How to Create a Standout Portfolio and Land That Design Job

Carlos Terminel
February 15, 2024

A few times a year at Whipsaw, we’ll open up an internship slot for a student to join the team. In this process, we normally evaluate 200-300 applications from candidates all over the globe. In the design world, a carefully crafted portfolio is the difference between finding success and remaining unemployed. This is top of mind for college seniors, recent grads, and other designers trying to get their foot in the door, but after reviewing many of our applications, it seems that many would benefit from a few key pointers. Here are some consolidated words of advice from our team that may help you in your pursuit of a design role.

Check that we can access your portfolio

We’ll start with the most basic but most critical piece of advice. It sounds obvious, but it’s often overlooked. To that point: of the 200+ applications we received, around 10 applicants shared their portfolios via Google Drive but failed to make them public, so we couldn’t open them. At least 3 applicants sent us a website URL that had their work behind a password but didn't provide us with the password. A couple provided incorrect passwords. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot this way! Make sure we’ll be able to see your work. If we can’t, your application is immediately a non-starter. If needed, double-check by asking a friend or family member to try opening your portfolio on their devices.

Only apply if the role makes sense for you

Read through the job description carefully and be sure you're applying for a position that's relevant to you. We had a handful of purely UX/UI designers and a short stack of mechanical engineers apply to our ID intern position. This is not only disrespectful to the people reviewing portfolios, it also does you no service in finding a role in that organization. Contrary to what you may have heard, job applications are not a numbers game, and casting the widest net possible is not a winning strategy.

Put your best foot forward

Here’s an unfortunate reality: from the moment I click on your portfolio, you have less than 10 seconds before I decide whether or not we want to continue looking at your work. That may sound harsh, but time management is imperative in the consulting world, and our client projects come first. The takeaway? Make a strong impression with your best imagery ASAP. The first read will set the tone — does this applicant’s work look polished? Can they produce high-quality work we can show a client tomorrow? If the answer to either of these is “no,” then that portfolio is dead in the water.

If I have another 150 portfolios to look through and your work doesn’t catch my eye, that’s that. I simply don’t have time to dig through the coal to find a diamond in the rough.

Curate your work

Whenever you edit your portfolio, you’ll have to consider quantity vs. quality. This is especially tricky as a budding designer since you’ll have a limited amount of work to show. We’ve all been there: you don’t want your portfolio to feel too sparse, so you end up padding it with half-baked projects. Rookie mistake.

Remember, your portfolio should reflect your skills as they are now. Including old, underdeveloped work does you the dual disservice of projecting an outdated presentation of your skills and bringing the average quality of your work down. It may be counterintuitive, but three solid projects alone will present better than those same three projects plus two low-quality ones.

Aside from cutting old projects, you want to make sure that your portfolio has a wide enough breadth, especially if you’re applying to an agency. Too narrow a range inspires little confidence that you can work across different industries. Case in point: we received a handful of portfolios that contained 75–100% furniture projects. Some of these were very nice, but our core clientele is not the furniture industry. None of these candidates made it to the interview round for that reason.

Go beyond school projects

While higher education can be a great resource for learning about the design process, your school assignments alone are not enough to get you hired. With an increasingly competitive job market, the onus is on you to push yourself, find resources to sharpen your skills, develop your aesthetic taste, and tailor your design work to your interests.

So, why aren’t your school assignments enough? Three reasons for this:

First, what works well for teaching the process of design doesn’t always yield the best portfolio projects. Design instructors are resource- and time-constrained, so they have to make difficult decisions about what they’ll teach and how they’ll teach it. For example, sometimes they’ll structure a project around a particular manufacturing process or some model-making technique that they feel is important to learn. An unfortunate side effect of this is that students often end up compromising their designs, or the presentation of those designs, to fit the assignment. You may be better off omitting parts of the assignment, supplementing with additional work, or changing the scope entirely. Remember: you have the freedom to craft your portfolio however it suits you best.

Second, a lot of schools don’t push students to iterate on their design concepts. In many studio classes, the process is linear — define the problem, create a handful of sketches, 3D model a concept, make a batch of renderings, and present your solution. That process is straight as an arrow and neatly aligns with a class syllabus. But that’s just not how the process works once you leave school! One of the most important things we look for in a portfolio is iteration. Can the candidate show their form development through multiple sketches, mockups, and CAD renderings? Can we see improvements and refinements throughout their process?

Third, developing your design skills takes time. You may learn a lot through a project, but some of those skills may not be apparent in the final output. For example, your sketching proficiency might make a huge leap forward… but not until after you’ve put your design into CAD. This even happens outside of school. Every project you work on yields new lessons and skill improvements, so the more projects you do, the sooner your skills will improve.

Avoid “unfortunate” forms - you know the ones

Look at your designs carefully and honestly ask yourself, "does this look like..?" If in doubt, ask your most honest friend. I really wish we were kidding about this one, but we’re unfortunately not.

Back up your claims and watch your ego

One of the most important questions any hiring manager has to consider is, “can this person do the job they say they can do?” An equally important question is, “will the rest of our team want to spend 8 hours a day with this person?” To that second point, how you present yourself goes a long way. Confidence is important, but nobody wants to work with a big ego. In the case of two candidates with equally good work, the job will naturally go to the more likable candidate.

So, how do you avoid social pitfalls? The key is to be honest about who you are and where you’re at in your career. Don’t position yourself as an expert Solidworks or Rhino user if your surfacing skills aren’t pro-level. It’s good to have a perspective on design, but avoid long-winded essays about your design philosophy when you’re writing a bio. You’ll also want to avoid using gimmicks to hook someone’s attention. In our most recent search, a candidate boldly wrote us a single-sentence note along with his portfolio: “Whipsaw deserves only the best, that’s why I’m here.” His work was, of course, nowhere near the best. Confidence and cockiness are not the same thing, and these kinds of statements are transparently overcompensating.


Seeking a job in an industry as competitive as ours can be daunting, especially if you’ve got little to no experience under your belt. The key is to keep crafting your portfolio, work on new projects that resonate with you, and build out a robust body of work. Beyond that, avoid social faux pas and IT issues. Do all of these and you’ll land your next interview in no time.

If you’re curious to explore more resources, we recommend checking out the following:

Just ID Jobs from Anson Cheung

Women in Design (WID) SF Chapter

Advanced Design Offsite Program

3D CAD Courses from Cademy

Carlos Terminel

Carlos Terminel is an industrial designer with a wide range of experience spanning consumer electronics, medical, scientific instruments, gaming, and more. Aside from his industrial design work, Carlos also heads up Whipsaw's community outreach efforts and regularly mentors new designers and students.

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