Your Portfolio Probably Sucks

I used to hire a lot of designers. Most portfolios tortured me. Not because the work was bad. But because I had to dig through a lot of irrelevant stuff to find out what I needed to know.

Now I get asked to look at portfolios all the time (since I teach) and I realized the problem. Designers are not making user-centered portfolios.  They are making self-centered portfolios.

This is just my opinion, but if it helps you make some busy hiring manger’s life better, it’ll all be worth it.

The hiring manager hires five minutes at a time, between meetings.
The recruiter, whose full time job is hiring, probably doesn’t know how to evaluate a portfolio. So they pass all sorts of garbage to the hiring manager. The hiring manager, however, is doing their other twelve jobs: coaching, meetings with peers, meetings with upper level folks, maybe even designing. If they, like me, are looking at a portfolio in five minutes between meeting a or b (or maybe on a phone IN meeting A or meeting b) you need to copy journalism, and design for the inverted pyramid. So don’t bury the lead, which is

Tell me you can do the job.
My first question is, do  you have the skills I need? Before I look at all your pretty stuff, I want to know if I’m even in the right ballpark. Are you an interaction designer? A happy hybrid that can do interface design, code and interaction design?  Please list this at the very top.

Please do not list every single thing you can kinda sorta manage to pull off on the front page.  Five minutes, remember? Don’t make me think. Personally, I like  to see a short list of your superpowers with a link to the full laundry list of your capabilities.

It might even help the recruiter know to give me your portfolio. Imagine!

Show me that you’ve done the job.
I’d like it if you linked those skills to examples. I see so many portfolios organized by clients I’ve never heard of. Then I get to dig through each one for examples of interaction design, or information architecture. Five minutes people!

Show me what kind of work you do before the final design (especially if you don’t design the graphic design). I know post-it photos are a cliche, but think of it as an understood icon for analysis. If I see a flowchart, I know that’s code for interaction design. If I see a wireframe, I know it’s code for, I won’t learn graphic design but it doesn’t mean I won’t have something to say about layout and interface. I see a color palette, and I know you have some graphic design chops. Happy smiling people around a whiteboard means you like to collaborate. It’s not a cliche, it’s a visual language.

Next to the picture, in short clear sentences, explain what you did to make the project successful.  Don’t use the term we, unless you mean we. Many consultants refer to the work of their studio as their own work, for a variety of reasons. Smart hiring managers know that trick and will out you.  A good sentence is, “I did a thing which allowed us to get a good result.”  “I interviewed 30 current and new users, which allowed us to create a better new value proposition in subscription page.” “I reworked the check out flow with reduced abandonment by 5%”

This will be read in the five minutes between meetings c and d. Stay concise.

Five minutes. You have five minutes to convince me to read the text. You have five minutes for me to read the text.

Make me want to work with  you
Finally, tucked a level or two down, show me a design-driven hobby, a passion project or maybe some blog posts or essays that let me get to know you as a designer. Please do not tell me about your love of bourbon, hunting dogs or cuban cigars. Not only is there a ton of weird cultural code hidden in those preferences (I am a man’s man, how about you?) it’s just not relevant.

If you love to sketchnote, if you love hacking, if you teach html to kids in the bad part of town, show me that. Someone who loves their work so much it’s their hobby and their vocation is someone who will keep learning.  I’m less certain what to do with your microbrew collection (unless, of course, it’s because you love the type on the labels.) This section must be short, and it can be the tipping point between calling you for a phone screen and calling someone else.

There are more elements I will consider, but they are mostly my personal preferences. I value people who have already worked in the space I’m hiring for, I value design research, I value sketching and physical prototypes.  The pictures you show tell a story about how you work, and can help managers find a good fit.

No matter what, if you organize your portfolio with the simple 1,2,3 of

  1. Tell me you can do the job
  2. Show me you can do the job
  3. Make me want to work with you

you will make your new manager’s job of hiring you much much easier.

And what if you make their job of realizing your not a good fit easier too? They might feel more confident forwarding that portfolio to another busy hiring manger who would. Or maybe you can avoid spending three months at the wrong job, failing.


Finally, no, I won’t look at your portfolio…. I’ve got a LOT of students who need me. But feel free to ask here, on Boxes and Arrow’s new discussion board.


New designer trying to figure out what to do with your life? Read this 


Some more posts on portfolios by a friend, Jason.

Why you must get the presentation of your portfolio right

The 5 people you need to worry about seeing your portfolio

5 things your design portfolio must have