5 Steps to Creating a Design Portfolio
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Summary: A good portfolio should contain case studies highlighting your design process as well as finished work in order to help others better understand who you are as a designer.
The word “designer” can mean many different things and include many possible skillsets and responsibilities. This can make it difficult for companies hiring designers and increases the importance of designers effectively showing their skills to differentiate themselves. This is where the portfolio comes in. Design portfolios showcase who their owners are: the areas in which they specialize, their strengths, their processes, and their style. If you are looking for a job as a designer, a portfolio is essential.
A common misconception about design portfolios is that they are only made up of final designs but they need to do more. Your portfolio needs to explain your work and tell the story of its success. This article will guide you through the steps of creating a design portfolio that encompasses your entire process and not just the shiny, final artifacts.
What Hiring Managers Are Looking For
As part of the research on careers, we surveyed professionals in charge of hiring about what they look for in a portfolio. Here are some things they mentioned:
“Show me how you started with an opportunity and produced real value for a user and the organization.”
“I’m curious to know what isn’t in the design and why, just as much as I’d like to know why elements made it in.”
“Don’t just show me the finished product. I want to see the messy process and all the work and research that was put in to land on that shiny polished design. Tell me the problem you were trying to solve, your role, any constraints, project timeline, changes from iteration to iteration and how the research informed the design.”
The audience or “users” of your portfolio will be hiring managers, recruiters, or fellow design professionals, so your portfolio must appeal to these different groups of people. Think about which capabilities you want to showcase and how each group will understand this information. Very rarely will hiring managers take the time to read your entire portfolio word for word — which is one reason why your portfolio should be scannable and not contain unnecessary detail.
Before designing your portfolio, prioritize what you want to communicate. What are the top three things about you and your work that a reader of your portfolio should take away? Revisit this question once your portfolio is completed to make sure you achieved your goal.
Putting It Together
Step 1: Take Inventory of All Your Projects
Design professionals work on many types of projects and tasks. Therefore, it may be difficult to narrow down what to include in a portfolio. The first step is to take inventory of the projects you’ve worked on.
You’ll want to showcase your specialties through multiple types of work. To do this, consider all your projects and ask yourself the following questions:
- What am I really good at?
- Which design activities do I really like to do?
- What differentiates me from other designers?
- On which projects did I bring the most value?
- From which projects did I learn the most?
- What interesting stories can I tell about the work that I did?
Prioritize projects that align to the work you’re looking for. When seeking a new job, tailor your project selection to the job duties you want to perform. For example, if you really enjoy prototyping, showcase projects where you created prototypes and how they benefited the ultimate outcome. You don’t want to promote work that you don’t like doing, so be sure to avoid adding in projects that don’t align with your future career goals.
Step 2: Choose 3–5 Projects as Detailed Case Studies
Quality over quantity is the best rule to follow when putting together your portfolio. Since hiring managers don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to each candidate’s portfolio, it’s best to choose a few of your best projects to showcase from your prioritized list you made in the previous step. The projects you choose should align to the work that is described in the job description.
The number of projects you include is not important per se. What’s important is that your portfolio showcases a wide variety of work and skills — so, if you had substantial, varied contributions to a small set of big projects, emphasize the many different activities that you were involved in.
In addition to visuals for each project, create a case study that includes the following information:
- The problem(s) you had to solve and the hypothesis you came up with for solving it. Set the scene for your reader with a quick sentence explaining what this project is all about. What’s the product? What was the briefing? Did you have a certain idea or expectation for the project when you began? Think about what the reader needs to know to appreciate the project, this provides context.
Jot down the main points before doing anything else. Start with content before design rather than writing content to fit the design. Think of your project in phases, write too much about it, then edit this as you begin to design.
Your specific role in the project and how you collaborated with others. This could be as simple as listing “art direction & design” beside the project summary or listing the full team like a film.
How you came to your proposed solution(s). In a paragraph or two, explain how you worked through the project. Why did you choose that approach? Did you take a unique angle or notice some surprising insight? Ask the question “why,” and then answer that question.
What were the challenges you faced? Were they unexpected or things you planned for? Consider including design concepts that were ultimately not pursued but don’t get distracted.
How your proposed solution(s) solved the problem. A case study should ideally be a success story. If it’s not, tell us why it’s meaningful and what you learned from it.
What you learned.
These case studies should be displayed in a way that is scannable and easy to follow. Think of each case study like a magazine feature. Magazine spreads are designed to fully immerse you in the piece. They include photos at specific places to illustrate a point. They use pull quotes to pique your interest or point out a compelling part. Think about the story you want to tell with your case study. Each story is unique, and your case studies should be too.
Remember, the final images only tell part of the story. Hiring managers want to understand how you work and giving them a glimpse of your process will help them envision how you fit in with their teams. Include relevant photos and screenshots that tell the story, including early sketches, whiteboards, research documentation, or final images.
Write in your own voice and don’t try to impress with lofty language. Be as clear as possible. The reader should finish reading with a sense of your personality (the good parts anyway). A word of warning, I say all of this but don’t write a novel. You don’t get graded on word count anymore.
Step 3: Choose Your Desired Format
There are three common formats for designer portfolios:
A web-based portfolio is a website or online service that displays your work. Web-based portfolios are the most common medium for designers. Resist the urge to go overboard on a flashy template. Your content should be the main focus and your site should be easy to navigate and consume.
- Pros: Easy for hiring managers and design professionals to find and view organically. Many options for setup that don’t require coding knowledge
- Cons: More difficult to tailor your portfolio to different job types. May force you to adapt your info to a predefined template
- PDF / Slide Deck
Another popular medium for portfolios is a digital PDF or slide deck, which acts as a presentation of your projects. When creating a digital portfolio, keep a master PDF or slide deck with all of your projects included so you can hide projects depending on the job you’re applying for or the skills you want to highlight.
- Pros: Allows you to have multiple unique, job-tailored portfolios
- Cons: Harder to access (e.g., may have to be explicitly shared with the hiring manager)
- Physical Artifacts
Physical portfolios are more common with print designers, but you can bring physical artifacts that you use during your design process — such as sketches or paper prototypes — into an interview. Couple your physical pieces with either a web-based or PDF portfolio so that hiring managers can see your work prior to an interview.
- Pros: Can be brought along to interviews to help you talk through your process
- Cons: Very limited access, hard to share with hiring managers
Regardless of format, your portfolio should tell a story. Break up text with visuals and make a clear distinction between projects.
Step 4: Create Your Portfolio
Now that you have a plan for your projects and format, you can start putting everything together. Regardless of which format you’ve chosen, create a basic template that you’ll follow so that all of your projects look cohesive.
- Main Title Page: Your name, contact info, and a brief introduction of what you do
- Project Title Page: Introduction and description/goals of each project.
- Images with captions: keep it consistent. Almost all (probably all) images should have accompanying text to give it context within the project. This starts with the process and experience.
- Results: Final layouts, icons, charts, and other elements. Also findings, quotes, etc that communicate what was learned.
Step 5: Get Feedback and Iterate
Once your portfolio is created, send it to others to provide feedback. Another set of eyes on your portfolio will catch spelling or grammar errors, confusion about content, and the overall usability of your format.
As you interview with hiring managers, make note of what resonates with them and what is unclear. Then iterate on your portfolio.
As you work on new projects going forward, save any artifacts or process documents to use as future case studies in your portfolio. Your portfolio will always be a work in progress and having an efficient method for keeping track of projects will make updates simple.
The first job is the hardest to get. It’s difficult to present a compelling design portfolio if all you can show for yourself is student projects. We strongly recommend having an internship in a company, so that you have at least one real-world project to show.
A key aspect of any design is the ability to deal with constraints. Student projects often have made-up constraints — including made-up users and personas — which make them uncompelling proof of your ability to design for the real world. If you’re still working on your student projects, select problems that have business relevance (i.e., will make money) and realistic constraints. If you’re already done, at least acknowledge any unrealistic elements of your student projects in your portfolio description, so that managers don’t conclude that you don’t know any better.
Portfolios will always be a part of a designer’s process. Creating a portfolio that showcases your strengths in a way that appeals to your audience will help you land your next design job. The act of creating a portfolio allows you to identify your skills and achievements while reflecting on the work you want to do in the future.
When creating your design portfolio, remember these tips:
- Curate, curate, curate
- Show real work, even if it’s messy
- Highlight collaboration with teams
- Reflect on who you are as a designer and where you want to be