There’s a lot of advice out there—forum threads, blog posts, and Medium articles—all outlining how to build the perfect portfolio.
However, after many years of receiving and reviewing designer portfolios, it’s become apparent that this conversation might be worth a fresh take. Lately, our studio has been getting some with small quirks or red flags that rule a candidate out almost immediately.
Here, I’m hoping to call out some of those pitfalls, and resurface some of the really helpful advice I learned back at school. Through this article, we’ll explore the best ways to build your portfolio and submit it for a job, with tips for both new grads and seasoned designers alike.
Note: While some of this advice may skew toward digital product designers, many of the tips I offer here are role-agnostic and can be applied for even non-designers.
The idea of a portfolio has shifted in the age of the internet. People hiring for design roles want to see that you can tell a story, that you can get stuff done on time, and that you can work with other people. So when I say portfolio, I’m actually talking about a document that contains more than just your work. It should be a proper representation of you, your finished products, your personality, and your experience.
Pick Your Format
The first question a lot of people ask themselves is: PDF or website? As someone who’s hiring, I don’t mind looking at either, as long as it makes sense to the story you’re telling.
Because PDFs have the ability to be private, they can be tailored to the job in question by taking advantage of their linear nature. For those with a lot of projects that aren’t public, using a PDF will keep them offline and only in the hands of intended audiences. Telling a story makes it a lot easier to package your projects as a complete body of work.
Websites, on the other hand, win awards and are easy to share. And, thanks to the wonders of technology, you can also password-protect sections that might be private as well. Websites also have navigation, which means it’s easier for me to find what I want. If your stuff is more eclectic, I can quickly weed out what I don’t care to see. Because your audience isn’t on a linear track, however, it’s harder to tell a story.
Choices, choices, choices! (But you can’t go wrong either way.)
Another question people ask is, “Should I be using CMS?” You should be displaying your capabilities as a designer, and showing that you can craft your own website from scratch is a great bonus, but it’s not going to cost you a job if you don’t. The employer wants to know what you can do for the company, so ultimately he or she couldn’t care less if your portfolio is on a recognizable platform versus if you made said platform.
Organization and Structure
If you’re applying to a job where you’re going to be focusing on user experience, your portfolio is an opportunity for that to shine. Make it easy for me to find what I want and use thumbnails to your advantage. Show me what I’m going to before I click it, and not an abstract detail from your work. If I have to click 10 times to see the next thing, your navigation needs improvement. If you can’t figure out a good navigation, just put everything into one big column, and put headings and descriptions above each project. This emulates the same linear narrative as a PDF, so again, make sure you’re telling the right story.
Some navigation structures to consider:
An overview page: A page of all your work that has thumbnails
A list-menu: A menu that has a list of all your work
An accordion: Clicking a project expands it in line
One long feed: A linear feed of all your work
Your portfolio should have your work at its core, but it should also be about you. Start by building an outline around your projects, with a story for each.
Learn How to Talk About Your Work
How you talk about your work is so important, especially if you’re entering a senior role where presenting and defending is part of the job. One great way to do this is a product walkthrough. Reduce it and distill it down to key moments that highlight your involvement on the project. Highlight what the goals were and explain how you achieved them.
Case studies are a great way to highlight the thinking behind each idea, but they take time to make. Consider only having a few in-depth case studies, while giving a brief overview on the other projects that aren’t as strong.
Focus on Quantity and Quality
Only show your best work. Chances are, your stuff from 10 years ago is no longer relevant. If your sample size is smaller, you have more control over what the employer sees. There’s an old tradition of opening with your strongest piece and closing with your second-strongest. Today, people rarely have the attention to make it to the end, so put your best products at the top.
Curate, Tailor, and Prune
While a new designer’s portfolio will have an eclectic assortment of work, an experienced designer’s should be more focused. If you’re applying for a marketing or advertising job, all that furniture design is noise to the person you’re sending it to. So scrub what’s irrelevant. It should have a common thread that shows how your approach and methodologies function for different brands and clients. You should be trying to showcase how different companies hire you to do the same thing—the thing you’re really good at.
Show That You Can Work on a Deadline
Showing that you can work quickly and on-time is a great way to pique interest. By incorporating a timeline into the language of the case study, you can show how long it took: “Over the course of three weeks, I designed…”
You can also write about it in terms of constraints or as part of the challenges of the project: “Google wanted a solution really fast, so we skipped wireframes and went right into designing product screens…”
Give Credit Where Credit Is Due
Acknowledge your co-workers, teachers, partners, and bosses. No one is going to think less of you for working well with other people. Quite the opposite, in fact. Acknowledgements at the end of a portfolio are a lovely treat when I’m reviewing one.
Fake it ’Til You Make It
If you’re a new designer, or pivoting your career, your portfolio is going to be pretty barebones. If you only have one or two good projects related to the job you want, you might want to round it out with some personal work.
One of the best ways to do this is by finding a challenge in your daily routine, coming up with a solution to it, then translating that to a design or product. Alternatively, you can take an app or system that already exists and redesign it. This can be a great way to showcase your thinking and skills despite a lack of experience.
Borrow Ideas, But Don’t Steal Work
If you’re going to fill out your portfolio with fake ideas, one of the best ways to do this is by copying other people. Don’t recreate the other person’s work and call it your own, but build upon existing concepts. Acknowledge its existence and improve on it. Be aware of what’s come before you—you’re not the first person to solve this problem.
From there, move to you. Cultural fit is just as important as how good you are at the task you’re getting hired to do. If your portfolio is on a website, then you can have a section devoted to you. If it’s a PDF, then you can have a section at the back.
Where do you come from? What’s your education? Did you happen upon this career by accident? Your personality becomes the brand of your portfolio. Keep it brief, but have fun with it. For example:
Sebastian is a Creative Director and Product Designer in New York. Currently, he’s building digital products at This Also. Born and raised in Canada, the true north strong-and-free…
This is as much about you finding the right place for you as it is them finding the right person for the role. Figure out what offices have the same work-life balance and cultural values as you, and tap into their cultural capital and show that you can add to it.
Have you seen our Instagram? We go climbing together every Thursday. Tell us you like rock climbing (if you actually do)! Not only do we see that you’d be a good fit culturally, but it also shows us that you had the initiative to learn more about us before you applied.
(Side note: We used to joke about Doritos on our studio’s Instagram account a lot, and people would always mention that they love Doritos in their applications. As cheesy as it was, I couldn’t fault them for it because they were doing their homework, and it was an effective way of acknowledging the cultural harmony between us and them.)
Remember Who This Is For
Your portfolio isn’t for you, it’s for the people you’re sending it to. It’s great to show your personality, but sometimes an off-putting joke or offensive remark can leave a bad impression. Again, consider the cultural match of you and the workplace, and watch out for red flags. One recent application used the term “perving” to show respect for our work. Someone else submitted a nude self-portrait. Try to keep the language and content clean—this is a professional transaction, so show that you can be professional.
Make it Easy to Get in Touch
Your email address should be everywhere. Best practice for this is to have it at the top or bottom of your website and on every page, so that when I decide I want to contact you, I can do it immediately. If you’re sending a PDF, make sure the contact info is at the end, in big font, so that I can’t miss it.
Ask for Help
Many creative directors are happy to have a sit-down portfolio review if you’re persuasive enough. Bring coffee or treats to someone’s office and ask for casual feedback. Make an appointment and ask them to do you a huge favor. Take advantage of online communities like DesignerNews, Dribbble, and Behance. You might get roasted, but that’s better than applying to a studio and not hearing back. If you live in a metropolitan area, enroll in portfolio review nights.
Ultimately, your work is what really counts here. If it’s good, that’s all that really matters to someone who’s hiring. Keep that in mind when you’re crafting an outline or presenting your work. If you have amazing ideas, and you want me to see them, think about the quickest ways to get them in front of my eyes. If you want me to understand your process and the critical thinking you put into it, think about the best ways to tell a story around it. And if you think you’d fit into our culture, use your personality to prove it.
This article was originally published on Medium. It has been republished here with permission.
Photo of designer courtesy of Hero Images/Getty Images.