A strong portfolio is a key tool for designers at all levels of seniority. We spoke to a handful of experienced hiring managers and design professionals to hear what they look for in candidate portfolios and their top tips for standing out at interview.
Do I need a portfolio to be considered for a design role?
The response from all our interviewees was a resounding YES, especially in today’s highly competitive landscape. Without a portfolio, you may sacrifice your chance of even getting a first-stage interview. Hiring managers need to see that you’ve got the knowledge and experience required, and even at senior levels, some level of portfolio is expected to show how you design and create products.
“CVs provide you a taste of what someone can do, but you don’t know if a candidate has the right skills for a role from this alone. Putting a portfolio together can be time-consuming, but see it as an opportunity. With a CV, you’re measured against where you’ve worked and a short description of all that you did there, whereas a portfolio allows you to really show off your skills.” –Caitlin Rich – Principle Product Designer, Freetrade
When putting together or updating your portfolio, try to ensure you’re answering the following questions through example work, case studies and recommendations:
- How do you communicate with others?
- How well do you work in a team?
- How do you go about resolving everyday conflicts with a peer without escalating?
- What values are important to you?
- How do you contribute to organisational values and culture?
- What software are you competent in?
- How do you use the software available?
- How do you articulate and present your design work?
“Spelling and grammar are extremely important for any candidate portfolio. Having a clear layout and imagery is also important for me because I need to see evidence from the designer that they can do the job at hand.” – Milon Harman – Head of Product Design, TES
What are the most important things to showcase in a design portfolio?
1. The design process
“Spend your visual real estate on the visuals and workings, not just endless shots of post-it workshops. Talk about the problems to be solved. Talk about who you worked with to get to the solution. Talk about the challenges and opportunities passed up, not just a chronology of the work. And show examples of the work with descriptions about why what each bit you are showing matters to the project.” – Charmaine Wyland – Head of User Experience and Design, Spotlight Sports Group
“Interviewers want to see a narrative: outline any problems and how you overcame them, then follow up with results. Be prepared to expand on how you came by those metrics, whether you’re happy with them, and what you would have done differently a second time round.” Steve Pearce – SVP Product Design, Checkout.com
“With case studies covering bigger projects, you often don’t know what the candidates responsibilities were. It helps if they are clear about the team structure and their contributions. Be upfront if you were the lead product designer, though had support from a strong UI designer, or partnered with a user researcher. If you had little support and covered the whole design process, make that clear too!” – Caitlin Rich
“Look at the job description and pick out examples from your portfolio that fit the role you’re applying for – I like to see the link. Why are you the best fit for this organisation? What can you bring to us that no other candidate will have, and what’s that thing that will give you the wow factor? I like to see how you holistically think about how you connect everything else to your position.” – Milon Harman
3. Your design skills!
“The design of the CV and portfolio is very important. CVs that are poorly laid out or are difficult to read immediately signal that the candidate is not a strong designer. Same for portfolios, if it is difficult to navigate or doesn’t give me a clear idea of what they can do, can I really trust the candidate in making our product easy to use and understand?” – Caitlin Rich
“Interviewers are looking for evidence of visual acumen – a shabby, poorly laid out portfolio doesn’t show much skill or love for your craft.” – Steve Pearce
Can I showcase confidential work in a portfolio?
Before you consider using any past work in your portfolio, ensure you have permission from the employer or client. If the work is confidential, make sure you’re clear on the specific rules of distribution and legal rights for that project.
If you can show work in an interview:
“Give a very detailed description of what the work is and why it’s directly relevant to show in the interview. If you are interviewing with a competitor, it’s a very small world, so be very considered in what aspects of the work you do show in an interview so it doesn’t land you in legal hot water later.” – Charmaine Wyland
“Bring in a printed PDF and be very specific about its confidentiality, noting that the work is only being shared for the purpose of advancing your application. I would never expect to leave the documentation with the interviewer, and if they ask, the candidate should refuse.” – Milon Harman
If the company you have done the work for has asked for you to not show the work publicly, but you are not under a strict NDA:
It’s advisable to omit this work from your online portfolio completely until the project is publicly launched, but an alternate option is to:
“Password-protect your website and try to utilise tech that disables someone’s ability to screengrab it. Do NOT send PDFs or screengrabs because you run the risk that someone at some point will show it to the wrong person. If you are interviewing with a direct competitor and there is any sensitivity around the work, don’t risk it – don’t show it.” – Charmaine Wyland
If you can’t show work at all:
It can be frustrating when all or most of your recent work is bound to confidentiality agreements, but you do have some options.
“Show what you can, even if it’s a top-level outline of a project, and clearly communicate why you can’t show the details. You can always go through your process, without giving too much information away. Though make sure you have other case studies that demonstrate skills you may have had to strip out. In some cases, that might mean showing hypothetical work, but this can only get you so far, so make sure any hypothetical work is balanced against real work.” – Caitlin Rich
“Companies with confidentiality agreements usually have large legal teams, so give them a call and ask for their advice on any ways you can get around this for interview purposes.” – Steve Pearce
Does it matter which format my portfolio is distributed in?
The consensus among the design leaders we interviewed was that each of the following formats has its benefits in different stages of the process, but that generally more than one is expected.
“Websites or online interactive platforms are preferred, especially for those working in digital product. The site structure and navigation of your portfolio site will tell me more about how much you care and how competent you are at designing or directing the build of something that is all yours, compared to other work you might show where you can hide behind group contributions.” – Charmaine Wyland
“Websites are easy to manage and can showcase a lot of work, but they are difficult to tailor to a specific role. I often find that websites have so many case studies that it is hard to know what to focus on. Hiring managers often have limited time to review a portfolio and understand what you can do, so make sure they are seeing your best work.” – Caitlin Rich
“When I’m screening through a CV, I would expect an online portfolio for me to look at. In an interview, I expect a slimmed down PDF version with the best work from their most recent positions. If they can base their interview around that, that would be impressive to me.” – Milon Harman
“The benefit of PDFs is that they can be tailored to the job description. The downside is that it can be quite difficult to lay out complex projects into separate pages that make sense, but that does help you to be concise.” – Caitlin Rich
“I think these days it makes more sense to have your portfolio online or as a hosted PDF. It’s really your call but try to avoid a novelty page-turn style portfolio – think about what you’re trying to show and if it’s a true reflection of your skills!” – Steve Pearce
Online professional networks
“For visual design and UI roles, sites like Dribbble are okay, but for product design, there’s not really enough information to understand how people work through complex problems.” – Caitlin Rich
Thank you to Charmaine, Caitlin, Milon and Steve for their time – we hope you find this advice useful in your future job searches! If you’d like to learn more about standing out during the interview process, please read our recent article on Top Interview Tips for Designers.
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