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8 things to know about building a design portfolio

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Two years ago, I was finishing my last semester of college and preparing for the seminal moment in a design student’s life: portfolio reviews and finding a job. And even though I was finishing a degree in graphic design, I was looking for a full-time job as a UX/UI designer.

My hard work paid off. I landed a job at Bloc, and it’s been a magical time.

But it was a painful process. I got a lot of rejection emails and made a lot of mistakes. Now that I’m building a company that creates new UX designers on a daily basis, I can look back at my old portfolio and pass on those lessons learned. Here are 8 things that I got right and wrong.

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1. Present your work as a case study

Fill your portfolio with as many case studies as possible.

When I applied to jobs in college, I filled my portfolio with big, beautiful visuals. I applied to UX/UI jobs left and right, with no luck. “Why? What am I doing wrong?”

“Show that you can solve problems, and you’ll show that you’re worth hiring.”

I asked a friend for help—and she passed along a few portfolios of friends who’d gotten hired at top-tier companies and…

They all had case studies. Rich, wonderful case studies that talked about their design process, their successes and failures, and their ultimate design solutions.

I thought, Why couldn’t I have case studies?

So I added case studies. And, success. My employer response rate jumped.

Big beautiful images look great, but they don’t tell a hiring manager if you can solve a problem. Can you design a solution that makes your users, clients, and stakeholders happy? Can you talk about your process—what solutions you tried, what worked, what didn’t, and why? Can you show heaps of work including prototypes, wireframes, scrapped visuals that shows your rigorous problem solving skills?

Show that you can solve problems, and you’ll show that you’re worth hiring.

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2. Carefully curate your portfolio

Should your portfolio be specialized or general? For design students, this choice is tough. Some educators advise to diversify your portfolio: show a variety of work—be it packaging, print, advertising, and web. Others encourage to specialize. You like mobile apps? You want to build mobile apps in the future? Fill your portfolio with mobile apps.

If you’re still exploring careers, and you’re not sure what you’d like to do, I say that it’s good to show breadth. But if you want to design mobile apps, and only design mobile apps—then specialize, specialize, specialize. The majority of work in your portfolio should be that specialty.

When I was starting out, I wanted to do UI design, so I applied for UI positions. My portfolio was filled with web or mobile interface design. But here’s the secret: my entire body of work over the past three years wasn’t all web—over half of it was print. But I didn’t want a print job, so I omitted it. And I got the job I wanted.

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3. Showcase real-world work, even if it’s got problems

In school, I had an excellent internship. I designed beautiful work—and my team was thrilled with it. I left my internship proud and pleased. But shortly after, the project fell apart, and my team disbanded—partially because of the work I did!

Awkward. The work looked great, but the project ultimately failed. Should I put it in my portfolio, even though I’d have to talk about it to future employers?

I put it in my portfolio.

And man, it was awkward: during interviews, I presented a project that I ultimately failed on. But, being honest about failure was an asset. I spoke frankly about how the project succeeded, and how it failed. I talked about what could be better. I showed that I tried, and learned. And that went over well with the designers I spoke with.

“Showcase real-world work in your portfolio, even if it’s got problems.”

When a designer interviews you, they don’t know what it’s like to work with you… until they do work with you. So as a substitute, show that you’ve worked with others. This real-world experience demonstrates your character—it shows that you can work with a team of stakeholders, under tough deadlines and constraints. And if that project has a poor outcome, talking about it is good. You’re not ashamed of the un-sexy work you’ve created, but you’re smart to be critical of the outcome.

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4. Less design exercises. More in-depth case studies.

Portfolio #1: typography poster, ad for hypothetical product, Reddit redesign.

Portfolio #2: ad for hypothetical product, Facebook redesign, concert poster.

Portfolio #3: Craigslist redesign, fake mobile app, fake ad campaign.

Go through hundreds of portfolios, and it’s not that hard to spot class projects.

Let me be clear: posters from your first-year typography class look cool! But they don’t show that you can work independently and solve problems—they show that you can follow a prompt. If you choose to showcase design exercises in your portfolio, make sure those exercises involve rigorous problem solving, and make ’em case studies!

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5. Talk about results

I was interviewing for an internship.

I completed a design exercise for the firm, and I was explaining my concept to the interviewer. I’d designed a flashy, interactive wireframe with tons of features, and as I finished up my sentence, I felt proud and confident.

And then the interviewer asked, “What goals are you trying to accomplish with this design?”

I stammered out a reiteration of the prompt they’d given me.

The interviewer paused. I balked. Needless to say, I didn’t get the internship.

“If your design doesn’t improve the user’s experience, it’s purely decorative and useless.”

I love seeing beautiful, entertaining interaction design work. I spend hours drooling over the layouts on Site Inspire. But I know this from my own work: If your design doesn’t improve the user’s experience, solve the business goals, or whatever outcome you set, it’s purely decorative and useless.

Talk about results. Get real data if you can. But if you can’t—and it’s hard for student projects—interview your users or stakeholders to get a grip on whether or not your design achieves it’s outcomes. Always start and end a project with a goal and an outcome.

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6. Make your portfolio easy to navigate

Today, I have to conduct user interviews, meet with stakeholders, design a sticker, approve a UI change, prototype some concepts for a new feature, and review the last 20 resumes that’ve come in.

I have to quickly separate the good portfolios from the bad.

I have—at best—2 minutes per portfolio.

“Your portfolio should be easy to browse on mobile.”

I’ve seen beautiful, neat, innovative work. I’ve seen designers experiment with interesting layouts and wonderful site designs. But if I find myself lost—if I can’t navigate your site quickly and easily, I’m frustrated.

Make sure a user can move through your portfolio quickly and with ease. Make sure it’s easy to browse on mobile! If the user experience of your portfolio isn’t as good as the user experience of your work, it doesn’t reflect well on your talent as a designer.

And yes—make sure your portfolio is online!

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7. Do your research, and write sincerely

I received an excellent email application from a designer.

Sincere, succinct, straight to the point—she showed that she had a passion for education, aligned with our mission, and she threw in a dash of humor, to boot.

I set up an interview the next day. And in time, she got the job.

“Ditch the cover letter.”

A hiring manager reads hundreds of cover emails. The majority start with “Dear Hiring Manager…”, outline the applicant’s experience in excessive, flowery speech, and usually end with the candidate being “fully aligned with your mission.”

Ditch the cover letter. Show you’re a passionate, excellent designer through that first email—it’s much more effective than a template. Talk about problems you’ve tackled in the company’s industry. Show that you know the company inside and out. Show that you really, truly care.

Be brief, but be sincere—it shows through in a sea of templates.

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8. Let your passion show

In my first interview with Bloc, I went on a 10-minute rant about design education, the value of self-driven learning, the difficulties of being self-taught, growing needs in the design community, new tools I was trying… and I looked up, embarrassed about running my mouth for a few minutes.

But, that’s passion.

The design community changes and grows. Showing that you’re passionate about the industry and the company? That really shows good character.

Talk about what you’re interested in. Get involved in the community, online or in-person. Share links, start discussions, write about your field of interest. Contribute, even if you’re still learning.

And let that passion shine.

This post was originally published on Medium.

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Author

Emelyn Baker
Emelyn is the Design Lead at Bloc, an online program for learning development and design with a mentor. She's worked with Fortune 500s to companies of 5, and currently writes about the challenges of designing at a start-up. Read more of her work on Medium, or check out her portfolio.

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