Jan 19 2021

Designing a Better Portfolio

Illustration of rectangles on forest green background, with one bright green

I’ve been a designer since the early 2000’s. I can say that in my nearly twenty years of experience I have not had a more difficult client than myself, which is probably the reason why I’ve let my personal website expire. But a strong portfolio is absolutely essential in landing your next job, so I’m going to share some tips and things to be mindful of when designing your site.

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

You’ve probably heard this before. It’s really great advice when starting out or learning something new. This is the best way to discover all the nuances of good design (if you’re copying from someone talented) and when to bend the rules, which ultimately helps create your own unique style.

But visual design is only part of the equation. What about the content for your site? You want to have a sick design that people are wow’ed with when they arrive, no doubt, but how do you talk about yourself without sounding like every other “multi-disciplinary, detail-oriented, pixel-pushing” designer out there?

Writing about yourself is wicked hard. Early on in your career you might not know how to talk about what makes you different from everyone else. If you add too much wit or character, you’ll come across as trying too hard or confuse people. If you’re too specific, you might disqualify yourself from a position you’re gunning for. My advice when introducing yourself is to be sincere and concise. We want to know your name, where you’re from, and what you do (put as simply as possible)... with nicely set type.

In my position, I look at lots of portfolios on a daily basis. I want to be confident that the person I am viewing is the right fit for the job. Let’s take a closer look at some things that stand out as I’m reviewing sites.

  • We eat with our eyes first. Have you ever seen a restaurant menu with poor photos? Does it make you want to try the food? Presentation of your work should be a top priority. You should be able to talk about your top 5-10 designer/agency sites at the drop of a dime. How do they show off their work? Get inspired!
  • Don’t hide your results—lead off with your visual designs, not research and early UX. Although fundamental, workflow diagrams, journey maps, etc. are not the artifacts to showcase; rather they are stepping stones that get you to the final solution. Being able to execute highly polished visuals (and interactions) is a must on most design teams. You definitely put a lot of work into the research, but this isn’t what people want to see first or most of all.
  • Process is important but show us how it was actually used. How did it move your project along? What problems did it help solve? Keep in mind that one-size-fits-all is NOT true when it comes to process. Every project is riddled with unique problems to solve and as such your process should adapt.
  • Avoid site templates at all costs. Most people can spot a template from a mile away. Your site should complement your work, not overpower it. Make friends with a developer if you aren’t comfortable with frontend code, and exchange your design services for theirs. 🤝
  • Make sure it’s responsive. This is your chance to prove you’ve given thought to how your design should look (and feel) in any and all circumstances.
  • Your portfolio should express the work you’re good at and want to do more of. Remove everything else that dilutes that message. You might enjoy print or 3d character design, but if you’re looking for a UI design job, and your portfolio is highlighting anything else, my initial reaction is you either don’t have much experience or don’t like it as much.
  • Balance your primary discipline with complementary skills. If you enjoy writing, demonstrate it with the content on your site, or start a blog. Good with a camera? Show off your photography. Passionate about motion design? Create some really slick videos or animations that bring your designs to life.
  • Keep your work current. Replace the old stuff that doesn’t reflect your current skillset. If it’s on your site, people will assume this is your best work and what you are capable of doing. When in doubt, less is more for the amount of work to show.
  • Peer review with colleagues or other designer friends. Designers love talking and giving their opinions so you shouldn’t have trouble with this one. You need to be able to talk about and present your designs, defend decisions you’ve made, but most importantly be humble enough to know what you should improve.
  • Highlight the ways you’re staying inspired and learning. What books have you read recently? Listening to a good design podcast? What have you been into on Spotify? This is a great opportunity to show everyone you care about growing and add a personal touch. Keep this up to date though. Don’t let it go stale.
  • Have a solid resume. It should look clean, professional, and follow some of the same rules above. Make sure to include a thoughtful cover letter that’s short and to the point for those jobs you REALLY want.

If you pay attention to these, you’ll have a stronger portfolio and be on your way to having something that truly represents you as a designer.

I’ll be going into detail about the “skills & requirements” we have in our job listing in a future post, so stay tuned.

We’re looking to bring new folks to the team this year, so if you feel like you or someone you know has these boxes ticked, apply now or let them know!

Matt Rossi