Chasing the Perfect Portfolio
At Whipsaw we come across many different portfolios covering a variety of different skill levels. Organizing and presenting a portfolio can be a daunting task. You’ve spent years pouring your blood, sweat, and tears into your work, and now it’s time to be judged blind against an army of other designers on the hunt for the same job. Whether you’re a student in search of an internship, a recent graduate in search of your first job, or a seasoned professional looking for a fresh creative environment, here is some sage advice from our team.
Hook Your Audience
From the moment a portfolio reviewer visits your website, you have thirty seconds to make an impression, otherwise they are off to the next hopeful applicant and all that hard work goes unseen. This is not to say reviewers are cold and heartless, they just have mountains of applicants to get through on top of their daily design work. Having a portfolio “hook” can keep your hard work from landing in the immediate rejection pile. Think about the hook as the cover of a comic book or a Netflix teaser. “Winter is coming.” With that single line, Game of Thrones captured the imaginations of audiences around the world. Pair that with ominous music, blue eyes, and blurred battle scenes through a mysterious forest and suddenly you’ve got millions of people staying up all night waiting in line to binge watch 8 seasons!
The hook should provide some insight into who you are. If you’re into transportation design, maybe it’s a killer automotive sketch. If you’re a seasoned designer, it might be an easily recognizable product on the market that you worked on. Maybe it’s an unexpected provocative design philosophy statement or a detail shot of an intricate CAD surface texture or feature. Whatever the hook is, it should instantly grab the reviewer’s attention and most importantly get them interested in diving deeper.
Use Your Designer Powers
By now you’ve hooked people, they’ve scrolled beyond the teaser images and want to know more. Here’s where you can prove you’ve done your research, talked to users, made prototypes, and designed something truly meaningful. It’s just like middle school math class. It’s important to give the reviewer insight into how you processed the problem, not just how you solved it in the end. Explain the highlights, challenges, pivots, and “ah-ha” moments throughout the project.
While you capture attention with your flashiest project, you’re still going to be judged by your weakest one.
Think of your portfolio reviewers as users and design your content layout as if you’re designing a product. Use simple and easy to read statements, pictures, renders, and sketches, but keep it concise. Be sure to include anything that is pivotal to the final design, but leave the research dissertation at home. Make it easy to navigate and understand. Use tried and true graphic design layout techniques and proper hierarchy of information to deliver your content in a simple and organized way. While you capture attention with your flashiest project, you’re still going to be judged by your weakest one. Think quality over quantity. Reviewers would rather see 3 really polished and well-thought-through projects than 10 mediocre ones. Reviewers may second guess your chops if you have a lackluster design 101 project in your portfolio. If you have projects that now feel outdated, rework them.
Tell a Story
You’ve spent countless hours burning through Copic marker ink, synthesizing research, pushing pixels, breathing foam dust, and crashing Solidworks. You’re hoping you have a compelling design solution to one of the most complex problems plaguing mankind. You’ve been working on this amazing design solution for over a year. You know more about the subject than anyone. And that’s the way it should be when you’re designing the product. But when you’re designing your portfolio that level of expertise may actually be one of your biggest problems. The people reviewing your portfolio have not been on every step of this design journey with you. They may know nothing about your design challenge and dismiss an elegant solution because they don’t understand it.
This is where clever storytelling can take a complex problem and make it easily digestible to any viewer. Always start by setting the stage and providing your reader with context – but keep it brief. Was this a school project? How many weeks did you spend on it? Who contributed?
You know more about the subject than anyone. And that’s the way it should be when you’re designing the product. But when you’re designing your portfolio that level of expertise may actually be one of your biggest problems.
Introduce the plot using simple imagery. Present a couple of doodles of what the solution is now and what it could be in the future, or a key insight statement that explains what you are setting out to design. Always include a design problem statement and consider making it visual. Remember the reviewer doesn’t have much time and you want them to understand your point of view quickly.
The protagonists are your designs and your design process is the conflict that provides intrigue. You want the reviewer to follow your design evolution through the process, don’t just stitch together what you did chronologically. Arrange the content so that it makes for a compelling narrative arc that grabs attention and tells a story to climax and conclusion.
Finally, think about the theme of each project and try to include projects that convey different parts of your design voice. A child’s toy is a good project to demonstrate a playful approach to design that highlights your ability to sketch a wide breadth of concepts and develop whimsical solutions. Conversely, a wearable electronics project may provide a better opportunity to showcase your ability to work around component constraints and focus on highly resolved details and ergonomics.
Take Risks and Stand Out
We didn’t end up with the iPhone, Nintendo Switch, or Uber by playing it safe. We want to see you take risks and present unique ways of thinking. Your portfolio is a glimpse into the person who created it. What makes your projects special? What makes you special?
Professional design teams reviewing your portfolio can see right through a fancy render to a flimsy design.
It’s easy to log onto Pinterest or surf trend blogs for inspiration. What you may not realize is that many other designers around you are doing the same. Turning inspiration into influence is where things get dangerous. All of a sudden everyone’s work looks the same, influenced by the same images online. Don’t fall for it! Professional design teams reviewing your portfolio can see right through a fancy render to a flimsy design. You have a lot more flexibility and creative freedom in designing your portfolio than you have on a lot of projects. No one is giving you guidelines or constraints. Use your own voice to push the boundaries and create something special. Focus on what you excel at and highlight your strengths.
Think Beyond the Portfolio
Your portfolio is obviously an important tool to get you in the door and start the conversation, but don’t forget to bring your personality and intellect (and your sketchbook) to the interview. In order to get a seat at the table and be taken seriously, you will need to be able to effectively communicate with the team. Being able to reference decision points and articulate your vision builds authenticity into your presentation.
Make sure you’ve done your homework and can tailor your story to be relevant to the company and position you’re applying to. This doesn’t mean you need to redesign your portfolio for every job, but know how to speak their language and use your portfolio as a tool to highlight your strengths.
Go For It!
Think of designing your portfolio like you think about designing a product. You’re the designer and whoever reads your portfolio is your user. Consider them throughout your portfolio design process and enjoy the journey of self-discovery that portfolio development allows. Be your authentic and creative self and show us what you’ve got!