A more in-depth look at designers’ portfolios

Just six seconds. This is what is considered the time it takes to recruiters to look at curriculum vitae. Luckily, our hiring team spends far more time evaluating the candidates we get, not just because designers also have a portfolio to present, but also because we want to be sure to hire the best. This however doesn’t mean we don’t like to make a decision to move to the interview quickly.

Put yourself in the shoes of the person hiring

Why not applying your design skills designing your CV and portfolio with them in mind? What are their goals? Hiring for sure, but what are they looking for? Is there any focus that emerges from the job ad or from the kind of company you are applying to?

When I do hiring for a product designer or marketing designer position, I assure you there isn’t anything more frustrating of a designer that presents only really high quality visual designs. As the hiring person, I’m now torn: the visual design is excellent, but what if that’s all this designer has to offer? I want to give you the benefit of doubt, but… am I willing to take the risk? The answer is usually no, as other candidates clearly explain all I need to see and it won’t waste anybody’s time. Unless I’m hiring specifically for graphic design, visual-only portfolios aren’t an option.

People think that design is styling. Design is not style. It’s not about giving shape to the shell and not giving a damn about the guts. Good design is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need and beauty to produce something that the world didn’t know it was missing.
— Paola Antonelli

What we are looking for is the whys, the reasoning, what makes your work excellent, what you learned in the process – and also what makes your approach different on top of it.

What do we want to see in portfolios?

Experienced designers, especially product designers, have a large number of skills that are hard to communicate, and the visual design alone doesn’t even scratch the surface.

That’s why good case studies are fundamental in showing you work and how you think. Every designer knows this. But how to make that case study show who you are in a way that is efficient and time-aware?

Your role. Knowing about an amazing project is nice, but every single sentence should be written from your perspective. It’s important to describe briefly what were your responsibilities, how you collaborated with the team and the client, and what were the things you did.

  • Don’t — be too abstract, talk just about the project, take ownership of parts you didn’t do.
  • Do — be clear about what you did, how, with whom, how you work with them is relevant too, and give credit.

Process is certainly one of the most important things: where did you start? How did you get to the end? This doesn’t require to write a lot – no time, remember? – but enough to be specific to the project and still be clear about the steps.

  • Don’t — just mention the labels of the process, or just skip over it: “After research we did…”.
  • Do — say your role, what you did, how the work changed the direction of the project. Show some numbers if you can. One sentence or two is often enough.

Design is intelligence made visible
— Alina Wheeler

Show don’t tell. Surely the description of what the diagram is about is helpful, but showing example deliverable of each step is useful.

  • Don’t — add full deliverables. We won’t have time to read it all, and you probably wrote them for a different kind of audience.
  • Do — give us an highlight, show one page and tell us why it’s important.

No-style. Having a personal, characteristic style preference is amazing, and we love seeing how you express it. At the same time, are you also able to stay within the rules, guidelines, and patterns of an existing brand?

  • Don’t — show the same visual style everywhere.
  • Do — show how you read a different brand or design guideline.

Mobile is important. Sometimes it’s hard to be assigned on a project that is fully mobile, and not every business have a mobile app. We get it. But we also get that mobile is a hugely important part of design, and we’d like to see how you included that even in a normal website design.

  • Don’t — show only a single type of device: not all mobile, not all desktop.
  • Do — show us variety, and how you were able to consider mobile even if it wasn’t part of the brief.

Each single case study can include all of the above and still be very easy and quick to read. It doesn’t have to get into all the details, just in the ones that matter. Guide us through the portfolio. Copywriting is a design skill too, right?

There are always Design constraints, and these often imply an ethic.
— Charles and Ray Eames

These are important things we look in Automattic when we review the portfolios, but as you can see, these are also general principles of good portfolios. Even if you’re not applying to work with us – why not? – you can reuse these tips.

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By Erin 'Folletto' Casali

Designing Product Experiences · NED · Mentor · Speaker · Baker Framework Founder · ManifestoIbridi Author


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