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.
These days, portfolios can take on many different formats. In the past, designers would create a customer site with six thumbnails for each portfolio project. Now there are more options to choose from. Remember, the goal of your online portfolio is to get a phone interview. During that interview you’ll do a light portfolio review with a hiring manager and the recruiter, so you want to show work that you’re proud of and that’s relevant to the job at hand.
Once you’re in the final rounds, you’ll have to create a different portfolio that’s specifically tailored to the company and the presentation format. So don’t spend so much time on building your online portfolio that you don’t submit it anywhere.
Table: Portfolio Format Comparison
Watch out for
Note-taking app (like Notion)
No technical knowledge to get started.
Navigation and organization of your case studies. Don’t get stuck writing a book that has no visuals to tell your story.
None. You’ll need to understand some basic mechanics of linking pages together, but it’s a small time investment.
Deck (like Keynote, Figma, or Google Slides)
A deck helps you optimize for the right balance of content and visual while building interest.
By default, decks aren’t as accessible on smaller devices like phones.
Some learning curve, as you may need to know the ins and outs of deck design and the app to get a good handle on your presentation.
Site building app (like Webflow)
Fastest way to get started with ability to customize and make changes rapidly as you go.
Over-indexing on layout and site design while not having strong case study content.
Some learning curve, but not as difficult as learning front-end development from scratch.
Your own site
Ultimate freedom and control; you can structure your content however you see fit.
Debugging your portfolio. You may also get unfairly judged if your site is broken.
High learning curve if you’re starting out or if you’re brushing up on the latest CSS/HTML.
From a hiring manager perspective, the most important part is the content itself. Creating a good-looking portfolio site is nice, but it’s not as important as the work itself. Hiring managers are interested in seeing that you’ve worked on complex problems and shipped results. You will get bonus points if your portfolio stands out, but that’s extra. The number one priority is to make sure your case studies cover complex design challenges. You’ll want to get that phone call back from them, so make sure your work can stand well on its own.
storyYears ago I found myself on the job market with a portfolio three years out of date. I spent weeks making it look visually stunning. The irony? I never shipped it. In the meantime, while I was agonizing about the portfolio site, I created a keynote deck that I’ve shared with recruiters and hiring managers. In the end, the “site” never made it past Sketch. The deck, however, led to many interviews and several offers.
If you’re having trouble deciding on the format, it’s time to put your product manager hat on. Given your resources—your skill level, time, and commitment, what format can get you to a final portfolio quickly? Optimize for speed over perfection. Getting the job done to a good degree is more important than polishing up a perfect portfolio that you end up not submitting.
To help you with the portfolio, I’ve created folio—it’s free and available on Sketch, Figma, and Keynote.
Figure: Jumpstart Your Portfolio
A folio example.
If this is your first time putting together a portfolio and if you’re struggling with the format, folio is optimized to follow a case study format while allowing you to expand on your process.
Organize Your Portfolio
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.
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