There is a brutal cycle that starts every design career: You apply for junior-level jobs in order to gain experience, but you’re told again and again that you don’t have enough experience.
This process can be tremendously disheartening. We’ve all designed wonderful apps for take-home design challenges and never gotten a response, or crashed and burned in a whiteboard challenge, or simply had a bad phone screen.
But don’t give up! Designers need to fill the relatively empty valley between two bustling hilltops of junior and senior talent.
As a result, plenty of companies will climb the crowded junior designer hilltop looking for potential. Keep in mind that this is some great news. None of these companies expect a junior designer to know everything, so now you don’t need to pretend that you do. What a relief!
Sure, you need a résumé that doesn’t over-hype simple achievements and doesn’t include every job you’ve ever had. You also need to practice your interview skills and be able to lead a design discussion on a whiteboard.
But between these steps, you need to stand out. More often than not, your personal website is the way to do it. Your unique domain on the web should highlight who you are and why you are just the right amount of awesome.
Here’s what a hiring manager hopes to see when snooping around your site:
- Clarity. This gets misinterpreted. Clarity isn’t only about process. It is also, perhaps more importantly, about uncovering and understanding insights that will lead to better products. Make sure that you highlight the questions you asked that led to critical insights. Process is important, but few visitors to your website are reading three paragraphs about your third and fourth personas. Focus your project descriptions on the problem, the design explorations, the testing, and the solution.
- Competency. Cover the basics. Show the work you’ve done, whether it was professional or a side gig to gain experience. Describe your journey through the design process. How you arrived at a solution is usually far more important in these circumstances than how much your polished flat design sparkles.
- Drive. Maybe you haven’t designed a mobile app from scratch. Maybe you haven’t worked with a team on enterprise software. Have you done anything about it? Go to a hackathon or do a side project just for fun. Show that you’ve recognized your shortcomings as a junior designer and you’ve taken active steps to address the situation.
When founders, PMs, and design directors look at your site, their eyes scan the page for clarity, competency, and drive. Make these things obvious because your site only gets a glance along with a slew of other candidates.
So, here’s the rub. Even if you include these key elements in your website, it still might have one glaring issue. You might have a site right off the junior designer assembly line.
It goes something like this:
“Here’s my project. I started by creating five personas. I gave them names and even included irrelevant information to give them personality. I then developed flows. They are quite detailed and the elements are too small and the labels are hard to read. Next came the wireframes, and I really focused on keeping it loose. I also want to be clear that I hand-sketched lots of things. So many, in fact, that it might be hard to follow the narrative at this point. Then I made a prototype with InVision. It worked really well, so I actually spent most of my time making these really detailed designs in Studio in order to show that I also have UI chops.”
Don’t do this!
Every project has nuances and unique challenges. That’s what you should focus on. That’s what is compelling about your design evolution. Knowing about personas and user testing is table stakes—don’t waste time with that.
As you went through your design process, what came out of left field? What caused you and your team to reevaluate what you were doing? That’s where you dig in. If you prototyped something and users helped you realize there was a gap in the flow, then that’s your story.
Sending your unique project down the online portfolio assembly line isn’t doing you any favors. Stand out. Don’t worry about telling a design manager all about how badly you messed up, because you then have the opportunity to explain how you fixed it. Don’t include something like personas if they didn’t have a major impact on the project and were therefore unnecessary.
“Sending your unique project down the online portfolio assembly line isn’t doing you any favors.”
In the day-to-day world of design, there are large design challenges and small design requests. If someone on your team makes a small design request to fix something, it’s probably a bad idea to go deep with ethnographic studies, right? Just dive in and fix it!
Have your online portfolio reflect this aspect of the design profession. Show your best work, highlight the specific challenges that arose, explain your solutions, and share what you learned from your failures.
More on design portfolios
I am the Product Designer at Farmers Business Network working on tools that enable farmers to gain an edge against the oligopolies of the agriculture industry. Prior to that, I was the Experience Designer at Extole, a design consultant for early stage startups, and a contract agency designer. I began to integrate UX strategies into my architectural design when creating environments for top companies throughout the Bay Area. I was featured in publications such as Fast Company and presented research at the American Solar Energy Society's national conference.