How to get in the door with a great portfolio
There’s a lot of advice out there — forum threads, blog posts, and even other medium articles — all outlining how to build the perfect portfolio. However, after many years receiving and reviewing designer portfolios, it has become apparent that this conversation might be worth a fresh take. Lately, our studio has been getting some portfolios where small quirks or red flags 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 two-part 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.
NB: While some of this advice may skew towards digital product designers, many of the tips I offer here are role-agnostic and can be applied for even non-designers.
Defining the portfolio
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 do the work on time, and that you can work with other people. So when I say portfolio, I am actually talking about a document that contains more than just your work. A proper representation of you, your work, your personality, and your experience.
“When I say portfolio, I am actually talking about a document that contains more than just your work.”
Format: What does this thing look like?
The first question a lot of people ask themselves is: PDF or website? 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. You can tailor that story even further by taking advantage of their linear nature. For those with a lot of work that isn’t public, using a PDF will keep the work offline and only in the hands of intended audiences. Telling a story about your work 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 work is more eclectic, I can quickly weed out the stuff I don’t care to see. Because your audience isn’t on a linear track, however, it’s harder to tell a story.
“A lot of people ask themselves: PDF or website? I don’t mind either, as long as it makes sense to the story you’re telling.”
Choices, choices, choices!
You should be displaying your capabilities as a designer. 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 them, so ultimately they couldn’t care less if your portfolio is on a recognizable platform versus if it gives you the ability to show your work.
Organization, navigation, and structure
If you’re applying to a job where you are going to be focusing on user experience your portfolio is an opportunity for that to shine. If you’re not, use a platform like Squarespace or Cargo. Regardless, make it easy for me to find what I want and use thumbnails to your advantage. Show me what I am going to, before I click it, and not an abstract detail from the work. If I have to click ten times to see the next project, your navigation needs work. 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
- A work overview page — A page of all your work that has thumbnails
- A list-menu of projects — A menu that has a list of all your work
- All the work in an accordion — Clicking a project expands it in-line
- All the work in 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 work, with a story for each project.
“Your portfolio should have your work at its core, but it should also be about you.”
How you 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 work is part of it. 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 thinking behind each project, but they are a lot of work. Consider only having a few in-depth case studies, while giving a more brief overview on the other projects that are not as strong.
“Highlight what the goals were and explain how you achieved them.”
Quantity and quality
Only show your best work. Chances are, your work from ten years ago is no longer relevant. If your sample size is smaller, you have more control over what the employer sees. There is 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 work at the top.
“Today, people rarely have the attention to make it to the end, so put your best work 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 work in your portfolio is noise to the person you’re sending it to. Scrub what’s irrelevant. The work should have a common thread that shows how your approach and methodologies work 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 good at.
“You should be showcasing how different companies hire you to do the same thing: the thing you’re 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 3 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 coworkers, your teachers, your partners, your bosses. No one is going to think less of you for working well with other people. Quite the opposite, in fact. Colophons that acknowledge the type designer are a lovely treat when I am reviewing a portfolio.
Fake it ‘til you make it
If you’re a new designer, or are 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, 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 work, one of the best ways you can is by copying other people. Don’t recreate the other person’s work and call it your own, but build upon existing ideas and concepts. Acknowledge its existence and improve on it. Be aware of what’s come before you; you’re not the first person to solve the problem you’re solving.
“Your personality becomes the brand of your portfolio. Keep it brief, though.”
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 that’s all about you. 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, though. For example:
Sebastian is a Creative Director and Product Designer in New York. Currently, he is building digital products at This Also. Born and raised in Canada, the true north strong-and-free. Learn More →
This is as much about you finding the right place for you, as it is us finding the right person for the role. Figure out what offices have the same work-life balance and cultural values as you; 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! 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.
Sidenote: 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 us you can be professional. You can read more into etiquette, communication and the application process in ‘Be mindful and get the job you want’.
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, on every page, so that when they decide to contact you, they can do it immediately. If you’re sending a PDF, make sure the contact info is at the end, in big type, so that they can’t miss it.
Ask for help
Many creative directors are happy to oblige a sit-down portfolio review if you are 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.
“You might get roasted, but that’s better than applying to a studio and not hearing back.”
Show me the money
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 a story or presenting your work. If you have amazing work, and you want someone to see it, think about the quickest ways to get it in front of their eyes. If you want them to understand your work 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 their company culture, use your personality to prove it. Check out ‘Be mindful and get the job you want’ where we explore the Do’s and Don’ts of communication and etiquette when you’re applying for a new job.
Some more reading
The internet abounds with extensive compilations of good portfolios. And if you’re looking to get yours done quickly, Tobias van Schneider has an action plan for that. Getting it out fast is great for those prone to procrastination, and if you’re one of those people, maybe you should click that link and get started immediately, while your motivation is still fresh.
Martijn van den Broeck has a great manifesto for crafting your portfolio, that he turned into an incredible series on medium. I highly recommended reading it, as it does overlap with a lot of my advice. However, I do disagree with some of Martijn’s advice, especially where he says to not tailor your portfolio to the job at hand because you might not understand the role perfectly. I disagree. If you don’t understand the role you are applying for, then you are probably not going to get it.
Paul Andrew has a great overview of what you should be including, and some good tips, but I wanted to go deeper than a checklist based on my experience and frustrations hiring and interviewing potential employees. My goal was to outline why some of these things are so crucial to your application. At the very least, this advice should increase your odds of getting an interview.