk to design students, I continue hearing how critical portfolios are. But ironically, as a hiring manager I don’t think about them as much. Sure portfolios are important, but I can’t say that those designers I’ve hired often had better portfolios than the dozens I didn’t hire. And as I analyze the time I spend in a hiring process, evaluating a portfolio probably accounts for less than 10% of the process. But I imagine job-seeking designers probably spend 80% of their time working on the portfolio.
This is what I want to help correct with this article. I want to help designers see that there are other activities to focus on when searching for opportunities that can have as great (or greater) impact on resulting in getting great design jobs.
Before spending hours honing your portfolio design, get better at writing. I started writing regularly after about 10 years in the field because I wanted to share what I’d learned with others. In that process I started to uncover what my beliefs and principles were. It also forced me to unravel my rationale for doing things the way I do. I wish I had done this sooner because it would have helped me articulate my design beliefs and process much sooner.
Portfolios can help you get these things out but the writing is typically centered on the project rather than you as the designer. Having some well-written pieces can help excite a potential employer as much or more than a portfolio. You can get a much clearer sense for a designer’s expertise through their writing and worldview than a pretty portfolio.
2. Finding the right opportunity
I’ve written more about this in my comprehensive guide to finding great UX jobs and it’s worth reiterating here because it is so often overlooked by designers. Often designers decide they’re ready to leave or looking for a new opportunity and then start asking around for companies that are hiring. They then spend most of their free time honing their portfolio.
Carve out some portfolio time digging deep into writing down:
- What you’re looking for.
- What type of company you want to work for.
- What you love to do in a design position.
Then start finding opportunities that truly match up to what you write down. For example, if you write down a company like Google, what does that really mean? Do you want to be on a research team, design systems, product? Is there a product in particular you want to work on? Can you identify who the managers are for the team you want to work with? Do you understand what skills those teams value and how yours match up?
The hypothetical questions are endless but the point is that finding the right opportunities is much more work than most designers understand and that spending more time honing in on the right opportunities is as much, or more, important than a stellar design portfolio.
3. Building a network
I get requests from designers weekly asking for me to look at their portfolios and give them feedback. I got tired of repeating myself so I wrote an article helping designers understand how to position themselves effectively with a portfolio. What I don’t get much of is designers asking for help or advice when looking for good jobs. The most I typically get is, “Hey are you hiring at Innovatemap?” I reply, “No, but thanks for your interest.*” The designer then never responds and probably just goes onto the next agency they found in a dribbble or google search.
Hold on a second, did I say I’m never hiring? Yes, I did. Yet somehow we’ve grown our agency from 5 to 21 in four years so clearly we do hire. The truth is that I’m never hiring because when I need to fill a role, I already know who I want to hire. The best teams operate like this, which means that the best opportunities never really exist.
I only know who I want to hire because I’m always networking with designers. I wish designers did the same thing on a regular basis. Good hiring managers know they can’t only network when they have a role to fill, the best designers know they can’t only network when they need a job. Reach out to senior designers and managers and ask if you can buy them coffee to learn about what their team is working on. If they’re busy, ask if there are designers on their team they could introduce you to. Hell, ask if you can job shadow.
And don’t just limit yourself to designers. A lot of great opportunities will start with other teams; a product manager new to UX that has never hired a person. A founder looking for help on design but doesn’t have the time to post a role or hire a recruiting agency. You get the idea. Branch out, start conversations.
4. Seeking mentorship
Networking to make connections isn’t the only thing you should focus on when networking. For those same designers asking me for feedback on portfolios, I’d advise asking me for professional advice. I have no interest in giving advice on a portfolio, but if you ask me a couple targeted questions that I can answer, I’ll spend the time to reply.
Designers need to spend more time seeking mentorship than getting portfolio critique. If you have a great portfolio but you are a mess when it comes to presenting, then all the work you put in the portfolio ends up being a waste. But if you are aware that you aren’t great at presenting, then ask others how you can improve, then work on that more than your portfolio. The secondary benefit to this approach is that by reaching out to designers for advice, you will also be networking and possibly opening yourself up for opportunities down the road. If a designer starts connecting with me, I may not end up having a position to fill, but I’m always happy to make a connection to someone who does.
5. Finding opportunities where you currently work
This won’t work for everyone’s situation. Sometimes you just reach the end of the line at your job, or you want to leave for reasons independent of your current employer (or you’re a student who doesn’t have a job to leave, in which case you should read this to reference later). But for the rest of you, it’s worth exploring every opportunity you have before leaving. For example, if you want to explore opportunities to do more research, what better way to prepare yourself than to start doing it more where you already are? It‘s easier to find a role that requires a new skillset if you’ve gotten a chance to build that skillset up at your current position, than it is to convince someone you can do something you don’t have any experience with.
Portfolios are important, but they are overrated. Like a resume, you have to have one in UX, but be careful not to put effort into portfolios at the expense of other activities that will help you find fabulous jobs. For every hour you spend on a portfolio, spend one on writing, networking, finding good opportunities, and getting mentorship. And before you ever leave a job, make sure you have maximized your existing one. Expanding your toolset for finding jobs will result in better opportunities and ultimately you will become a stronger designer because of it.