Breaking Into Design

How to create a standout portfolio

Dan Harden
May 1, 2014

What kinds of portfolios get your attention? What brings a potential candidate in for an interview?

Portfolios that grab my attention are visually captivating, communicative, different, and holistic in skill representation. I look for a vision, attitude or approach that reveals the designer’s personality. Good problem solving abilities must always be demonstrated – the fluffy portfolios without it are rejected. A good portfolio is clear and concise with a natural flow to it like a good essay. We look for good skills too such as sketching, CAD, model making and storyboards because candidates will be producing these kinds of deliverables for our clients if they are hired. It helps if some of the work in the portfolio was produced while at an internship in a consultancy so they’re not completely green. We look for evidence of passion in a portfolio. Passion is a powerful internal force that spawns creativity, feeds ambition, and makes one naturally curious about learning.

What is this passion that you’re looking for, how can you tell this person is as passionate as your team?

Well you really need to meet them to gage their passion, but what we produce as designers should represent what we believe in and that’s what we look for. Your design solution says a lot about you. We look for emotionality and rationality at the same time. We also look for fearlessness, cleverness and curiosity because those are telltale signs of a passionate mind at work. Surprise me – make me think “what the heck is that? or “wow, that’s brilliant!”. Don’t be afraid to stick your neck out, and always express your passion in your own unique way.

Could you talk about an example of the latest portfolio that you’ve seen that really captured your attention? Specifically what about it?

A young woman from Korea sent her portfolio and it was very minimal, clever, and even poetic. Nothing fancy, just very real and very simple. Her cover letter even had the same stream of conscience. She connected on every level.

It sounds like what gets your attention is something that’s aesthetically pleasing with functional resolution?

Yes because that’s a lot of what good design is. Aesthetics are personal, therefore revealing the most about a designer. The aesthetics of a portfolio are important because it’s the first impression and if you blow that, it’s over. You might be a good problem solver but if your aesthetics are bad you’ll struggle selling the idea. Beyond aesthetics we look for functional resolution in all forms: Does it work? How do users benefit from it? Is it feasible? Is it relevant?

What kind of characteristics or qualities do you look for in an industrial designer? What do you expect to learn about them during the interview?

Designers are complex and emotional right brain types and sometimes difficult to interview because they aren’t verbal. We just try to uncover their virtues, talent and passion by having them share their work and philosophy. We look for energy and enthusiasm but at the same time we’re looking for sincerity and authenticity – people that are trying to do good things with their creative abilities. We have wonderful employees who on the surface are not openly passionate but they are intense, quiet and brilliant. Others are loud, artsy, and completely nuts. We look for all types. It makes the environment dynamic plus it serves our clients well. For example a serious medical client may not be comfortable with a wacko emotional designer but a gaming client would be. In a consultancy, people are everything so recognizing good qualities in designers is critical.

How did you break into the industry?

I’ve never really thought of myself as ever “breaking into the industry” because I have thought about design practically my whole life. As a kid I was always drawing, painting and taking things apart to figure out how they worked. I built a lot of dangerous things like go-carts, mini bikes and bombs. Let’s just say my parents were very patient as I expressed my unfettered creativity. It wasn’t until design school that I realized there was a profession for someone like me called Industrial Design. I went to the University of Cincinnati, which has a co-op program where you alternate work and school quarters.

I suppose my first break into the design industry was that series of three co-op jobs. My first co-op was at Richardson Smith, a very notable ID firm in the seventies and eighties. I was asked to sketch, render and build models alongside professionals at the top of their game, solving real-world design problems. This is where I had an epiphany about design and my future. I was 19 years old and enlightened from then on. My second co-op job was with the great design master George Nelson in New York City. George was an inspiration because he encouraged “design thinking” way before we called it that. My third co-op was at Hewlett Packard where I got a taste of what it was like to be a designer in a large corporation. At HP a design competition took place to create the new design language for all HP products, and my design direction was chosen. By the time I graduated, I had products on the market not only for HP but also Chemical Bank, Galion, and NCR. I was on a roll without really knowing it.

Throughout school I was always crazy about European design, especially work from Mario Bellini, Ettore Sottsass, and Dieter Rams. I decided to move there after school to learn more about it. I found a good job in Germany at Dolphin Design where I did automotive and housewares work. During that year in Germany I was curious about a radical design firm down in the Black Forest called Esslinger Design (later renamed frogdesign). I got on a bus and went to meet their leader Hartmut Esslinger, and we hit it off right away. He and frogdesign would later play an important role in my design career.

After a year in Germany I missed the creative energy of the US and went back to New York to work at Henry Dreyfuss Associates, a renowned old design agency. There I was able to break into the “big” design industry, designing major products for AT&T, Bell Labs, Polaroid, and Johnson & Johnson. This is where I built a portfolio and learned the business of design like how to write a proposal, sell design, run a project, and achieve financial results. These business skills are essential especially if you want to be a successful consultant.

At this point in my career at age twenty-nine I had built a solid base and I wanted to work for the best firm in the world, which at that time was the one and only frogdesign. No other firm had reached that level of respect and admiration, highly acclaimed for their Apple and Sony work. I went to see Hartmut in California this time and he said, “What took you so long, can you start next week?” Other than founding my own firm later, that was the move of my career. It was my big “break” as most designers that went to frogdesign back then would admit. I tore into that job with vigor, designing as much and as fast as I could, loving every minute of it. I had the good fortune to work with great clients such as Steve Jobs at NeXT, Larry Ellison of Oracle, Rupert Murdoch of News Corp, and Stan Shih of Acer. We hired talents like Yves Behar, Brett Lovelady and Gadi Amit and we built a world-class team. The company quadrupled in size. I was there for ten years starting as a senior designer and eventually became President by 1998. After being there for ten good years and about to turn forty I decided it was time to start my own firm. WHIPSAW was the culmination of almost twenty years of hard work and a dream that is still unfolding.

Looking back at my early and mid career I suppose I had many “breaking into the industry” moments. My ultimate goal was to have my own company and I drove toward that goal step by step. I looked for experiences and jobs that would teach me the most, that fit my design values, and that didn’t compromise my beliefs. I looked for firms who’s work just spoke to me. Choose your experiences well because the path behind you brings you to the path in front of you. Fate takes care of the rest.

If you were starting out now, and knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to yourself?

First, that design as a profession is not only immensely gratifying to do but it’s one of the best ways to make positive change in our world today. Now more than ever designers are sought after, listened to, respected, and even revered for their creativity. You must jump on this opportunity. Drop all fear. Try new things, stretch yourself, experiment and have fun. As an imaginative person it’s important to keep your mind open so that inspiration comes to you naturally, without over thinking it. Most of all just go for it. Don’t care what anyone thinks, especially your design peers whom are all trying to out-cool one another. Also, don’t rely on formulas. Much of the world is driven by them – just look at education, medicine, and law. Of course repeatable formulas have advanced civilization. If you want to go to the moon you need them but if you want to imagine going to the moon, the algorithms don’t do a darn thing for you.

Its kind of cliché, but the best advise especially for a young designer is to never stop learning and be terminally curious about everything. Knowledge and insight gleaned from observing and candid living are the best source of creativity. This profession is directly affected by advancements in technology, behavioral science, material science, process methodologies, business models and many more. Every time I think that the ultimate new way for doing something has been found, BOOM it’s reinvented. Instead of being daunted by this flood of changeful information, revel in it.

As a consultant you become an “amateur expert” in many fields. It’s an absolute joy to learn about so many fields especially when you know how each would benefit from what you have to bring to the table. I have designed many products for the computing and communication fields, but what is really interesting are the obscure vertical markets that require ground-up learning on the part of the designer and often where more innovation can be had. For example I have done baby feeding products; slot machines, surveyor’s GPS; vascular surgery equipment; agricultural guidance systems; ion chromatography equipment, and sleep apnea machines. In every case I knew little to begin with but after swimming in the problem and becoming the user, answers came. After a while one sees the common elements between all fields, realizing they are all united by end user pains, desires, and a quest for simplicity. I am convinced that raw learning and curiosity fuel most innovation.

You asked George Nelson what’s it like being a designer, so now I’m going to ask you the same question: What’s it like being a designer?

Being a designer is fun. I get to be creative all day long and I get paid for what I love to do the most. Design is such an integral part of my life that I don’t see it as work or my profession but rather as my purpose. I do it because it feels right. If you don’t feel design in your bones don’t pursue it as a profession.

Being a designer entails wearing lots of hats, especially a design consultant. Every day I assign about fifty percent of my time to solve design problems, where I sometimes work individually, sometimes with our team, and sometimes with our clients. The other fifty percent of my day is spent running a design firm, which involves strategic planning, business development, accounting reviews, recruiting, public relations and more.

Working effectively with clients is an art form. You have to be pragmatic when working with their engineers; ebullient when working with their marketing, and visionary when working with their CEO. To be a successful consultant one needs to be able to turn these traits on instantly. I find it helps to be real honest about the issues, telling a client your sincerest opinion, and also expressing enthusiasm and passion of course. People follow when they witness your honest belief and see competence in action.

Dan Harden

Dan is CEO, Founder and Principal Designer of Whipsaw, an acclaimed product design and experience innovation company in Silicon Valley that has introduced 1000 products to market over the past 20 years for the world’s top companies. Dan is a highly active creative force and luminary in the design world. Dan’s passion and experience combined with his personal philosophies about art, culture, psychology, and technology permeate the work.

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