5 steps to nailing your portfolio presentation in design interviews

Peter Herbert Barnaba

Let’s say you’re a talented rookie designer; the best in your class so to speak. You decide to go job hunting in the tech industry. Your website is polished, your work pixel perfect and judging by the amount of emails you received from recruiters, you’re doing a pretty good job.

All the necessary steps have been taken, you’re checking off the boxes on your employment to-do list, and everything’s going well.

But then comes your first presentation to a company’s hiring committee. Not all organizations require a formal presentation, but it’s become the norm for many. The interview panel usually consists of three to four designers (or ten to twelve depending on the company’s size and reputation), a recruiter, a manager and so on.

You showcase your work for them — explaining everything you have learned, everything that has prepared you for this moment. You dive into the inspiration and rationale for your decisions on an array of designs.

But then, you falter. You see everyone’s eyes glaze over as you go on tangents about complicated projects. Towards the end, they ask a ton of questions and then it’s over. You’re left unsure of whether you did a good job and hope for best as the day unfolds.

You’re not alone —the formal presentation is where most new grads trip in the long race to employment, literally inches before the finish line.

I’m a new grad myself, and part of my role as the Communications Designer at Figma is to be involved in the interview process for incoming design hires. So, in addition to having given my own, I sit in a lot of these presentations and take notes. If you feel stressed about these interviews, I have a couple of suggestions that’ll help you out.

1. Start slow.

A job presentation is a performance of sorts. And like most performances, you shouldn’t start off the bat with props flying and giant musical numbers. Take the time to properly introduce yourself. Remember to state your name, and the type of design you’re good at.

There’s a lot of blogs out there about the demand for the multi-talented super employee. But as a new grad, you probably haven’t mastered every skill in the creative world. And that’s okay.

Be clear about what sets you apart. Is it:

  • Typography
  • UX/UI design
  • Communications design
  • Motion graphics
  • Front end development

Something else? You want the team to walk away with a clear sense of who you are, so don’t be afraid to emphasize your passion in your introduction. Later, you can mention other topics you were exposed to but don’t have expertise in. Eg, data visualization, CSS/HTML, etc.

Of course, if you’re a seasoned designer with tons of experience, this guidance might not apply to you. General experts should not be afraid to proclaim their broad talents to the room.

2. Pick which project you loved the most, not the one you spent the most time on

I’ve noticed that new grads often start their presentations with elaborate projects, as though lengthy walls of text will impress the committee. Then, toward the end they show smaller-scoped projects that they’re far more passionate about.

I recommend beginning your presentation with the projects that tap into your inner child — they’re more authentic and playful. They’ll also represent your design sensibilities more accurately, as well as express who you are through your work.

3. The Dummies guide — What, Who, Why & Where

On that same note, give people a watered-down version of the design projects you worked on. The hiring committee doesn’t need to know every twist and turn of how things unfolded — that will just make their heads hurt.

Instead, focus on the bread crumbs: Provide a brief intro, present the problem, lay out the objectives, describe the execution, then reveal the final design and measures of success. Then move on to describing the next project.

If they’re interested or want to know more about a particular piece of work, they’ll ask questions. When in doubt, stick with the four W’s:

What is this project?

Just because you wrote a carefully crafted artist statement in your presentation deck doesn’t mean everyone will read it. So, briefly introduce the project in a way, a simpler way. Bear in mind that not every person in the room will understand without context.

Who worked on it?

This is vital. Distinguish yourself from your teammates by explaining what role you played in the making of the project. Otherwise, employers will be confused as to what you contributed or what you’re capable of.

Why was this project needed?

Unless it’s a personal project, most of the assignments we work on are aimed at a specific problem. Clearly identify that problem and describe it vividly, so your audience identifies with the design challenge. Paint the scene.

Where is it now?

Track your ideas as they come to life. How did your designs wind up being used? What impact did the project have? Are there metrics you can mention — like amount of signups driven? If your project wasn’t picked up, that’s fine too. Offer a hypothetical vision for what might have happened if it was. Companies like to see how the work you made could live beyond a deadline.

4. Be wary of representing the company you’re pitching to

Mimicry is a form of flattery, but there is a fine line between appeasing your employers and insulting them.

In your presentation, you may feel compelled to incorporate the brand of the company into your designs, but that can get a little tricky. You don’t know their usage guidelines and may unknowingly misrepresent their brand.

The very designers who made the components for the company might be the ones in the room interviewing you. And let me tell you, they didn’t spend months of design work on their pixel-perfect logo just to see it copy-and-pasted in the corner of your keynote. Think of it this way: in a game of “who wore it better,” the original designer will always win.

5. Surviving the Q&A

At the end of presentations, you’re going to face an onslaught of questions. These inquisitions are normal and not a sign that you screwed up. I’ve seen so many designers whither during Q&A when they should be proud of the work they did and how far they’ve come.

The team’s job is to push and prod you so they understand you and your work. They want to challenge your design reasoning, your choice in color, your research, and a million other things, to see what informed your decisions. Don’t take it personally, and answer clearly, confidently and concisely. Keep in mind: You may be presenting a unique perspective. Perhaps the employer is taking the opportunity to learn from you in your job interview.

When all that’s said and done, breathe a sigh of relief — you made it through the ringer. By crafting your presentation to meet the needs of the interview committee, you’re doing what any good designer would: Empathizing with your users.