As a designer, your portfolio might be the single most important tool you have to help showcase your talent and land a job in your field. In most job openings for design positions, there is a request to send along a link to your online portfolio. And when it is not explicitly spelled out, if the position requires you to create designs, it is often simply expected that you have an online portfolio to share. If someone is hiring a designer they’ve not worked with before and is not interested in seeing the applicant’s portfolio, I would proceed with caution. To me, this would be a sign that the person — or the company — does not value design or the design process enough to check the quality of the applicants.
What goes into your portfolio?
The short answer is: your best work. But it is not as simple as that. A good portfolio will not only attract prospective employers’ and clients’ attention, but also communicates what your soft and hard skills, core values, and passions are. First and foremost, your portfolio is a selling tool that helps you promote your talent as a designer. But it’s also a tool that can help you ensure that you find your ideal employment opportunities or freelance clients — not just any old paying clients, the ideal ones. Tuning your portfolio to not just land you a job, but to land you your dream job is critical for your career growth and motivation. So, let’s begin.
The single most important portfolio advise I’ve had was: include in your portfolio the kind of work you want to do. This means if you are looking to design books, the vast majority (preferably all) of your portfolio projects should be about book design. If you’re looking to do UX, then your projects should be about UX. If you’re looking to do branding, then you should include branding projects. You get the picture. The hiring managers who evaluate portfolios want to be able to compare your design work to the projects they would have you work on. They want to know if you are familiar with the process and understand what designing for their project requires. If they are looking to hire someone to work on a design system, they want to see if the candidate has already designed a design system — and how was the outcome.
The previous phenomenon goes beyond being a piece of advice, it can become an unintentional cycle of less-than-ideal jobs. Especially with young designers, the will to include every type of project and any side gig you’ve ever worked on is strong. In the beginning, when gaining real life working experience is critical, this might work for a while. But you have to be intentional of fine-tuning your portfolio frequently so you won’t miss your career goals. And remember, you can include personal and passion projects to your portfolio. Not all projects need to be client/professional work. We’ll get back to this a bit later.
Reveal your thinking and dazzle with quality
In the beginning of your career, it is tempting to include each and every project you’ve ever done in to your portfolio. But typically I would recommend showcasing 4-12 of you best projects depending on the depth and documentation. Four projects can seem like a scarce number, but if each of those is a thorough case study that showcases the process and outcomes in detail, then it likely is enough. And only choose your best projects: you are showcasing quality, not necessarily quantity.
Even if you cannot or don’t want to build detailed case studies of all of your portfolio projects, I would at least create one good one. Ideally this would be for your best project — your “crown jewel.” Having at least one project documented thoroughly is important because it is your opportunity to tell the story of that project from your point of view. The stage is yours to showcase the process, flaunt your skills, and highlight the areas of your expertise. If you have at least one, preferably 1-3, well-documented and detailed case studies, in your other portfolio projects you can show partial process. Showcase with 1-3 case studies that you understand and master the entire process, and then focus on the parts you most enjoy and excel at.
Case study can be one of the tools that help you to strengthen or course-correct your career path, if necessary. Do you want to focus your career more on the research part of the UX process? Emphasize the research part, discuss in detail what the process was like, what methods were used and why, what unexpected findings and insights were gathered and how those affected the design decisions. Do you want to move from logo design towards more strategic brand design? Don’t just show design sketches and the finished logo designs. Talk about the client motivation and needs for the (re)brand, their positioning in the market place, the inspiration for the designs, and how the system scales for the client’s known needs — and potentially the unknown needs, as well. Talk about how the brand you helped to create enables the client to achieve their goals, and the customer of the client theirs. Most importantly, explain you thinking behind your designs — regardless of you design focus. This is what makes you unique as a designer.
Let the work shine (and make it easy to find)
My pet peeve with designer online portfolios are those large greeting areas (“Hi, I’m Jane and I am xyz..”) that take the entire viewport or separate landing pages that don’t showcase any work yet. While your personality is an important part of the hiring decision, if you don’t have the right skills, you won’t even be considered for the position. Design focused recruiters and hiring managers, especially in large companies, look at portfolios on a daily basis. When an interesting position is open, they can get hundreds of applications and most will include a portfolio link. Time is money, and if they have to click around or scroll too long to find your work samples on your portfolio site, they might bounce without ever taking a look at your amazing designs. So, make the landing page about your work — whether it is about one project or all of them. Make it quick and obvious how to find your projects, and make it simple and easy to navigate between them.
While you absolutely want to design your portfolio well, don’t overdo it. The idea is to showcase you best work samples, so let those projects shine and give them all the attention and focus. If you add lots of extra design elements (that have nothing to do with your portfolio projects) they will quickly become noise that makes focusing on your work samples difficult. It is still possible to show personality and design preferences through type and color choices and other subtle ways. But even with those I’d be purposeful and keep in mind that your portfolio site will become the frame others look at your work through. The design choices for your portfolio site are more closely associated with your persona than your client work is. If you are certain that you want to work for punk rock music makers and producers, then go for it and style your portfolio site for attracting those opportunities. But if you don’t have strong conviction and vision about your future employment yet, I’d keep the design just clean and simple until I’m there.
This is the first part of a multi part post series about building a design portfolio that can help you land a job. The goal is to help you define and focus you career and attract your ideal job opportunities.