The design and messaging of our portfolio site is just as important as the work that we put in it. This is because, most of the time, the people who visit our website have never met us before. Meaning this is the first impression we will have on them as designers.
This is especially relevant while we’re in quarantine. Not being able to easily schedule in-person meetings puts more pressure on us to make sure our portfolio sends the right message.
In tapping into my network, I learned that most designers say the biggest struggle with their portfolio is a lack of “big name” brands. While not all of us have the opportunity to partner with well-known brands, we can still show up strong by being intentional in how we market ourselves as design professionals.
The tips and advice in this article come from my own experience and research.
Art by Rogie
1. Define your goal
Sure, 99% of the time, the goal of our portfolio site is to find work. But, having a personal goal or outcome in mind can help you think more strategically about the presentation of your work and experience.
"Having a personal goal or outcome in mind can help you think more strategically about the presentation of your work & experience."
Are you a freelancer looking to add an additional project to your workload? Or are you a designer looking to get to the next level? While these examples have the same overarching goal—to get more work—they have different requirements and responsibilities.
If you’re a full-time freelancer looking for work, you could focus your messaging on your experience working on/with remote teams and how that affected your process. If you’re a junior or mid-level designer looking to level up, you’ll want to mention more about the business strategy behind the project with any success metrics or learnings that came from it.
Art by Ally Jaye Reeves
2. Understand your audience
It’s safe to say that in the scenario of getting hired, our target audience is recruiters or design managers seeking their next hire.
A good place to start in terms of understanding what they look for is reading job descriptions of the desired role. What better way to know where you’re doing great and where you need to improve than from job applications themself?
Another option is using your network to connect with designers that are in the role you want. You may be surprised at how many people enjoy talking about how they got to where they are.
The best part of the second approach is that no two people share the same exact experience or career path, meaning each conversation could teach you something new.
3. Show your skills
According to a study by Garron Engstrom , top skills that recruiters and design managers look for in candidates are communication/storytelling, process, and visual design craft.
As mentioned in the same study, 36% of recruiters spend 3-5 minutes on a candidate’s portfolio site whereas 54% of design managers spend 5-10 minutes. That means that in 3-10 unmoderated minutes, you have to do your best to answer the questions or meet the criteria they have.
Skill 1: Communication and Storytelling
Clear, concise, and scannable details of your work can mean the difference between being hired or being ignored. While a deeper level of details help to get a full understanding of the design challenge, people simply don’t have time.
That’s not to say to remove all of the details, in fact, the opposite. Keep them. But, offer viewers an escape hatch if they can’t or don’t want to read everything (like the “Skip Intro” button on Netflix). In the context of your design portfolio, the escape hatch can be a TL;DR (too long, didn’t read). There’s something to be said about a well-written summary of the problem to be solved, how you solved it, and any success metrics or outcomes.
Skill 2: Design Process
Similar to communication & storytelling, being able to articulate your design process and decisions will only make you stronger as a designer. While it may seem obvious, you typically need to “sell” your ideas and concepts to others for approval.
The early define and research phases of the process are equally as important as the later design and iteration phases. It’s helpful to listen carefully when other designers talk about their process or why they make certain design decisions as it offers another perspective.
Skill 3: Visual Design Craft
As a Product Designer with a Graphic Design background, this is my favorite part about working on my website.
When someone types in my URL and it loads into the browser, my design is the first thing that will be noticed. Is it simple? Complex? Do they know where to go to get what they’re looking for?
I’d argue that while this was on the list of top skills, it doesn’t mean you have to be the best of the best. But, having an understanding of best practices is a must. From color theory and type systems to site navigation and text link styling, there are a number of large and small details to be aware of when designing your portfolio site.
Type systems play just as large of a role in the communication & storytelling aspect as they do in the design. A thoughtful system that consists of headers, subheaders, and body copy will increase the scannability of both short-form and long-form content, saving people time.
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Art by NICKVECTOR
Do your thang!
There’s no one formula for a perfect design portfolio and there’s no way to ensure you’ll be offered every freelance or full-time job opportunity you apply to. Like any other design project, improving your portfolio is an iterative process.
I’m always looking to find ways to better display and talk about my work, and I’m fortunate to work with smart, awesome designers who challenge and motivate me to do the best that I can.
When in doubt, do your research, talk to people, ask questions, and figure out what works for you
Nick Cuda is a Product Designer in Los Angeles who has worked in agency-side as well as in-house on verticals such as retail, market research, electric vehicles & clean energy. He’s passionate about working on mission-driven projects & helping designers progress as professionals. Find Nick at nickcuda.design and LinkedIn .
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