Are Portfolios A Waste Of Time?
Whether it’s in the classroom, at the office, or during a conversation at a UX meetup event, the necessity of the UX designer’s portfolio is a topic that’s raised a lot by UX veterans and newbies. Do I think portfolios are a waste of time? Or, should designers refuse to create a UX portfolio? My answer is still the same as it was five years ago when I started my own user experience and design agency and eventually founded a UX recruiting firm two years later. No. Portfolios are not a waste of time. We all get stymied by NDAs, yet that’s not a good enough reason not to create a portfolio. There are workarounds. It is the one deliverable you shouldn’t ignore when it comes to designing one of the essential experiences of your life – your career. It’s easier to say what a portfolio isn’t: a resume, CV or designer lookbook.
Portfolios reveal six things about a candidate:
What a portfolio needs to be, whether it’s a collection of case studies, annotated wireframes, video clips, interactive app, etc., is a visual depiction of your design thinking and problem-solving skills. A portfolio helps me hire intuitively by revealing six things about a candidate:
- Storytelling – How does the material convey the story of your design thinking and passion that’s reflected in your work? Wireframes and user flows in chronological order don’t tell me the story behind your designs. Use questions or problem statements as page/section headers and annotate design features to highlight how you solve problems through design.
- Curation – How do you collect, sort and maintain your design collection? It doesn’t matter if it’s online or a hard copy. I’m looking for what you’ve included to showcase your work from the past year and how your design philosophy and skills have developed throughout your career. Don’t include everything because I won’t read it all. Include the pieces that pack a punch. If you’re new to the UX field, it’s understandable why you don’t have a robust portfolio. Yet I’d still like to see something from school projects, your own interests, or even projects that you’ve completed pro bono to see that you “get” design.
- Process – How did you arrive at your design solution? Where was research included? Can you articulate the design thinking and/or user experience design process through your portfolio artifacts? Do you start with the problem/objective or the resulting deliverable so that I can understand what you were trying to solve in your project?
- Detail – I twitch when I see designs that are poorly aligned. Typos have the same effect on a lesser scale. The details matter and can make the difference between whether I pay attention during the interview or check out. I call this the Manicure test. Since I use my hands a lot (seriously, a lot) when I speak, I don’t lead a pitch meeting, conduct sessions with clients, or take the stage at a UX event without making sure my nails are neatly trimmed and polished. Conversely I don’t care what our designers’ nails look like, but their deliverables better pass the Manicure test. I punctuate my design thinking and UX philosophy with my hands while they do the same with their deliverables. Does your portfolio pass the Manicure test?
- Credit – UX research and design doesn’t occur in a vacuum and often starts with a team trying to solve a problem. Does your portfolio read “me” or “we” when it comes to crediting project work? It’s easy to sit in an interview and say the words “team player,” “collaborator,” “synergist,” and so on (or whatever buzzword currently reigns). Start with the problem, name the team, and then show your contributions, sharing success (and failure) metrics when possible.
- Delight –I love portfolios that candidates love themselves. Often this can means the candidate started with personal projects, pro bono work, re-imagined product designs, etc. that delighted them and make them proud. I also like to see ones that come in unusual formats or experiences. Why? I’m a user experience junky and love talking to other people about great user experiences. If you learned something great during a project, I’ll probably learn something great and am happy to talk to you about it in an interview.
Do you love design? I’m less inclined to think so if you don’t have a portfolio. The idea of a portfolio carries with it a chance to see a designer’s passion, technical skill and design thinking philosophy put into action. It gives us something concrete to talk about and a way to see if our thinking and approaches align. As I tend to hire intuitively (more on that later), how you create and present your portfolio goes a long way toward whether you’ll hear “You’re hired!” after your first interview with me.