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3 ways to make a design portfolio that clients love

What do big companies, startups, and agencies look for in design portfolios? Jessica Ko designed products and recruited designers at Google for seven years, built design teams at startups for six years, and founded a design fellowship program, Design Collective. She’s seen a lot of portfolios, from abysmal to freaking awesome.

In this post, she’s here to share what different kinds of clients and companies look for when it comes to your design portfolio.

This post was written and sponsored by Playbook.com — a visual cloud storage platform for designers.

1. Large Corporations

When Jessica started designing at Google in 2007 and began interviewing and recruiting in 2010, there was never a shortage of applicants.

Google’s brand is strong, they value design, and they pay designers well—like, really well. For designers who are just coming into the workplace, it’s a perfect place to get legit training.

Over time, she started to notice the types of portfolios that Google liked to bring in for on-site interviews. She said, “The portfolios looked like they had 4 to 5 years of experience. Each article of work was damn good—both aesthetically and functionally. Surprisingly, it didn’t matter much if they were new grads, had 10+ years of experience, freelanced, or worked at agencies, and having a college degree made no difference. It just had to look like there was 4 to 5 years worth of great work in the portfolio.”

Bottom Line: Big companies love portfolios from people who look like they have 4–5 years of product experience.


Jessica’s Playbook where she keeps all her favorite portfolios
Jessica’s Playbook where she keeps all her favorite portfolios.


2. Venture-backed startups

When it comes to startups, designers are typically expected to do everything “design” related—from product design to business cards, and even office decor.

“My first task at Opendoor was to design real estate for-sale signs.”, says Jessica. Non-designer coworkers will rely on you for anything visual, because you’re the only one who can do it.

The first designer at a startup is likely to grow into the head of design or a design leadership role, which was exactly what happened to Jessica. By the time she left Opendoor in 2018, she grew the team and recruited 13 designers.

This progression is seen at every successful startup in Silicon Valley. Every founder says, “I want someone who can do visual design and product design.” It’s a huge asset to the team if you can do both.

Bottom Line: Venture-backed startups love portfolios that show you can do both branding and product design.


Startup Design Portfolios
Startup Design Portfolios


3. Branding agencies

Agencies sell a high level of craft, but what they really sell are stories. Without a story, it’s just graphic design. And the story has to work as well as the work itself.

While big companies look for familiar patterns, agencies value portfolios that tell original stories.

“Good design communicates what it’s supposed to communicate without any fluff,” says Audrey Elise, the head of a creative studio in San Francisco. “Even if it’s ugly, if it serves purpose and has a story, I consider that good design.”

Bottom Line: Branding agencies love portfolios that tell the story beautifully.


Brand Design Portfolios
Brand Design Portfolios


What all great design portfolios have in common

The best freelance designers customize their portfolio for each of their potential clients and employers. The key is to make your portfolio relevant to the person you’re selling to.

Brian Lin, a new grad from Washington University in St. Louis, landed his first design internship at Uber when he posted a case study he did for Doordash on Medium (he’s never worked at Doordash).

Companies want to hire people who have already solved similar problems to the ones they’re working on. Your experience in their niche demonstrates that your application isn’t just random, you’re actually passionate about their territory.

“I care about their craft. But I also care just as much, if not more, about how much that person cares about my problem.”, says Jessica.

If your client is in the Developer Tool or Enterprise software industry, you’ll want to make your portfolio as dope as Ryan Lucas’.

Bottom Line: Big corporations, startups, and agencies all love portfolios that are relevant to their niche.


Screenshot of Ryan Lucas' portfolio
Screenshot of Ryan Lucas' portfolio


Your design portfolio is in the top 1% if…

So here’s what you need to remember. Your design portfolio is in the top 1% if it:

  • Showcases enough work to make it look like you have 4–5 years of experience (regardless of how much work experience you actually have).
  • Demonstrates that you can do both branding and product design.
  • Tells a damn good story.
  • Is customized to be relevant to the person or employer reviewing it.


playbook.com That’s a wrap, friends! This article came from our lovely friends at Playbook.com. Visit their site and sign up for the waitlist—mention Dribbble to get in faster!


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