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Creating a great design portfolio

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A design portfolio is more than just a collection of images—it tells your story. Tell a compelling story, and you can get almost any potential employer or client to pay attention to you.

At CareerFoundry, we help people go from beginner to design professional in a matter of months. Part of that process involves guiding them to create a portfolio that showcases their very best work so they can land a job. Read on for our best advice on what your portfolio should demonstrate, where to host it, and how to present your work during an interview.

“Your portfolio should tell your story.”

What makes a good portfolio?

Treat creating your portfolio like any other design project you’d take on. It should show:

  • A solid understanding of common design trends and principles
  • A strong command of color
  • Polished solutions
  • A diverse selection of pieces that showcase your experience
  • Your process

It should specifically include:

  • High-resolution examples of your very best, recent work
  • Captions that explain the design and note results achieved
  • Photos of print projects in real life—not just the digital files of the artwork
  • A way to get in touch with you (list your email address or include a contact form)
Screenshot of Clark Wimberly's design portfolio. Note how he's kept things simple and clearly spells out what he's all about.

Screenshot of Clark Wimberly’s design portfolio website. Note how he’s kept things simple and clearly states what he’s all about.


What makes for a not-so-great portfolio:

  • Including way too many examples—or so few examples that it looks like you haven’t done anything
  • Including so many different and outdated examples that it looks like the work of several designers
  • Spelling and grammar mistakes in the captions—or no captions at all
“Your portfolio has to be good enough to make someone want to talk to you.”

Try following this framework as you craft your story:

State the problem
Clearly state what sort of problems you were solving with each design, and how you helped your client or employer identify those problems.

Show off your design process
Employers not only want to see what you design but how you designed it, so show off your process for arriving at this design conclusion. Medium did an amazing job of this when they explained the process behind their new logo.

Medium shows off some potential logos styles.

Medium shows off some potential logos styles.

Explain yourself
Each section should have a brief explanation for why you did what you did. This helps potential employers get inside your head so that they know what to expect from you when you join their team.

“In your portfolio, take the opportunity to show off your design process.”

Try to answer questions like: 

  • What did you learn from previous iterations that lead you to this iteration?
  • What common design principles or patterns are you adhering to and why?
  • What makes this a clean and functional solution?
  • What other information guided your design choices?

Share the results
Explain how your designs successfully impacted the business. This could be increased traffic, higher conversion rates, or other positive data. Stick with metrics here if at all possible, and try to avoid buzzwords. (We all know you’re a rockstar superninja.)

A great example from Rostelecom’s mobile site.

A great example from Rostelecom’s mobile site.

Where to host your portfolio

There are a ton of great options for hosting your portfolio, each with their own pros and cons and levels of customizability. Here are a few I really like:

Dribbble
Dribbble is where designers of all types show off their designs in 400×300 pixel squares called shots. On Dribbble, it’s easy to browse through a designer’s portfolio. Upgrading to a Pro account allows you to attach the full pixels to a Dribbble shot. This helps you tell more of the story to potential employers, rather than just showing off a small piece of it.

Squarespace
Squarespace gives you a deep level of portfolio customization but doesn’t require too much technical knowledge. It’s okay to start with a template, but don’t be afraid to customize it as you see fit. Your portfolio should be one of a kind.

Dianna Su’s simple, yet effective UX portfolio.

Dianna Su’s simple, yet effective UX portfolio.

Custom portfolio website
Hosting your own portfolio website allows for the deepest customization of all, since you have control over the website’s code. However, this requires at least basic knowledge of HTML and CSS. This also usually comes with a cost, since you’ll be hosting the website on your own server.

This may be the most technically challenging type of portfolio, but there are some frameworks that can take make it a bit simpler. WordPress has some great themes and plugins for design portfolios. You can also use Github Pages to host a website that is completely customizable and a breeze to deploy. 

The interview

So now that you’ve got a solid portfolio, how do you go about presenting your work to your potential employer? Well, it depends a lot on the interview format.

The remote interview
You’ll likely do a video interview via Skype or Google Hangouts. The main thing here is an obvious one: make sure you have a reliable internet connection and that your microphone is working properly. Before the interview, do a test run with a friend to make sure everything is functioning and you know how to quickly share your screen.

The in-person interview
There are many different formats for onsite interviews, but most likely you’ll be meeting either with one person at a time, a group of people, or a combination.

I’ve been in an interview that lasted the entire day. It started off as a one-on-one with the hiring manager, then they brought in groups of 3, and then an entire room of people.

You don’t always know the exact format going in, so be prepared for anything.

One-on-one interviews
These interviews are great because they allow you to establish a closer connection with the interviewer. It also gives you a single person to focus on as you’re explaining your experience and walking them through your design process.

Group interviews
This is where things can get a little challenging. First off, always bring an adapter for your computer in case they want you to connect to a projector. Don’t assume they’ll have one for you.

“Never show up to a design interview without an adapter.”

When walking them through your portfolio, speak loudly and expect to be interrupted from time to time. The more people in the room, the more likely that someone will interject with questions or random thoughts.

Finally, don’t get caught up in small design details. Sure, attention to detail is good, but their time is valuable. So try to stick to describing your high-level design process and why you made the choices you did.

Conclusion

Your portfolio has to be good enough to make someone want to talk to you. And once you’ve created one you’re proud of, don’t forget to regularly update it.

If you’re just starting out and want to begin building your own design portfolio, check out the CareerFoundry UI Design Course.

Author

Eric Bieller
Eric Bieller is a  practicing UI designer and alongside his wife has given up a regular paycheck to become a digital nomad, swapping their permanent home to travel the world. Eric curated the UI Design Course with CareerFoundry after 10 years working and teaching in the field.

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