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Five steps to a better design portfolio

09 Nov 2006

If you’re looking for work as a designer, the old cliche is true: a picture is worth a thousand words. That is, your portfolio is your most important calling card.

I’ve been involved in hiring all sorts of designers – freelance, contract, full-time, in all sorts of disciplines – visual, interaction, illustration, print. Through this process, I’ve seen a lot of portfolios; some good, many bad. Here’s a few things I’ve learned while wading through them all.

1. Use best practices First of all, if you want a job doing web design, make sure your portfolio itself is an example of good web design. That doesn’t just mean making it attractive and easy to use, but also following the fundamental principles of what sets the web apart. When I’m checking out a portfolio, I look at the craft and detail that went into making it. For example:

These are just a few examples, but they’re all issues of control. And they serve as subtle clues that the owner of the portfolio designs for users, rather than their own ego.

Here’s an example of portfolio that aims to be a good web site, as well.

2. Don’t innovate This may seem counterintuitive – after all, isn’t a portfolio the place where a designer really should be showing their strengths? But too often, a portfolio becomes a place where designers misplace innovation. I’ve seen so many examples of fancy Flash or Ajax navigation that distract from the work. Or worse – they are so clever that I fail to recognize them and miss many of the examples.

This portfolio, for example, is beautiful and filled with excellent examples of the designers talent. But I didn’t initially understand the horizontal scrolling mechanism until someone in a meeting showed me. That means I missed most of their portfolio without even realizing it.

3. Show your work Your portfolio is not the place to be worried about copyright infringement. Too often, I find myself squinting at tiny images of a designers work. Use full-sized screenshots or, better yet, host the actual files on your server. (Don’t rely only on a link to your clients' or former employer’s implementations – they’ll change them eventually.)

If you absolutely must, put the whole portfolio behind a password if you’re worried about the assets being stolen.

4. Explain what you did Yes, the screens are important. Ultimately, images are going to sell your talent. But if I’m going to work with you, I want to know the who, what, where, when and why of each example.

Tell me about the client. Where you on staff or contracting with them? What were their goals for the project? How involved where you overall? Did you have to work within their styleguide? Was it a redesign, or did you start with a clean slate?

I want to know what constraints you faced and how you dealt with them. Did you try things only to be told “no” by someone in marketing or engineering? Don’t burn bridges with your former clients, but be honest and talk about whether your vision for the product was ultimately implemented.

I think we did a pretty good job of this at Adaptive Path with our case studies. Each one tries to outline what problem we were trying to solve, the solutions we attempted, and how successful they were. Likewise, the explanations Doug Bowman provides on his Stopdesign portfolio give insight into the choices he made. For even more detail, follow what Dan Cederholm of SimpleBits does and link from portfolio pieces to extended blog entries. His entry and post on Odeo are good examples.

Imagine sitting across the table from a potential employer and explaining each example. What would you want them to know? Probably more than the sentence or two most designers include in their portfolio. Write it up!

5. Fill it in I often hear from young designers just getting into the business who are concerned that their portfolios only contain school work. Is that good enough? In a word: no.

These days, there’s no excuse for not creating your own real-world work, with or without clients. Design a WordPress theme or skin an open source app. Better yet, find a community organization and volunteer your skills by offering to redesign their site. This has the added benefit of building your client relationship skills and your ability to work within constraints of audience, technology, budget, and schedule.

Just get out there, do good work, and show it off to the world. And good luck at that interview.

If you’ve seen (or have!) a good design portfolio, link to it in the comments.