Getting Your Portfolio Ready

29 minutes, 7 links

Getting Your Portfolio Ready

Portfolios are a pre-requisite for a design role these days. Just like with design exercises, sometimes industry experts also bemoan this point—what if the designer is to busy to make one? What if the portfolio is out of date? It’s rare to get an interview without a portfolio and even if you might get to a phone screen, you’ll still be expected to present your work during the final interview. With that said building a portfolio shouldn’t be a painful process.

There are two portfolios you should build:

  1. Your online portfolio. This may be private and you’ll share it as part of your application. Your number one goal with this portfolio is to land the phone screen. It should pique your viewers interest without revealing too much info (you’ll talk about that during your on-site).
  2. Your on-site portfolio. When you get to the final interview stage, you’ll need to create another portfolio. This one will be less verbal and more visual. You’ll typically present 1 or two projects in depth and may have additional slides in appendix to go over details. The goal of this portfolio is to make a winning impression and get an offer.

In this chapter we’ll cover how to build your online portfolio in detail step by step, after this piece is crucial to kicking off the rest of the interviewing process. If you already have a portfolio built, you might want to check out the portfolio checklist to ensure you have everything covered. We’ll cover the on-site portfolio in the interviews and presentations chapter as it deserves it’s own treatment.

What if You’re Fresh Out of School?

One of the common challenges that new designers face when putting together their portfolio for the first time is the lack of so-called “real-world” design projects. If you’re just completed a bootcamp or graduated from undergrad or graduate program you may not have a lot of working experience. By all means if in your school work you worked with a client - a startup or a large company, be sure to feature that work including any internships that you’ve done. But if you have none of these?

Hiring managers, especially those without a design background, sometimes don’t give as much weight to candidates who don’t have many real world projects in their portfolio. Sometimes they see it as risk to take on an entry level candidate, thinking that they’ll have to spend significant amount of time training and developing the employee.

storyIn a recent interview a founder mentioned to me how he was afraid of hiring junior designers: “Yeah we’ll get them in, they’ll do exactly what their told and that will be a complete failure. What we need is people who can push back and tell us we’re wrong and come up with a better solution than we would have on our own.” So don’t be afraid to showcase your process and frameworks that you’ve used to push back on problems to come up with better solutions. As designers, redefining problems is our core competency—no matter the seniority.

So if you find yourself in this situation, what can you do? Generally there are a couple of approaches you can take and my recommendation is to experiment with a couple of these while you’re still applying to your dream role.

Tailor Your Portfolio and Do Your Research

In general, the advice of tailoring your portfolio to the job at hand still applies. You’ll want to show how your projects in school can transfer to the problems your potential employer might be facing. If the company you’re applying to has an experienced design manager on staff, they’ll usually be able to connect the dots quickly.

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However if they don’t have a design manager, you’ll might want to bridge the gap for them by doing a little research and doing some work on the side showing how in just a few hours of time you were able to take a crack at some of the challenges they’re facing. Yes this does start to look like a design exercise of sorts but if the company isn’t doing design exercises per se, a teaser of what you can do for them can work wonders to open up a more productive conversation.

Add Freelancing Side Projects

While you’re applying and looking to get that ideal design job—it’s not a bad idea to look into design contracting or picking up a few side projects along the way. You can bolster your portfolio by attending a hackathon (which can be an intense but brief commitment for a few days). Alternatively you can reach out to non-profits to do work pro-bono as long as they’re willing to commit the time to communicate and work with you. Another source of work can be a contribution to open source projects. Many of these are started by eager developers but only few projects have designers, so this could be an excellent way to fill in some gaps.

Consider an Apprenticeship or a Design Internship

If in your school work you weren’t able to do a design internship—this could be another path to consider. There’s no shame in taking an internship after graduation. While usually internships don’t pay much, they do provide a low risk way for the employer to get to know you while you’re working. Be sure to go above in beyond in this role if you do choose to pursue an internship. Even if things don’t work out or if the employer doesn’t invite you back—they can still be a strong reference for you and potentially might open up doors at other places. But of course you also want to take matters in your own hands and continue looking while you are pursuing your internship.

Uncover Your Superpowers

Product designer is a generic title. In companies like Facebook, regardless of seniority, everyone is a product designer and so it’s hard to understand who is senior, which level they’re at or even what their strengths and weaknesses are. That’s why it’s important to define the type of product designer you are, one way to do so is by highlighting your own superpowers.

When we typically think of superpowers, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the mastery of a specific skill. Obviously this superpower should be highlighted but don’t worry though if you’re not there yet or if you can’t point to one skill that’s excellent.

What skills do you have that are above average? Where are you proud of the work you’ve done there? It could be something as simple as rough illustrations and storytelling. What missing skills or perspectives can you bring to a team? What’s your unique point of view? What unique experience do you have based on your previous roles?

Transferable Skills as Superpowers

Another way to get at your superpower is to look at transferable skills that you’ve employed at other jobs. Think about the past experiences you’ve had and how they’ve equipped you to understand the customer better, to collaborate, or to be meticulous in one’s craft. For example if you’re coming to design from a different field, let’s say education—then you know how to run experiments, engage a tough audience, get everyone to participate and manage group performance over time. If you have a degree in psychology, you understand why people do things the way they do, the complexity of human interaction and why people, as Daniel Ariely calls it, are “predictably irrational.”

Unique Experiences as Superpowers

Your unique experiences can also be your superpower. No one has the same experience of the world as you do. Given your background, your environment, circumstances and your unique upbringing, there’s something different that you bring to the table.

If you can’t think of a superpower—ask a friend or a colleague. The external perspective is helpful as we sometimes don’t give ourselves enough credit. Also take a look at Heather Phillips’s article on how to find your design superpower.

Beyond Skills—Show Personality

You are more than a collection of skills. When you start interviewing with employers, they also want to see who you are as a person — after all they’ll be with you and you’ll be with them for 8+ hours each workday. Now this might seem a bit like you’re revealing too much or maybe you’d rather be a chameleon and blend-in with the environment in order to fit in. Don’t.

In addition to your skills you’re hired for your opinion—your views and your unique perspective that you’ve been honing all your life. Of course there’s a subtle art to showing your personality strategically as you don’t want to go overboard revealing everything all at once. Focus on things that are unique, relevant and ones that people can relate to.

As part of my portfolio I would sometimes include photos of dishes I made in the past to tell a more compelling story of cooking and design:

Figure: Food as Portfolio Work

Food as a portfolio

As part of my portfolio I would sometimes include photos of dishes I made in the past to tell a more compelling story of cooking and design.

In the past I’ve seen designers show hobbies such as:

  • Cooking, which is an nice metaphor for design—you can be making something based on a recipe or you can create something new based on the underlying science and principles
  • Visiting museums and new exhibits
  • Sketchnoting at events and conferences
  • Drawing and illustration

Here’s an example: “Jennifer Ng loves to explore real and imaginary spaces like food, alternate reality experiences, cycling and movies. She also raised funds for a book about ice cream that was released in January 2016 which documents her travel to 7 countries and interviews with over 60 ice cream shops.” Now that’s dedication!

The point is not to start going to museums, eating ice cream and sketchnoting tomorrow. Highlight a hobby that you’re already passionate about, one that will resonate with others and help connect them to you on a human level.

Write Your Pitch

Great! Now you have your superpowers and you have things to highlight in your personality. Next is to put it together in an easy to consume narrative. If a stranger met you today—how would you introduce yourself? What impression do you want to leave behind?

By drafting a couple of versions your statement you’ll get a better sense of the narrative you want to convey and will have a response at the ready when you’re responding to emails or hitting up networking events.

As with uncovering your superpowers—don’t be afraid to step away and ask for help. If you were to ask a friend or a co-worker, how would they describe you or pitch you? What would they say? Try this exercise with others or a group of friends, you might discover new things or things that you’ve taken for granted that others find valuable in you.

Figure: Designer Bio Generator

Designer bio generator

Don’t write a statement that can easily end up on the Designer Bio Generator.

Get specific. When you’re thinking of aspects of your personality to highlight, be sure to avoid coming across as generic. Many new designers in their statement about themselves say that they’re empathetic, customer focused, and like to drink coffee. That’s not much of a differentiator. Of course as a designer you should be focused on the first two and many people drink coffee. But not many collect coffee art or make interesting visualizations out of it.

Try it out. To start, list all of your hobbies, passions, and things you like to do. Don’t limit yourself just yet and feel free to write out as many as possible. Once you’ve done with the list, think of which aspect of personality you want to emphasize — is it something creative, fun, social, or design related, or a combination of multiple things?

Pitch Examples

Sometimes writing a pitch can be daunting either way. Here are a couple of examples that can help you refine yours from two respected design leaders in the industry.

Now you may not be a design leader or have yet had the opportunity to impact many people with your design. That’s ok. As these pitches demonstrate, it’s not just about the content but it’s also about presentation. At senior levels of design, clear, concise communication is paramount and there are still great lessons to take away as far as the style of communication goes.

Marissa Louie

Marissa Louie is a director of UX Design at Expedia and also a a founder of her company Animoodles. Here’s how she describes herself on LinkedIn:

Design leader with a strong product and business background. Experienced in building and coaching design teams, and designing delightful products used by over 1 billion people. As a people manager, I enjoy helping grow extraordinary leaders.

I started tinkering with code as a kid, and fell in love with web design while taking my first computer science course at UC Berkeley. Since then, I’ve enjoyed tackling really hard problems with some top notch people.

In my free time, I can be found exploring visual storytelling through photography, videography, and animation, and learning about a wide range of subjects including design, business, leadership, and management. I am intensely curious, and in a state of constant growth.

As you may notice, the first paragraph is straight to the point and using an inverse pyramid writing method (where you give away the punch line in the first sentence and first paragraph) you’ll learn all the information that you need to know about Marissa. The statistic “over 1 billion people” substantiates the impact. Even though the third paragraph is about hobbies—these too inevitably intertwine with design and reinforce her current role as a founder and director.

Alissa Briggs

Alissa Briggs is a design director at Autodesk, formerly head of design at PlanGrid where she managed a substantial team growing the organization. Here’s her about statement from her web site:

I’m a strategic and energetic leader, speaker, and coach with a successful track record of scaling top-notch design, research, and writing teams. Get in touch to discuss how I can elevate your team through workshops, talks, and coaching.

At the top of her site she has an even shorter description leading with the headline “elevate your design team” with an eyebrow “Designer leader, speaker, and coach” and tying everything off with a call to action below. The pitch also links to Alissa’s page showing all the different speeches and coaching she’s done over the years.

Prototype Your Pitch

Take a moment now to draft up a version of yourself (about half a page) based on the raw ingredients of skills, superpowers, your experiences, and your personality. How does it look? Feel free to do a few more iterations. Next, see if you can get it down to a 30-second pitch that you can give to someone you meet.

Finally see if you can compress this pitch to a 1 to 3 sentence summary. You’ll use this line in your portfolio, online presence, social accounts, etc. Think of it as a hook to get people interested in learning more about you.

Your pitch will change over time as you get feedback. There’s no perfect pitch out there and making changes is part of the process. Make sure that as you do make adjustments your brand proposition stays clear. Better to turn some away rather than deliver a pitch that blends in so much that becomes not memorable.

Update Your Resumé

Before diving into the portfolio, start with your resume or LinkedIn. When someone will be looking over your profile they’ll want to understand your story and have the right context when looking through your work. A lot of these initial impressions are based on quick scans of your profile.

  • Where are you coming from?
  • What have you done in the past?
  • What impact were you able to deliver?

This is why it’s important to get the right version of your story out there. The combination of your work history and portfolio gives the recruiter and hiring manager confidence that you’ll be able to do the work and that you’re a reliable hire.

Generally a recruiter or a hiring manager will skim through your profile to learn more about:

  • You. Who are you, how do you see yourself, your unique angle and what strengths do you bring to the table. While they won’t necessarily get all the information here (as usually this comes from your portfolio and subsequent interviews), this is where your pitch comes in to set the right expectations and help the viewer connect the dots between what you say you do and what you’ve done in the past as well as the work that you’re interested in doing in the future.
  • Work experience. How long have you been in this industry and what is your career and background like? If you’ve worked with recognizable tech companies (e.g. Uber, Apple, Airbnb, etc.) are usually a plus since they have rigorous standards and are well known. But if you haven’t worked at a well-known company, that’s not a minus either because in the end it’s more about what you’ve done rather than where you’ve done it.
  • Your title. Titles are pretty inflated so a hiring manager might skip over that but it should give them a rough benchmark of where you are in your career.
  • Your responsibilities. You might have worked at Apple but what did you actually do here? What teams did you work on? The focus is on the work that was done and the complexity that you’ve encountered.
  • Your impact. What outcomes were you able to achieve?

From Process to Outcomes

importantYou might not have worked for the big tech companies. You might not have that magical 5+ years of experience. That’s all fine. What you can do is show how you were able to achieve the 5 years of experience in 2 years at a small company with outsize impact. Outcomes are key. What metric were you able to move? What value were you able to bring to the team? Emphasize a few key outcomes that truly moved the needle.

If you don’t have concrete numbers, how else can you provide evidence of the impact you made? Perhaps there’s a strong qualitative signal you got from user research that showed your work made improvements compared to the past experience. If you don’t have that—ask your customers for a testimonial or a quote. You can even supplement that with an audio recording (with their permission) in your portfolio to make the story come to life.

Consider Your Portfolio Personas

The main goal of your online portfolio is to land the phone screen. It is not to be exhaustive in describing the rigor of your process (save that for the onsite!) but rather to start the initial conversation and continue the momentum from online, to phone screen, to an onsite interview.

Be choosy in what you show here and focus on curating the best representative image of your work. Because you will not present this portfolio—your portfolio must stand on its own when a recruiter or a hiring manager is looking through it.


A recruiter’s job is to source qualified candidates and to present them to the hiring manager. Good recruiters understand the design process, have worked with other designers before and know what a hiring manager needs. Since their job is to get as many qualified leads in the pipeline they’ll be scanning your portfolio and resume for signs of good work and process.

Goals of a Recruiter
  • Source a variety of candidates through multiple channels
  • Match the job requirements to the candidate
  • Follow-up with promising candidates to see if they’re a good match
  • Present top candidates to the hiring manager
  • Get feedback from the hiring manager and repeat the process until all positions have been filled

Remember, the objective of the recruiter is to first and foremost get the right candidate for the client. You are not the client. The hiring manager is. That said there are some recruiters that go above and beyond to make sure both parties are satisfied.

Hiring Manager

  • Get a sense of your level, your seniority in design (based on scope, impact)
Goals of a Hiring Manager
  • Make sure your level of skill matches the job requirements
  • Get a sense of your level, your seniority in design (based on scope, impact)
  • Get a sense of what type of designer and where your strengths are
  • Assess if you have the right balance of skills
  • Watch out for any red flags or gaps in employment

Imagine the manager to be busy and distracted. Their work is already cut out for them and they’re drowning in responsibilities. They need more designers! Good problem to have but they’re browsing your portfolio while running from one meeting to the next. They’ll glance over it for 30 seconds. If it looks interesting they’ll give it 2 more minutes. If they see good things they’ll let the recruiter set up a phone call.

Sometimes another designer will be evaluating your portfolio as well. They could be a senior, junior or a peer to you and depending on where you’re at in the company’s interviewing process they might evaluate your portfolio in the beginning or right before your final interview. Just like the hiring manager they will have a good grasp of design. In addition, if they’re a junior designer they’ll also be looking for someone they can learn from them.

Gather Your Content

Before you begin your portfolio, it helps to have everything all in one place. It’s common industry advice to “build your portfolio before you need”. But let’s face it, free time can be hard to come by and spending it on building a portfolio doesn’t feel like it’s time well spent. So my recommendation is to go an easier route and to develop the habit of capturing your work as it unfolds.

importantTo make portfolios build the habit of capturing key screenshots or changes in your work throughout the process.

Often times a portfolio project tells a compelling story of design execution from beginning to end. Having artifacts of the experience will help you substantiate your story and provide the evidence you need to come across as an expert in your craft.

Figure: Collecting Artifacts of Your Process

Capture your design process

Capture your design process as you go.

Here’s a list of things you should consider capturing. This list isn’t definitive and you definitely don’t need all of these for a successful portfolio. Rather treat this as a way to brainstorm assets that you may want to include:

  • Documentation. Product requirements, design specifications, user research guides, research findings, etc. You don’t need to share the full documentation but pointing to specific parts in a research finding or the user guide is helpful.
  • Photos of artifacts. Whiteboards, napkin or more formal sketches, anything that has led to interesting insights
  • Video and audio recordings. Could be interesting interviews that you could use to pull relevant research findings
  • Design mocks. These can be snapshots of your work in progress but also capturing the work that got left behind on the so-called cutting room floor. Showing what you didn’t do and why you didn’t do it is just as important.
  • Prototypes. Show your work come to life. These could be recorded or live.
  • Shipped product. This could be a series of screenshots or a recording of the live product where you can reinforce the message of how you uphold design quality throughout the product development cycle
  • Workshops and ideation. Capturing photos and recordings, these could be especially great if you can show a link from a fledgling rough idea to a polished concept and connect the dots

At the end of the day, not all of your projects will follow the same process or have the same deliverables. But rough sketches can be an interesting way to break up your presentation and introduce some variety to your portfolio.

Figure: Rough Design Sketches

Use rough sketches

Rough sketches can be an interesting way to break up your presentation and introduce some variety to your portfolio.

Having these raw materials handy puts you in a strong editorial position where you can pick and choose artifacts that can tell your story in a compelling way. Expect to discard 95% or more of these and you may need to go back and find additional content to make a cohesive story. But having most of this content upfront will help you move much faster compared to trying to start completely from scratch.

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