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Thoughts on Design Portfolios

Saturday, April 14th, 2012 | Posted by Jon Kolko

Designers are typically judged based on their portfolio of work. When I worked at frog, I encountered lots of unsolicited portfolios. The sad reality of sending a portfolio to a consultancy is that your chances of getting a job are a weighted dice roll, based on a mixture of extremely fast first impressions, serendipitous timing, and who you know. When I would receive a portfolio from someone I’d never heard of, I tried my best to actually look at it, but if my schedule was three-deep back to back meetings all day long, the email was ignored. Sometimes, if the sender got lucky, they might send it on the same day that a plea for hiring went out, usually based on a sales cycle accelerating or a deal closing unexpectedly. In these cases, they got the benefit of the doubt. And, in the cases where the email comes with a recommendation from a friend, I couldn’t help but be interested to see the work.

And so, if you made it past the “luck” phase, I would open the .pdf or click the web link.
At this point, you might stop and question things like “HR departments”, “your resume is on file”, and “just apply through the website”, which are probably all good ideas, but that – in my experience – are giant black holes. The human connection is huge.

This portfolio shows what a candidate has done, how they’ve done it, and how proficient they are at it. The “it” has traditionally been print and industrial design, and since these are visual end-artifacts, it’s easy to show the output, and the process is equally as visual.

But designers who work on software, systems, and services encounter a challenge: how do you show the output, and the process, in a meaningful way? Here are some pragmatic pieces of advice that I found myself wishing I could have offered, as I reviewed portfolios. Your mileage may vary, and all usual caveats about how impersonal, cold, and unforgiving agency life is apply.

General Advice
You may be the best generalist in the world, and it might be emotionally difficult for you to pigeon-hole yourself as a “type of designer”, but if there’s an open rec for a “visual designer”, that means the firm has money allocated to hire someone who does visual design work, and a need for that type of work. Your great wireframing skills are a nice supplement, showing you can work in a broader team, but at that critical moment of initial portfolio review, show what the rec asked for.

Your portfolio doesn’t need to be big. In fact, the best portfolios I reviewed usually had two projects in them – one that showed breadth, and one that showed depth. For example, it might contain a project that illustrates the entire design process, end to end; this illustrates if the candidate understands how design works, is familiar with a collaborative and user-centered approach, and thinks about things iteratively. Then, the second project offers only examples that show proficiency in an extremely focused skill area, such as wireframing, icon development, sketching, motion graphics, and so-on. This area of focus shows how the candidate can be resourced on day one: they can be put on a project that’s billable.

Attention to detail matters, a lot. In this very first moment, where someone hasn’t seen your work before and you’ve made it through the cold-call luck round, you have about 10 seconds for an arrogant, over-extended, tired creative director to poke at your material before they find something they don’t like and leave. This translates to:

  • No spelling errors, of anything, anywhere
  • Things in a grid line up exactly (to the pixel)
  • Use Helvetica, Futura, Frutiger, or Meta, and nothing else, unless you actually know what you’re doing
  • The .pdf you send is less than 3 megs
  • The URL you send is actually live
  • The cover letter that you send to frog doesn’t explain why you would be great for the job at IDEO (you would be chagrined to know how frequently this happens)
  • The imagery you include has been cropped, color adjusted, and otherwise manipulated to be appropriate
  • Use big pictures. Little itty-bitty sketches indicate a lack of confidence in the work. Be big and bold.

Design Research
When showing design research, it’s tempting to show photographs of people, particularly of people’s faces. This is irrelevant to someone judging your portfolio. Who are these people? Why are they relevant? What did you do with them? You could explain this in the accompanying text, but at that first glance, no one is likely to actually read that text. Instead of pictures of people, show imagery that includes insightful evidence of workflow, artifact, or space problems – and circle and annotate the important part of the image, so it’s super obvious.

When I review DR portfolios, I care less about your ability to plan and execute design research, and more about your ability to synthesize and make meaning out of the data you found. This means showing diagrams, insights, quotes, and other things that led you to big, important takeaways for design.

Taking pictures of post-it notes is really fun. I do it a lot. But showing pictures of people moving post-it notes around in your portfolio isn’t interesting and doesn’t add any value to your story. Showing pictures of post-it notes themselves isn’t that interesting, either.

There’s an expectation that someone getting a design research job knows how to conduct standard design research. If you’ve done something particularly unique, emphasize it. Did you join the girl scouts to understand teenage girls? Get a job at a grocery store to understand the supply-chain process? Work through co-design activities at a retirement home? Show the unique stuff.

Visual Design
A strong visual design portfolio shows a breadth of platform expertise. This includes designs for web, various mobile platforms, television, print, packaging, motion, and so-on; it illustrates that a consultant can work on a broad array of billing programs.

Show exploratory process. While the final artifact is nice to see, it’s also useful to see how you arrived there. Did you pick a direction on day one, or explore multiple styles over time?

Try to show that you can both take an existing brand language and extend it, and create a new language from scratch. If you never did these things in school, assign yourself a project and do them yourself.

Include both conceptual (blue-sky, experimental) and pragmatic (utilitarian, transactional), because if you can do both, you’ll be in huge demand.

Interaction and Service Design
An interaction and service design portfolio seems nebulous, because these ideas are so big and broad. But while the discipline is huge, the job you are likely applying for is much smaller in scale, scope, and expectation. Research and identify the discrete skills that a particular job expects, and be sure to illustrate competency in these skills. This probably means showing:

  • The ability to produce scenarios and storyboards, showing people in a context using a designed artifact
  • The ability to describe software using wireframes, comps, and interactive prototypes
  • The ability to sketch interfaces, rapidly, in an exploratory manner
  • The ability to use diagrams to sketch complex systems
  • The ability to create a visual map showing how a service extends across touchpoints

Don’t use lorum ipsem, ever, for anything. Include real content in all of the work you show, illustrating that you understand the vocabulary and contextual cues of a particular discipline

Think through all interactions in a given context, even if you don’t intend to show those. Just because you emphasize a particular linear path through an interface or service, there are other things that a user can do at any given stage. By showing these in your work, you indicate to a reviewer that you are thinking comprehensively about a system.

Include an exhaustive level of detail in screen designs. Try to make your work look as real as possible, by including contextual clues (browser chrome, a sketch of a kiosk surrounding a touchscreen, a user’s hand on a mobile phone), detailed form design for controls and inputs, sketched illustrations of framing imagery (rather than big square empty placeholder boxes), etc.

If you can create working or quasi-working digital prototypes, do it – this is a great way of showing you really consider how interactions should feel over time. But if you include these on a website, make sure they work, and make sure it’s clear what features and functions are prototyped and which aren’t functioning. Give the reviewer a clear path through your UI.

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I hope this is a helpful overview of things I would look for in reviewing portfolios. Keep in mind that my intent was to fill specific roles at a specific consultancy, which had extremely specific needs related to the core business, resourcing, utilization, and so-on. A different business will look for different things. Good luck :-)

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You might also enjoy reading 7 Steps to a Kick-Ass UX Portfolio, by Will Evans or Five Steps to a Better Design Portfolio, by Jeff Veen.

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