Tips for Polishing Up Your Design Portfolio 

May 21, 2019
By Paul McAleer,
UX Director

Design portfolios are an essential part of the hiring process for people in experience design – but they can be extraordinarily daunting as well. They can introduce a lot of questions and anxiety for designers: What information must be included? What shouldn’t be a part of it? What happens if you’re new to the field? What happens if you have to distill down 20 years of experience into a handful of slides or pages?

Truth be told, one of the most powerful pieces of advice I can provide is to get an outside review for your design portfolio. It may seem simple, but it can be the difference between toiling and refining to substantial guidance and direction. It’s also best to find someone to review your portfolio who has similar experience as the role you're hoping to find - either someone who has gone through the process and had success (or failure!) or someone who is in charge of hiring others.

Recently, our Denver Experience Design team hosted an open house that included portfolio reviews, as well as a content strategy discussion. These reviews were a great opportunity for people to get 15 minutes with a Bounteous expert and get feedback from hiring managers and senior decision-makers — not just about specific details, but what they look for in portfolios.
 
With that in mind, I chatted with our reviewers to get their takes on portfolios, storytelling, and more. I spoke with Dean Christopher, Senior UX Designer; Jane Krumholz, Senior Designer; and Rosamund Lannin, Content Strategist. 

photo of Dean Christopher
Dean Christopher, Senior UX Designer
photo of Jane Krumholz
Jane Krumholz, Senior Designer
photo of Rosamund Lanin
Rosamund Lannin, Content Strategist

Let's Begin the Q&A

Q: We spent about 15 minutes on each portfolio during the open house. With that in mind, what are the top things you look for in a portfolio? 

Dean (Christopher): Portfolios can be looked through just as quickly as resumes; it’s unlikely recruiters and hiring managers will be reading through every project in your portfolio from beginning to end, so it’s important they can identify the right content quickly. 

Jane (Krumholz): It’s very important to be able to take pieces of your work and organize them in a way that is easy to see and navigate through. If you are able to design your own site as you would for a client, and it is a seamless experience, it will take you many more places than just having a perfect shiny project. 

Rosamund (Lannin): You don’t have to be a visual designer to design your information in an intuitive way. [I look for] well-presented work — even if it’s not super varied or the candidate doesn’t have a ton of experience, it’s great to have it displayed in a way that doesn’t make me work to get a sense of your capabilities. 

Q: Speaking of which, many people who are coming out of school or a bootcamp program might not have much to show. What should people do if they’re in that situation? 

Jane: I think they should focus on building a beautiful resume – and begin applying to absolutely any and everything that has some sort of design involved. For some, this may mean an unpaid internship or odds-and-ends freelance work. It could also be working on small personal projects for yourself; maybe taking a project you had in school and expanding upon it, building it out, and showcasing your thought process in your portfolio. No matter how you do it, working with real information will help refine your design skills. 

Dean: It’s never too early to start thinking about what you want your portfolio to convey, even if you don’t have work to show just yet. Start thinking about structure and what types of pieces you’d like to showcase, then take action on those projects. They don’t have to be official school work or bootcamp projects. Making up and executing upon your own projects can prove the most fruitful, as they bring out your true passions. Building a portfolio is a process and shouldn’t be treated as something you can create in one or two sittings. 

Rosamund: Expand your definition of applicable work. Personal work, work you've done for family or friends, or even work that might not traditionally be considered content strategy or user experience shouldn't be off-limits. Many people come from varied backgrounds — try to break out of the mindset of "I didn't do [specific thing]" — and think of the underlying concepts and activities behind work you have done. And don't apologize. 

Q: In thinking back to what you reviewed, was there anything that you expected to see but did not? 

Dean: Each project presented to me covered full-scale product design, from ideation and research all the way through to high-fidelity prototypes and even some branding. While the ideas were great, this was entirely too much to try to cover in just 15 minutes. I recommended a more targeted approach for future reviews; focusing on a few key parts of the project you worked on, and what those outcomes were. 

Q: Finally, we’ve all had to create and update our portfolios over our careers. What was something you learned about your own portfolio that was really useful? 

Rosamund: Make the takeaways from your work easy to understand — go through what activities you did and why it helped the project. Sometimes this is less obvious with a content-focused project. Also, don't neglect the visual part of your portfolio; it doesn't have to be a design symphony to look nice. 

Jane: Articulate your work and explain your process. Keep things up-to-date and continue to work through the storytelling process; it helps you stay on top of your story for each project and sets you up for success. And, be sure to get your work proofread by an outsider to make sure it makes sense. 

Dean: You never know who may come across your portfolio, but chances are you won’t always be there to talk them through it. It’s important that your portfolio pieces are written so that they can stand on their own without any supporting dialog. On the other hand, when you are presenting those same pieces, it’s important to have the key points you want to hit and the story you want to tell in the back of your mind. Don’t read through your portfolio piece when presenting; instead, use that time to highlight any key issues or findings you encountered, and how those helped mold the final product. 

Awesome. Thanks so much for your time! 


Be sure to check out the presentation from the open house – and stay tuned for more Bounteous events in a city near you!