To avoid common portfolio pitfalls, put yourself in the shoes of your target audience.
As someone that reviews portfolios constantly, I have respect for the challenge. It can be difficult to step outside your own perspective and craft your story in a way that’s compelling to others. You have to return to old projects and describe their narrative and meaning in fresh, compelling ways. You must also put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into the arrangement of your work so it’s presented clearly. Crafting a portfolio is no small feat, but if you do it right, you’ll reap major dividends in the job search process.
I see a lot of portfolios in my work as a design recruiter here at Figma. Applicants often make the same mistakes again and again — from including far too much text in project highlights, to overcomplicating animations on their landing page.
I recommend you build your portfolio the same way you would tackle any design challenge: Start by putting yourself in the shoes of your target audience.
Typically in the product design industry, the person who reviews your portfolio and decides whether to interview you will be:
- A design manager
- A creative director
- A head of design
- A VP of design
Leaders like this are very busy. They’re often running between meetings, phone calls, and interviews, so unfortunately sometimes they have limited time to review portfolios (we’re talking minutes, or even seconds). They’re trying to quickly parse a lot of information in that short period of time:
- What type of design you do
- Where your talents and passions lie
- Whether you have the right experience for this particular role
- How you tackle design challenges
- Your overall design abilities
Assume they’re dealing with limited time, and won’t always be able to dig through pages of content. Instead, you need to highlight the most pertinent information for the particular role you’re applying for. In this post, I’ll teach you how to do that as effectively as possible, both with your portfolio’s landing page and with your individual projects.
The key to the perfect landing page is to structure each project thumbnail in a cohesive way.
For example, if you’ve done recent projects for a range of top-tier companies and want to show off their logos, make sure each logo thumbnail is the same size. If instead you want your landing page to represent the actual work you did for different projects, then make sure the screenshots are styled similarly (like with the same color background and dropshadow). Whatever your approach, I recommend labeling each project with key details (like the company name, your role in the project, and the medium you worked in) in a consistent, parsable format.
There’s nothing that makes me happier than opening a portfolio and seeing 8 equally sized, thoughtfully crafted rectangles. After all, recruiters have to skim hundreds of portfolios for hours at a time. We’re a lot more likely go through every project in a portfolio if the landing page has an aesthetically pleasing system to it. It takes less mental energy to comprehend it!
Of course, all good rules are meant to be broken. If you have a really creative way of laying out project that indicates which one matters most, go for it! Just make sure the thumbnail differences are the result of thoughtful layout decisions, not haphazard design.
How many clicks does it take to get to your work? Landing page with “about you” content? Click. Work icon in upper right-hand corner? Click. Projects laid out so you have to pick one? Click.
Your target audience can’t go hunting for information. Your landing page should give them an overview of your design projects, so they’re only one click away from your work.
Of course, you can’t build the perfect landing page if you haven’t picked your projects yet! I suggest tailoring your project choices based on your career goals.
Are you interested in mobile, web, or virtual reality design jobs? Make that clear by highlighting your experience in that area. Are you dying to quit the e-commerce industry and want to move into fintech, healthcare, or something else? Choose previous work accordingly.
“Tailor your projects” may seem like obvious advice, but applicants often struggle with this. They try to capture the entire breadth of their design career in one portfolio. They assume people will take the time to go through everything — but hiring managers often can’t.
Here’s a few other challenges you may face in picking projects, with a few tips for overcoming them:
1. You worked at top tier brands...a long time ago.Don’t stock your portfolio with projects from the mid nineties — even if that is the time in your career you worked at Apple. Instead, rely on your resume to show the breadth of brands you worked at, and let your portfolio shine a light on your contemporary work. Of course, if you designed the famous iPod silhouette campaign in the early 2000s, please do highlight that. But don’t feel the need to stick in work that doesn’t represent you as a designer anymore just to show off the brand names.
2. You don’t have the experience for the sector you want to focus on.If all of your work is in mobile but you dream of designing for the web, you may struggle with tailoring your portfolio. I recommend doing a few side projects to develop web-first content, instead of submitting your mobile-only portfolio and hoping for the best.
Of course, it’s not just mobile → web where this challenge can spring up. Print designers often want to go into UX/UI design. Visual designers dream of UX research roles. Engineers hope to double-down on front-end ideation. Design is an ever-changing field!
3. Your best work is not in the right medium or industry.Let’s say you have design projects in a range of fields, but your best stuff isn’t in the right vertical for the job you’re applying for. You kicked some serious ass on a recent mobile project, but you want a web-based design job.
Consider creating a mockup of how that same design would’ve looked and functioned on the web, then include both the original and the mockup in your portfolio. As long as you have enough other web-based projects to indicate your experience, we’ll consider you as a candidate.
4. You actually want a generalist roleIf you’re interested in becoming an early designer at an early stage startup or joining a smaller company where you have to wear a lot of hats, ignore my previous advice! In the case of generalist roles, you should demonstrate the breadth of experience you have with clearly labeled projects. Make it obvious what medium you did the work in, what your personal role in the project was, etc.
Much like with your landing page, you should be judicious and thoughtful in selecting what aspects of your projects to highlight. If you write up nitty gritty details on every stage — ideation, whiteboarding, paper prototyping, wireframes, information architecture, UI design, visual design — you’ll make reviewers’ eyes glaze over. They don’t want a blow-by-blow of what you ate for breakfast the second day of user testing.
Instead, think about what kind of role you want as a designer and focus on that. Visual design isn’t your cup of tea? Don’t include it in your portfolio. It’s as simple as that.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t tell a complete narrative about the project. I want to know:
- What problem you were trying to solve
- How you came up with the solution
- What design iterations you went through on the way
- Which role you played in the project
- BONUS CREDIT: What you learned and would do differently next time.
- If you can work it in, it doesn’t hurt to give your team a little shoutout. (See example here.)
In crafting your story, remember you won’t be sitting next to reviewers, whispering in their ear. Your profile needs to be able to live and breathe without you. Sort through the chaos, share only the most important milestones, and tell a simple, compelling story.
You’re applying for a designer role, not a content writing job, so where you can, create imagery that conveys information for you (instead of relying solely on text). If you’re dying to provide more details beyond a couple paragraphs of text, then link from your portfolio to a PDF with extensive project information. That way the reviewer can choose whether they want to dive deeper.
Speaking of content, let me just scream from the rooftops: PROOFREADING MATTERS! It’s so important. If there are spelling errors in your portfolio, hiring managers notice. Design VPs often got to where they are because they have an eye for tiny incongruencies.
I’ll never forget showing a strong portfolio to a hiring manager — of a candidate I was really excited about — and the very first thing this manager spotted was a spelling error. It’s hard to come back from that.
It may seem unfair that you’re being evaluated on both your visual communication and your spelling skills, but there’s a reason. They both fit into the category of being detail oriented.
If you can’t be detail oriented with your own work, why should a hiring manager assume you’ll have that focus on the projects they give you? I’ve seen many portfolios with basic spelling errors, so please please PLEASE proofread. Or have your friend do it, or your mom OR both! It can’t hurt.
Pay attention to the interactions you implement, and resist the urge to include bells and whistles at the expense of basic usability. Some people like to get fancy with things that scroll horizontally/automatically (or via carousels). That’s not always the best for user experience, so you should ask a few people to test what you’ve built. Is it easy for them to navigate your portfolio quickly, or do they have to take some time figuring out how it works?
Phew! You still with me? We covered a LOT here. I’ve shared everything I know about portfolios after my 7 years working as a design recruiter. Hopefully you’ve found these tips helpful.
The most important thing for you to remember: Always keep your target audience in mind. They’re busy and don’t have the time to spend digging for important information. Use your design skills to tell a strong story about where you’ve been and where you want to go! Keep written text simple, concise and to the point...and spell check the shit out of it ;).
If you’re on the hunt for a job now, we’re hiring Product Designers and a Brand Designer at Figma. Submit your portfolio on our careers page, and we can talk!