Let’s talk portfolio…

Published June 5, 2020

NOTE: This was originally published as part of a post-course series of emails for the March 2020 cohort.

Do I gotta?

The answer to this question is almost definitely yes. No matter how problematic they are, you’re going to have more opportunities if you have a presentable portfolio of your work and capabilities to share with the world.

Website or PDF?

Personally I don’t think this matters all that much. People like clicking a link and then seeing your work in a way they can scroll through. Guess what? If you host a PDF file somewhere like Dropbox or Google Drive, people can view the PDF in their web browser just as well as a website.

My practical advice: start with a one-page website that links to PDFs for 2–3 projects. Keep your branding consistent between the website and the PDFs. Make sure the PDFs links back to your website.

What to include

At a minimum, your portfolio needs to answer the following questions:

“No one will read all this…”

Probably not. But you never know which parts people will read as they skim. Some people will pause to take in details about how thorough your research was, some to understand your approach to ideation, some will only look at your visual mockups, some will want to see how you iterate, some will want to understand how you keep business goals in mind, and some will focus in on your learnings to see how engaged you are with improving in your work.

It’s hard to please everyone.

Design your case studies for easy skimming and occasional deep-diving. Try the following exercise:

  1. Write down the entire story of your project in only five sentences.
  2. Read the sentences out loud to see how they sound.
  3. Ask yourself if those sentences reflect what you want to communicate to a hiring manager.
  4. Rewrite the five sentences to sound like what you’d want a hiring manager to tell their team about your work after reviewing it.
  5. Edit both sentences for clarity.

Let’s try out a fictional example:

  1. Glovo is a delivery service operating primarily in Spain, for whom we considered offering a way for their customers to split the bill on an order.
  2. Our research showed that a majority of users felt the process of splitting a food order with their friends was awkward at best, and frequently involves a mix of exchanging cash and using payment apps.
  3. Glovo has a business opportunity to earn a surcharge on payments processed to “settle up” a shared order.
  4. We developed and tested a prototype which fit the existing behavior patterns of friends splitting the bill, taking care to prevent the bill-splitting process from delaying an order (a primary concern of our test subjects).
  5. We would measure the success of this feature by looking at marginal increases in order revenue based on transaction fees.

And what would we want a hiring manager to tell their team about you?

  1. She knows how to start with a brief and develop a plan of action.
  2. She incorporates real users when considering a new feature.
  3. She keeps business needs in mind as she works.
  4. She validates her designs against user needs and pain points.
  5. She considers the impact of her work on the business, and keeps an iterative mindset.

With your two lists in hand, check your case study. If anything doesn’t support the points you wrote down, change it to do so, or cut it.

Test your portfolio

Ask people you trust to test your portfolio. If you want to avoid some potential bias, trade portfolios with a classmate and run the tests for each other.

If you want to test for overall personal brand, try asking reviewers to pick five adjectives that describe you as a candidate after spending 60 seconds with your website.

If you want to test the quality of your content in a case study, give someone 30 seconds to skim through a case study, and have them write down a five-sentence summary of what they remember.

If you want to test the impression your case study is giving off about you and your work, ask a reviewer to write down five things they would tell their team about you after spending 30 seconds with your case study.

This takes time, but it’s time better spent than spinning your wheels in a cold sweat feeling worthless and like no one will ever hire or love you.

Your portfolio is (just) another project

Remember: your portfolio is a project and all the same rules and methods and techniques apply.

Your first draft is just that. It will be shit and you’ll kind of hate it. But without a first iteration, you won’t get to make a second, third, fourth. At some point you’ll start to feel OK about it. That’s when you know you’re getting closer.

You need to have audience goals, design goals, and business goals in mind. What do recruiters and hiring managers need and expect to see in order to consider you for a position? How do you want to come across? What kind of roles are you positioning yourself for?

Don’t aim for perfection. Get a minimum viable portfolio together so you can start using it to apply with. Perfect will never come, start applying sooner than later so that you can incorporate what you learn from that process into improving your portfolio. And who knows? Maybe you’ll land a role with something less complete than you thought you needed. Why do you think so many designers have half-finished not great portfolios? Because they’re busy working.

Take a step back. Breathe. You got this.