editione1.0.2Updated February 27, 2023
You’re reading an excerpt of Land Your Dream Design Job, a book by Dan Shilov. Filled with hard-won, personal insights, it is a comprehensive guide to landing a product design role in a startup, agency, or tech company, and covers the entire design interview process from beginning to end, for experienced and aspriring designers. Purchase the book to support the author and the ad-free Holloway reading experience. You get instant digital access, commentary and future updates, and a high-quality PDF download.
Design portfolios can feel like never-ending work. Sometimes we avoid the effort altogether in favor of “research.” We go online, we look at other designer portfolios, and maybe even get a little intimidated by some of the work out there. Can my portfolio be just as good?
Other times we dive right into design, skipping the important writing process altogether. Or we agonize about the content so much that we write a book, only to discover nobody wants to read it online.
A solid portfolio can be hard to pull off. We’ll take a look at what a hiring manager looks for in a portfolio and note how to avoid mistakes. I’ll use a deck format (via folio—a free portfolio template deck that I’ve created) to illustrate these examples, but rest assured you can adapt and use any portfolio format as long as it communicates these key ideas.
You’ll want to address these things in your portfolio:
Experience. Based on your prior work, managers want to get a sense of your level and evaluate your projects accordingly. I look at the size and scope of projects. Did you initiate projects or were you mostly an order taker? Did you ship major projects across multiple quarters and teams? Let your resume and portfolio complement each other and tell a consistent story.
Expertise and strengths. No product designer is the same—everyone has different strengths and areas of interest when it comes to the design process. What are your strengths? Where do you shine? This is your competitive advantage that sets you apart.
Craft and output. To get the phone interview, your online portfolio must do the talking for you. Feature your best (likely recent) projects that show a breadth and depth of your skills. Show work that you’re proud of—cut out projects that don’t do justice to what you’re capable of doing now.
Process. Hiring managers are interested in your problem-solving skills. How do you approach your work? Do you have a process in place? Do you follow it too rigidly? What part of the process comes easy and which part is exciting? Hiring managers are looking for designers who can break problems down and sequence the work in a way that drives customer value while reducing engineering scope.
By the way, if you already have a portfolio and are looking to make small adjustments or if you’re starting from scratch take a peek at the Design Portfolio Checklist worksheet that comes with the book. It’s a handy reference to ensure your portfolio covers all the basics that hiring managers are looking for.
When it comes to writing your portfolio case study—imagine writing a magazine article. Your reader finds herself in a busy airport browsing through the newsstand. An interesting cover catches her attention, she quickly flips through the magazine pages. She finds an appealing story, and when she pauses to read it in detail she discovers the content to be well written and informative, thus making the overall experience rewarding.
Optimize for scanning. Tweak the hierarchy to make your portfolio content easy to consume while enticing the reader to dig for more.
Support with a compelling story. As the readers dive into the content, tell the story—give a narrative highlighting key facts that led to unexpected outcomes.
Your portfolio is an opportunity to present your version of the story. Remember your portfolio personas—they’re in a rush, so they’ll spend less than a minute scanning through your portfolio to see if there’s some enticing content in there to dive deep into. It’s your job as a designer to capture their attention, stop them in their tracks, and make them want you.
At a high level your portfolio should follow this structure:
Intro. Your name, date of your portfolio.
Experience. A short summary of your story, how you came to design, experiences you’ve had, and what makes you a strong designer.
Personality. A fun slide to show who you are as a person.
Projects. Ideally, a couple of recent projects that show the breadth and depth of your thinking and doing and that highlight your strengths as a designer.
Thank you. Closing slide (or page) with your contact information such as your email, relevant professional social networks, and phone number.
The projects are the meat of your portfolio, but don’t forget the context. Even little things such as having a portfolio title with your name and giving a little personal background are helpful. Context makes you stand out as a designer, a person—not just a nameless portfolio deck in a stack of applicants. Don’t miss this chance to make a good impression.
In design, context is everything. For a portfolio to be successful, you’ll have to set context, starting with yourself. What’s your background? Who are you? What’s your superpower? This is an opportunity to highlight role-relevant skills and any transferable expertise.
Think of your portfolio as an extension of your resume (or your LinkedIn profile). I’d like to understand your career path—where have you been and where are you going? The reality is that there are no clear paths or linear progressions. Circumstances change, companies go under, we get laid off. It happens.
Don’t lose this opportunity to tell your side of the story. How did you end up where you’re at currently? Why would you be a great addition to the team? Everyone has a unique story to tell.
If you can—add a personal touch. In a sea of applications, it’s inadvertently easy to become just another designer. Feel free to “bring your whole self” and highlight relevant hobbies and fun facts that make you look at design differently. Play to your strengths and include things that might make you stand out as a candidate. If you’ve worked in smaller companies or in small and barely existing design teams—own that. If you were the only designer there, tell the story of how you stepped up to the role and went above and beyond.
Setting up work properly can make or break a portfolio. Think of using progressive disclosure to gradually reveal information, starting with the company, to your role, to the project, to project details.
If you worked at a small company, it helps to describe what the company did. Oftentimes smaller companies don’t have the luxury of brand recognition, but that’s OK. Summarizing what the company did in a few sentences is all it takes. Alternatively, if you did work at a larger company (like Facebook) you can specify your department or team and their area of expertise.
What roles did you play at this company (or team)?
What were you hired to do? Mention the roles you played, especially if you went above and beyond the call of duty (for example, you were hired to do product design but ended up doing that plus marketing).
Remember this is your high-level portfolio, so feel free to pick a couple of projects that do justice in representing your skills. Ideally this is your most recent, best work, but it’s OK to include projects that aren’t the latest as long as it’s still work you’re proud to show. If you’re not proud of it, don’t show it—a portfolio is meant to be a curated collection of work not an exhaustive set.
A successful project is one that has been able to meet or exceed a goal based on measured outcomes with least amount of effort.
Project cover slide for a concept.
Your cover slide should include:
Summary. Project title, quick summary, platform, your role, project timespan, screenshots of key changes that capture the essence of a project.
Process. How did you approach the problem? Pull out a couple of methods that you used and explain how you used them to inform your decision-making. Use this to highlight your expertise, but don’t be formulaic—show where you’ve bent the process to achieve outcomes.
Outcomes. What was the end result? Sometimes it makes sense to put this section at the end, but you can also put it ahead of process to entice the reader to dive in. You can highlight the metrics that were moved, the before and after, and the outcomes that were achieved.
That’s it! The basic format should carry you through, but be sure to make it your own. Not providing enough project context is a common mistake that I see in portfolios. If someone who’s coming into your work cold, it’s highly likely they won’t be familiar with your industry or product.
Design is context specific: include your project’s platforms, type of work (visual design, research, or some other), team composition (you were a design lead, for instance), timelines, and so on. Think of this as building a strong foundation for the content that follows, ensuring the viewer is invested in the story. This also allows the viewer to quickly glean enough information so they can choose to either continue to read through this project or skip ahead to the next one.
Finally, include the results of your work up front—for example, “the new design led to a 20% conversion in the checkout flow.” Back to the magazine example, use the inverted pyramid style of writing by revealing the punchline.
When structuring your process, be sure to highlight specific activities or things you’ve done that led to new insight. Sometimes I see two extremes:
Not enough process. Your work is purely visual and there’s no explanation of how you arrived at your final outcome. You might be methodical in your approach, but if you don’t show work that led up to your final deliverable, it’s hard to tell.
Too much process. At the opposite end is when a designer writes out in excruciating detail all of the things they’ve done. It’s good to see that you have a solid approach in place—but save the details for the in-person portfolio interview.
Strike the right balance of using process to advance your story, pulling out unexpected and thought-provoking insights that informed your work, leading to a higher quality result. Feel free to mix and match different templates to show how your approach led to insight.
Feel free to mix and match different templates to show how your approach led to insight.
Show mocks or prototypes that you’ve designed to test out your ideas. If you’re promoting yourself as a prototype expert, you can highlight some of the nuances of your prototypes and how you were able to simulate the real thing to get the right results from your customers. Before and after shots can prove useful.
Include representative mocks or prototypes. Before and after shots can prove useful.
Projects usually aren’t cut-and-dry moving from process, to prototype, to result—usually a couple rounds of iteration are involved. You’ll need to shape your story and presentation accordingly to show how the work evolved.
Here, we come back to the beginning—the problem statement. How did your hard work solve the problem at hand? How did you measure your impact?
You can look at it through two lenses:
Qualitative. How did customers react? Were they delighted by the change? Can you share their testimonials or other forms of feedback? Qualitative feedback can tell a powerful story but, remember, it’s anecdotal; so ideally you can supplement it with quant insights to complete the story.
Quantitative. What was the impact to the metrics you were originally measuring? Were there any positive surprises? Having numbers on your side and drawing a direct link from problem, to solution, to result will help you form a stronger argument for your work.
If you can get metrics, great—if not, look at other ways to show how your work led to an improvement.
Sometimes it’s hard to get metrics. Even in data-driven companies it takes time to get the numbers. Or you might not even have access to this data anymore. If you can’t get it, consider other ways to provide evidence showing that your project led to improvement. For example, maybe your work helped standardize components, allowing the engineering team to move faster.
Lastly, don’t forget the most important piece—your contact info. Include a clear call to action and double-check that phone number.
There are no shortcuts. The quality of your work and your thinking is what sets you apart. So don’t let the hard work go to waste. Structuring your case studies in the best possible light can make a big difference in getting that first interview. Good luck—you got this!
If you really want to maximize your chances, prototype your portfolio before submitting. You only get one shot when it comes to making a first impression, so make it your best one.
Is there a dream job you have in mind? Print out the job description, then hand it to your friend and let them play the role of the hiring manager. As they go through your work, ask them to speak out loud. Seeing their gut reaction to your portfolio in person, as they’re voicing what they see, is powerful.