Presenting Your Portfolio: Crafting a Compelling Story

13 minutes, 3 links


Updated October 11, 2023
Land Your Dream Design Job

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.

As part of your final interview you’ll be asked to present your portfolio. Out of all interviews, this one is priority number one. See this as an opportunity to show the great work that you’ve done, reinforcing the fact that you can do it and more again.

important The in-person portfolio is different from your online portfolio, which the interviewers have already seen. This is an opportunity to feature one to three best projects and go in-depth on how you’ve achieved and exceeded objectives given the constraints.

Here’s how you can create a gripping narrative that gets your interviewers excited to work with you.

How Your Portfolio Will Be Evaluated

Your portfolio presentation will be evaluated from multiple angles. The criteria here are broader than the design exercise since you’ll be showing work you’ve done as part of a team. Your interviewers will be interested in seeing the following:

  • Problem scope. How complex were the problems you were addressing? This in part determines your seniority—did you lead multiple projects in parallel, with ambiguous goals, across various channels?

  • Collaboration. How did you work with your team? What conflict did you encounter and how was it resolved? Were you able to inspire and bring out the best in your teammates?

  • Adaptability. What approaches did you try? What failed and how did you iterate on the process to keep things moving?

  • Quality. What is the quality bar for your work? How fast and to what degree of quality did you work? Were you able to explore many options, prioritize low-effort solutions, while leading toward a north star design?

  • Outcome. What was the result? What did the customers say? What was the impact on engineering? What metrics shifted?

Aside from the work, you’ll be evaluated on your delivery. Are you able to communicate clearly, present an intriguing story, and keep folks engaged during your hour (this is your time)? In the next section, we’ll cover techniques to make your speech sparkle.

Your Audience

A variety of folks will see your presentation, each with a different focus:

  • Design manager. Craft skills, quality, process, and style.

  • Product manager. Prioritization, business outcomes, impact.

  • Engineering. Productive collaboration with engineering.

  • UX research. Methods you’ve used, how you’ve partnered with research.

  • Data science. Formulating initial questions and area of inquiry.

Keep this audience in mind when you’re practicing. It’s very likely you’ll see this cast of folks again during your one-on-one behavioral and cross-functional interviews.

Building Your Deck

The number one person you’re building this deck for is yourself. You’ll want to create a modular portfolio that you can remix at a moment’s notice if you’re called in for an interview with another company. To help you get there, I recommend you start an assessment of your recent work.

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Stacking Your Projects

What were your recent projects that you consider to be your best work that show a variety of skills? Highlight projects that played to your unique identity as a designer—your combination of skills, point of view, and process that led to a result no other designer could have achieved.

One way to put together a project stack is to evaluate each project individually on your craft skills, such as user research, interaction design, visual design, and affected platforms.

Figure: Project 1, Interaction and Research Focus

An example project with a heavy interaction and research component.

As an example, you might have a project where you were heavily involved with customer interviews, solving a complex interaction problem for a desktop app, but you were operating within an existing design system, so there wasn’t much visual design work.

Figure: Project 2, Visual Design Focus

An example project with a visual design focus.

Figure: Breadth and Depth of Skills

Combining different projects to show your breadth and depth of skills.

Combining these projects in your portfolio demonstrates that you have strong skills in many areas. These graphs were inspired by Irene Au’s article, Writing a Job Description for UX People.

You might also consider other project dimensions:

  • Project complexity. Simpler projects can span a few weeks, others might take months or years.

  • Visionary projects. Projects that were in a completely brand-new space without a precedent, going from 0 to 1.

  • Optimization projects. Mature platforms that you were optimizing, going from 1 to 10.

  • Operational projects. Initiatives you worked on to improve a team’s impact—for example, design systems or design process.

When you’re interviewing for multiple roles, I recommend building a deck composed of about six projects. You’ll present two or three projects during your portfolio review and have the other few in your back pocket in case interviewers have additional questions during one-on-ones.

Tailoring Your Projects for the Role

After evaluation, it’s time to tailor the portfolio to the role. You’ll get a good sense of what to include (or exclude), what to show first, and what to put in the appendix based on the job description. Ideally you get a sense of their underlying needs from the phone interview. Not sure what to show? The recruiter (or a dedicated contact at the company) is your best ally in this process. Don’t guess—reach out and ask them to describe their ideal candidate and what work they’d like to see.

Storytelling for Success

To make an impactful presentation, turn it into a story. You’re the hero of your own script. What trials on your path gave way to triumphs? Let’s break this down into three parts: presentation, project, and process.

Figure: Presentation, Projects, and Process

The majority of your presentation will be spent on process, but don’t skip context.

Presentation Outline

Your overall in-person portfolio outline will be similar to this:

  1. Title. Your name and interview date.

  2. Background. A snapshot of your education, skills, and experience.

  3. Projects overview. A snapshot of the projects you’ll be presenting.

  4. Projects. Detailed case studies of two or three projects.

  5. Thank you. The last slide and cue for interviewers to ask more questions.

  6. Additional projects. A few projects you might want to show to provide detail. These can come handy during one-to-one interviews.

Don’t skip the intro! Introducing yourself, your background, and the projects you’ll be showing sets the tone for the rest of the presentation.

Project Outline

Unlike a scannable online portfolio, you’ll want to keep your audience in some suspense and excitement. A mix of problem setting and storytelling is helpful:

  1. Problem. What was the issue that was identified; who raised it?

  2. Context. What was the company, the team, and the time frame, and what role did you play?

  3. Process. How did you do the work from initial discovery through to concepts, iteration, research, and collaboration with cross-functional partners?

  4. Outcomes. What was the result?

  5. Lessons learned. What would you have done differently given everything you know now?

You’ll spend the most of your presentation on process, showing your approach, how you framed the problem and moved the project forward while overcoming obstacles along the way. This is an excellent place to think of a narrative arc for each project.

The hero’s journey is one framework you can use to add a layer of excitement to your case study.

Figure: The Hero’s Journey

The hero’s journey is a popular framework for effective storytelling.

Here’s how the framework can be translated for design:

  1. You. About you and your background.

  2. Call to adventure. You found a big problem that no one saw.

  3. Refusal. But you already had many projects at the time.

  4. Mentor. A former manager encouraged you to take the first step.

  5. Crossing the threshold. You decided to re-prioritize your projects.

  6. Allies. As you embarked on your journey, you found support from engineering and research teams.

  7. Innermost cave. You created different concepts to address the problem.

  8. Ordeal. You tested your concepts and many of them failed…

  9. Seizing the sword. But you found solutions that worked and developed stronger bonds with your researcher counterpart.

  10. Journey back. As you started implementing the solution and working closely with the team, new challenges emerged.

  11. Resurrection. Finally, you were able to overcome these challenges and emerge with a new solution that no one had thought of before.

  12. Elixir. You obtained new knowledge, moved metrics, and acquired customer love.

Don’t force yourself to use all the elements, as it might make your case study formulaic and rigid. Instead, take a few that lend themselves well to your project already and build them out.

Process Ingredients

Talking about process lets interviewers peek behind the curtain on how you approach the work. This is an opportunity to show what matters most to you and what methods you use to inform and evolve your work at each stage.

Figure: Process Ingredients

You choose the process ingredients for the best result. Photo by Calum Lewis

Here are some process ideas worth considering for your slides:

  1. Problem framing. How did you reframe the problem you were given?

  2. Synthesis. How did you synthesize data from different sources to understand the problem at hand?

  3. Constraints. How did you overcome the constraints of a project (lack of money, time, and so on)?

  4. Data science. What did the quantitative analysis tell you?

  5. Compromise. When did you have to lose a battle to win the war? How did you navigate tough decisions?

  6. Rough sketches, whiteboards, sticky notes. Don’t just include the sticky notes, but tell a story why a rough sketch helped you move forward in the design process.

  7. User research. What validation have you done? Did you survey, interview customers, or test out the competition?

  8. Changing requirements. Did the requirements change on you mid-project? Take that opportunity to highlight your adaptability.

  9. Technical constraints. What system issues did you encounter? How did you collaborate with engineering to come to a great solution together?

  10. Conflict with co-workers. You wanted to zig but they wanted to zag—how did you resolve differences?

  11. Ideas left behind. You had to move fast and not everything got implemented. What was left out and what would you take forward?

Presenting a compelling (not comprehensive) narrative is your main goal, so don’t be afraid to leave things out.

important Put extra work in the appendix. It may be tempting to add a lot of context and describe your process from beginning to end. If your deck is starting to get over 60 slides however, watch out for timing. If there are additional details that don’t significantly alter your story, include those in the appendix. If questions come up, you can always pull from that section. This will also free you up in delivering a strong presentation from the beginning since you’re not worried about going over time.

Write a Script

Now that you have all the key ingredients, it’s time to write a script. This may sound like extra work, and you may even wonder, isn’t a script going to make me sound stiff and predictable? Nothing could be further from the truth. A script allows you to see a bird’s-eye view of the presentation and ensures that you don’t lose sight of key points you want to communicate.

As you’re writing out your script, take note of your presentation’s flow. When you’re done, present your portfolio in the mirror as if you’re interviewing yourself. Time it. Inevitably you’ll need to pause and make adjustments to the script. After doing a couple of run-throughs with it, not only will you improve your content but you’ll by then have it memorized to the point of it becoming second nature.

Next, present your work to friends. Lure them in with snacks, but get them hooked with the story. When you start interviewing, don’t stop improving the presentation deck. If you get confused looks, yawns, or people checking their phones, that’s a sign.

Portfolio Presentation: Public Speaking Tips14 minutes

Amplify your message and engage your audience. Your speech will be part script, part improv. Here we’ll cover presentation basics from where to sit to how to end on a high note. These days many companies are shifting in-person portfolios to online conference calls. While the context is different, many of the same tips still apply.

Your Content on a Silver Platter

Think about the last time you went out to a restaurant. What did you order? Where did you eat? If it was a high-end restaurant—the light (or the lack thereof), the ambience, the music, and the way your dish was presented all played into a delectable experience at first bite.

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