18 June 2021
Design Practice

What to Include in Your Design Portfolio

The purpose of a portfolio site is simple: to showcase the skills you have to the people who might want them. As such I’m often surprised when I see folks who describe themselves as UX/UI designers, choose to focus their portfolio on the UI side of the equation. It feels to me that these people may be selling themselves short by only focusing on a fraction of their skill-set, but before I jump into details, let’s start with some caveats. 

First off I think it’s important to mention that you can put whatever you want in your portfolio and nobody is going to stop you. I’ve seen portfolio sites with everything from band fan sites to figurative drawings of ponies (and everything in between). All tell a story that’s meaningful to you. However, if we agree that the goal of a professional portfolio is to land work rather than be a source of personal self expression, what should you keep in and what should you throw out.

From a very personal point of view, a good portfolio should contain the sort of work you want to do. So if you want to do band fan sites or artists websites, definitely keep those in. Just be aware that these will set expectations in the minds of people looking at your portfolio. Some folks will LOVE your shared passion for Blink-182, while others may not understand how your equine obsession fits into their product needs. You be you, my glorious sparkle ponies.

For everybody else, it’s probably worth crafting a portfolio that looks a little bit more representative of the companies you want to engage with, and even better — delivered in the way that they’ll probably want you to deliver them (more on this later).

The other thing I want to caveat is that I’m mostly talking about communicating your services to professional buyers here. This can mean freelancers being hired by savvy founders, but I’m really talking about folks being hired to join an in-house team. The truth is, if you’re targeting a market that thinks design is limited to the visual output, your portfolio may not be the best place to try and educate them.

However let’s assume that you’re wanting a job at that well known brand, that cool agency or that exciting start-up. What should you put into your portfolio to maximise your chances of success? To understand this, it’s worth putting your empathy cap on, and thinking about the needs of the hiring managers. In the case of design, we’re usually (although not always) talking about an experienced designer or design leader.

The first challenge hiring managers face is that they often get deluged with applications. As such, I’m sorry to say that their first pass will probably be a hot take. They’ll be looking for a few specific things that they care about, and if they don’t see evidence for these, you may not get through to the second round. So my first tip is to make sure that whatever you send folks, it’s easily skimmable.

Now this doesn’t mean skimp on details. These will come in useful later. However make sure that you structure your portfolio so that the evidence the recruiters are looking for is, well, evident. If you’re positioning yourself as a UX/UI designer, product designer or similar, then visual design skills are table stakes. As such, showing high quality design comps to prove your graphic design skills are key.

Many designers limit themselves to showing just the end product. Perfect comps that are yet to be sullied by the clumsy hands of a developer. This tells me that you have high craft skills and if I’m primarily after a graphic designer, this may be enough.

However I want to understand the design process this person went through. Is this person a talented stylist who is skilled at aping the latest trends, or has this person used design to solve specific problems. If they have used design to solve a set of problems, I want to understand what those problems were, what options they experimented with, which ones worked, which ones failed and why. As such I love to see clearly articulated problem statements, early concept explorations, dead ends and descriptions of why the comps on show were the right ones for the job.

This reminds me of something my old Maths tutor used to explain to me. “You get 50% of the marks by getting the right answer” he used to say, “and the other 50% for demonstrating how you got there”. The purpose of doing this was to demonstrate that your right answer wasn’t a fluke. That you understand the equations you were solving and could replicate the process time and again. I’d argue that most hiring managers want the same thing from the people and the designers they hire. 

As product design is increasingly a team job, I also want to understand what your role in the process was. Did you inherit an existing design language or create one from scratch? Were you working with several other designers, or doing this on your own? What was the relationship like with your development partners, and what did the final product actually look like (versus your perfect comps)? All of these things give me a sense of a designer's collaboration and problem solving skills.

As an aside, it’s important to be honest here. I know one designer who I bought in for a couple of weeks of exploration and production work, claiming that they were responsible for the entire design. I know another agency who tried to claim our work as their own, without realizing we were involved in the same pitch. Word gets around, and it generally looks better if you explain that you were part of an effective team, that trying to claim sole responsibility.

OK, so rather than showing a few high quality final comps, you’ve explained the problem you were solving, explained some of the creative steps, and maybe even linked off to the live site. Job done, right?

Well maybe. Especially if you’re primarily looking for visual design work. However what about the UX bit of UX/UI? Are you just going to hope that the recruiter will look at the final product and assume that you’re equally great at the less tangible stuff that goes on under the hood?

I’ve heard a few people say that they actively don’t show any of their UX work because recruiters don’t get it. This may be true, although most of the specialist design recruiters I know have a pretty good understanding of the state of the talent market, the skills people have, and the skills companies need. So I sometimes wondering whether blaming stupid recruiters is more of a personal defence mechanism than anything else. “They couldn’t see the genius of my work, so they clearly don't get it.”

I also struggle with the logic here. Because if you have a portfolio that contains amazing visual design AND evidence of deep UX knowledge it seems unlikely that a recruiter will discount the former because of the existence of the latter. “I liked all the pretty pictures, but the white board sketches looked scrappy so it’s a pass from me”.

I’ve also seen people say that they don’t include the more detailed work because a) folks don't read it and b) they’ll go through it in the interview stage.

Now I’d agree that most people probably won’t read your beautifully crafted case study in the first instance, but many will scan it looking for the evidence they need. So what is it they’re looking for?

When I receive a CV, it usually contains a list of all the skills they claim to have and all the things they claim to be able to do—often with a rating scale with everything pushed up to eleven. Now it’s super easy to read a book or watch a tutorial and claim to be an expert at user journey mapping. So what I’m looking for on the UX side of the portfolio is evidence that the candidate can do, and has done, many of the things they claim.

If they claim to be great at user journey mapping, I want to see projects with three or four journey maps of different fidelities. If they claim to be good at prototyping I want to see sketched prototypes, low fidelity prototypes, interactive prototypes and animatics. If they claim to be expert workshop facilitators, I’d like to see evidence that they’re facilitated some workshops (a picture of you reading Game Storming doesn't count). Above all, I want to understand why. Why did you choose to use this tool rather than that tool? What worked? What didn’t? What would you do differently next time?

As the hiring lead, I’ll scan through potential candidates and strip out any that fail to provide sufficient evidence of their claims. As such, it’s worth including this evidence up front, as there’s a chance you won’t make it through to the next round on the strength of your visual portfolio alone. Especially if the hiring manager has received hundreds of applications, many of which demonstrate strong visual design skills AND strong conceptual design skills.

Now as a designer you can choose not to put these things in, and if your other work is strong enough, you may still make it through to the next phase. You may feel that your work speaks for itself and you don’t need to communicate your hidden talents. Or you might just get enough offers that you can’t be arsed. These are all valid—if slightly ego-centric—excuses. 

However if you’re positioning yourself as a UX/UI designer and want to maximise your opportunities and land a role at a company that understands design and is looking for somebody to exercise their UX skills, it seems sensible to include these in your portfolio. Even if you start with the visual stuff first, and leave the conceptual stuff for the small handful of people that want to go deeper. Because it’s better to have it, and people not read it, than to not have it, and miss out on opportunities as a result.

Based on this recent thread, a few people have asked if I could review their portfolio, so here's the deal. I'd be happy to provide you with some external feedback via Loom for a fee of £175. The proceeds from the first half dozen of these sessions will go to a charity of my choice. Drop me a line if you'd like to know more.