A while ago, I put up a question on my Twitter and Instagram timelines. The question was: “Are you struggling to put up a portfolio for your dream job? Let’s chat.” Within 24 hours, my DMs were full of messages from various Designers indicating their struggle to put up a portfolio. Why did I ask in the first place?
6 months ago, I got an offer from a Fortune 500 company, for me, and I guess for some people, this was the dream job — working for a data-driven organization that solves travel problems for millions of people all over the world, and having to relocate to the beautiful city of Amsterdam was a dream. Since getting the job, I’ve had Designers reaching out to me in their quest to know how I was able to get the offer. In some of the conversations, a lot of Designers mumbled at the task of having to put up the holy grail of getting a job — a portfolio. It seemed to be a major blocker. I can totally relate, putting together a portfolio is a daunting task. But how did I do it?
This is a 3-part article. In this first part, I intend to prepare your mindset for how to put up a portfolio. For the second part, I’m going to share what I believe makes a great portfolio, and the third part will be about putting everything together in a medium that will give you a better chance to get your dream job.
Note: This article isn’t about a stand-out online portfolio as generally known. Rather, this is geared towards putting together a UX Design portfolio for review with a potential employer or a recruiter to deep-dive into one or two projects.
My portfolio was literally bullet points. Yes! Bullet points. It was 90% text, 10% visual. I had no proper portfolio before I applied for the job. I created one just days before I sent out my application. I’ve always wanted to put up a perfect portfolio with a great story, mesmerizing visuals, and a website that will make potential employees say yes as soon as the page loads. This is the bane of procrastination for most Designers.
How was I able to put up a portfolio in days that got me a job in a Fortune 500 company?
As a Designer, I did what I’ll always do when faced with a problem. I did my research and findings to understand what recruiters of big companies like Amazon, Booking.com, Google, and the likes look out for. I did a lot of reading, and learning online; not only about putting together a portfolio but most importantly, learning about these companies — their processes, products, history, culture, etc. Researching and learning were key to putting up the right portfolio for the right context.
By taking time to understand your audience’s needs, context is formed. There’s no formula for putting up the perfect portfolio. I think a design portfolio should differ based on the context or need. A portfolio aimed at getting clients as a freelancer should be different from a portfolio aimed at getting a full-time job at a startup or a Fortune 500. I’ve always customized my Résumé based on the job I’m applying for, and I did the same with my portfolio last time; having understood the needs of my then potential employer.
One key insight following my research was coming to know that the company I was applying for is a data-driven company. This insight guided me in selecting projects that would show my quantitative data experience. (By the way, my portfolio was only 2 projects). Also, knowing that the company was is big in A/B testing, I highlighted my experience in A/B testing in my cover letter and my portfolio about section.
You can see how having an understanding of my audience helped me tailor my portfolio in choosing the right projects and saying the right things. Knowing your audience is a no brainer. As a Designer, you already know the value of research. Research the hell out of your dream companies. Make connections with people who work with those companies. You can find relevant people on LinkedIn and Twitter. Reaching out to people who already work at the company I was applying to gave me a lot of insights and helped me shape my portfolio better.
From my findings talking to Designers, 80% of Designers said the next problem on the list aside putting together a compelling story, is creating a portfolio website.
After my first phone call with the recruiter, I was asked to send my portfolio; either as a PDF file, or a link, even though I had initially sent a link with my application. It does not matter if it were a website or a PDF file. The recruiter just wants a concise, convincing story of your past work, experience, and personality. If they can consume that information, it does not matter the medium.
There are a bunch of tools out there that can help you put together a portfolio without having to code or build a website. I’m a big Notion user, so my portfolio was a Notion document, and all I had to do was share the link with the recruiter.
A couple of tools you can use are Notion, Dropbox paper, Google Docs. One good thing about using these tools is that you don’t have to code, or even have a domain name hence, you can have as many variations of your portfolio as you want based on your needs, and all you need to do is to share the links to whoever needs to see your portfolio.
The third part of this article is how to use Notion to create your portfolio, and I shall share a portfolio template as well. So, stay in touch.
From the Designers who messaged me indicating their struggle with putting up a portfolio, I did get 20+ Designers who sent me their portfolio for review and feedback. One common thing I could deduce was that they were all visual-heavy. Lots of screens, persona diagrams, flow charts, photos of sticky notes, and what have you.
It’s common for Designers to think that showing off sexy mockups and artifacts will show how great a Designer you are. But design is not great until it solves the problem it was meant for in the real world. If you can’t show and tell the impact of your visuals in the real world, then they are just images. Good companies care about impact, not visuals. Focus on the story — the problem, the people the design was intended for, the data and information that drove your decisions, your role, and the outcome of your designs in the real world.
From my experience, visuals did not matter much. Not because the company does not care about visuals, but because what makes a great design portfolio isn’t visuals. It’s the story you tell, of which visual is just a paragraph in the story. It’s your ability to be able to articulate your understanding of the problem you are trying to solve, and how you got to that understanding, your ability to come up with informed ideas and solutions, the impact your designs made (It doesn’t matter if it’s positive or not, as long as you can talk about your learnings), and your awareness that design is not only about the user, but also business. Instead of adding persona diagrams, I’d rather add a graph or chart showing how conversion improved after my design was rolled out.
In the next part (part 2) of this article, I will share my ideas on what makes a great portfolio in general.
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