This is the second post in Sarah Doody’s series about portfolio design. Read the first post here.
This is going to be a bit controversial, but let’s face it, you’re probably approaching burnout when it comes to your portfolio. Maybe you’ve been applying for roles and keep getting ghosted, and you’ve probably read one too many articles that are full of opinion and surface level content.
You want “tell it like it is” advice and insights into the UX hiring process. Because this is the only way you’ll make faster progress on your portfolio, gain confidence in your work, and stand out from other candidates. So let’s jump right in.
For most UX roles, a portfolio is a requirement. The first question that UX folks get stuck on is, “what format should my UX portfolio be in?” If you’re like most UX people I talk to, you overthink this tremendously—debating the pros and cons, going down one path only to get frustrated and start over.
The three primary portfolio formats
There are three main formats to choose for your UX portfolio:
- Platform website where you have a profile to showcase your work.
- Personal website with your own domain and hosting.
- PDF document of your work.
In my research in over 100 hours of interviews with UX designers, hiring managers, and recruiters, I’ve learned a few things about the pros and cons of each approach.
The format that you choose needs to be based on the skills you want to showcase and what type of designer you are.
1. Platform website where you have a profile to showcase your work
Early in my career I discovered platforms such as Creative Hotlist and Coroflot and I was so excited. I thought “This is awesome, I’ll get discovered on these sites.”
I was so wrong!
I can’t recall getting any type of full time or freelance role as a result of being on these websites. In hindsight, the problem is that when you are on a platform or marketplace, it’s even harder to stand out from the rest!
When someone is on your profile page, it’s so easy for them to see someone else’s work and click away. Platforms seem great in theory, but it’s easy to be a little fish in a big sea.
The second challenge with platforms is that they’re very visually-focused, but they don’t provide a lot of flexibility and design options to truly tell the story of your project. You need to showcase your visuals and pair it with contextual text because when it comes to your portfolio, a picture is NOT worth a thousand words.
2. Personal website with your own domain and hosting
After not having much luck with posting my work on design platforms, I realized I probably needed my own website.
A designer friend of mine and I used to spend hours plotting our careers and we assumed a personal website would serve as a great “home base” online. We knew people would Google us and we wanted to show up in search results. Frankly, it just seemed more professional.
What I didn’t realize at the time (I’ll date myself, we’re talking probably 2002 – 2003) is that there was a huge advantage in having people come to your website versus view your work on a platform.
I alluded to this earlier, but when people are on your website, you have them trapped! There isn’t risk that they’ll see a thumbnail of someone else’s work, get distracted, and click away from your profile.
It is important to note that I do not encourage you to use this as an opportunity to learn to code. Unless you are a front-end developer who wants to showcase your coding skills, I see no need to code it yourself, and instead, I fully encourage you to leverage existing tools such as WordPress, Squarespace, Wix, and the many others that exist.
But a template won’t save you! It’s all about the CONTENT of your UX portfolio.
There are two more cautions I offer you when it comes to having a personal website to showcase all your work.
First, if your work is all on a website, then you’re likely sending everyone the same link. This prevents you from tailoring your UX portfolio to each role you apply for. A customized portfolio is something that helps you stand out, and that’s one of the advantages of a PDF portfolio.
Second, you’ll be faced with challenges of designing within the confines of that website builder that you use. Students in my UX Portfolio Formula program routinely email me to say how they started down the path of making their portfolio as a website, but that it’s taking MUCH longer than they imagined. But after making their portfolio as a PDF, they are able to finish it in a month or less.
I finished my UX bootcamp and worked in the social sector before getting hired to work on an early-stage startup as a solo designer in a remote team.
I wasn’t learning much, just pushing pixels and also getting demotivated. But I had no portfolio to begin the job search. I freaked out big time!
That’s when I signed up for the UX Portfolio Formula program. I finished my portfolio in a month, did a lot of networking and finally landed a job as a UX Designer at a social-impact company with a great design team and amazing pay. All in a matter of 2 months!
– Puja, UX Designer
Sidenote: If you do want to make your portfolio as a website, then you can get my free Wix.com portfolio template. And be sure to walkthroughalk through video so you understand the “why” behind the template.
3. PDF portfolio of your work
After I had my own personal website created, I had another a-ha moment. I realized that sometimes I wanted to tailor my portfolio to each role I applied for, but with a website, that was very difficult. So I decided to make a PDF of my work and that changed the game for me.
First, I was able to make my portfolio much faster. I personally designed mine in Keynote and this meant I didn’t have to fiddle with CSS or mobile responsiveness. It allowed me to focus on the content, the most important thing.
Second, with a PDF I was able to tailor the portfolio for each role. Sometimes that meant changing how I talked about a project. Sometimes it was as simple as re-ordering the projects in the PDF.
Third, with a PDF, this means that your work is not public on the Internet. This helps solve the problem that some people have with showing work publicly. For work that may be sensitive or confidential in nature, you may be able to include it in your portfolio if it’s not going to be out there for the world to see. Of course, check your contracts and ask your employers.
Next, I want to address a question that comes up all the time: Should my portfolio exist in all three formats?
NO! This simply gives you more to maintain, and you don’t have time to be doing this. Your time should be focused on the actual job search and preparing for interviews!
What’s the ideal setup?
If I was in the early or mid-level of my career, here’s what I would do:
I would use a personal website as my home base; this would give people a glimpse into who I am, why I’m passionate about what I do, and a sampling of some of my work.
I would NOT have full project write-ups or case studies; Instead, I would give a preview of some of my work. I might have a few visuals from a project, and 3–5 sentences about it to pique some interest.
Then, the key call to action on my website would be “contact me for my full portfolio”. This helps start a conversation and helps you make a connection with the person viewing it.
My full portfolio would be a PDF. And I would tailor that PDF to each role, sometimes even changing out the projects I include, depending on the role.
Another benefit to having your full portfolio be a PDF is that you can use it during the actual interview process. If you get the stage of in-person interviews, you’ll likely be asked to talk through a project or two in your portfolio. Trying to project a website and present sections of the screen can make for a confusing experience for the people in the audience!
Major portfolio considerations
The format you choose for your portfolio is up to you. But, before you get too far down any one path, you need to think through the entire experience!
You need to consider what you’ll present at an in-person interview, your comfort level with making a website, the degree to which you want to tailor your portfolio, and so much more.
Creating your UX portfolio does not have to take months, but it 100% will if you fail to think through the strategy of the whole experience. It’s just like a product—before you jump into the details, you must come up with the product strategy.
And just remember, your portfolio will never be done! So don’t strive for perfection. The sooner you get your portfolio to a place that accurately represents your skills and experience, the sooner you can start applying to roles and gauging response to your portfolio.
Want to learn more about creating a great portfolio?
by Sarah Doody
Sarah Doody is a User Experience Designer, Entrepreneur, and Educator. She is the founder of The UX Portfolio Formula, a UX career accelerator that helps UX professionals learn how to articulate their work so they can create an awesome portfolio. In 2011, she created the curriculum for and taught General Assembly’s first 12-week UX immersive, the genesis of their popular UX programs which are now taught worldwide.