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How to Build an Effective Product Design Portfolio

We are designers. We are Those Who Solve Problems with Interfaces. We are the ones who would take a solid flowchart, wireframe, or screen over any amount of explanation with… words (no, the irony of that sentiment in an article for designers is not lost on me)!

So let me present a new problem statement for which you must design a solution:

Stakeholder: You

Problem: Want a new job

Target User: People who can offer you a job

Solution: A solid, professional portfolio

This is just another problem you are designing a solution for. It’s nothing new! Apply the best practices you would for any of your clients and you’ll hit a home-run.

Here are six important design principles to remember for your portfolio:

1. Empathize and Align

As with any product, you need to start with the people. Ask yourself the following:

  • Who are the users? 
  • What do they care about?
  • What makes them happy? What makes them angry?
  • What were they doing five minutes before they looked at your portfolio? 
  • How much time do they have to look at it?
  • What are they waiting to do next?
  • What is their expertise (or better yet, where do they lack knowledge)?

TL;DR: Empathize.

Is this person a developer with whom you want to partner? A design agency you want to join? A sales VP? CEO? 

The motivations, behaviors, even the language used by various personas will vary. So you need to keep in mind who you hope to connect with as your primary target and stay in-step with their mindset.

2. Focus on the Job(s) You Want

Your portfolio is all about landing a job. Remember that, because the best way to prove you can do something well is not to say it but show it.

This means you need to know what you want and showcase the projects that best highlight these skills. If you are all about user research and UX design, don’t throw in a bunch of logos you did for your friends. Don’t even put a hi-fidelity screen in there. If it doesn’t support the exact thing you want, it’s a distraction.

This is true not only for the role you want, but of the type of problems you like to solve. Are you a data visualization person? Hardcore process person? Do you like sales enablement or maybe social networks or restaurant technology? The work you show will likely be the work you get!

Maybe the work you want is different than what you’ve done in the past. If you’re trying to expand your skill-set or switch focus entirely, you have two options:

  1. Focus on the aspects of the work that could be applicable. For example, if you only have logos, talk about the process of working with a client to identify their problems and how you used iterative principles to get the best solution.
  2. Spend time on a side-project. No one needs to ask you to design something: time to have fun on your own project, document your own steps, and then showcase it like any other work.

3. Get Inspired

Don’t start blind! As with any new product, do your research. Look at the competition. What are they doing that you like or dislike? There’s no harm in finding inspiration from your peers and applying that to your portfolio.

3. Tell a Story

Design is a journey and your capabilities as a designer are best expressed by how you navigate that road. What is your process? How can you organize various artifacts in a way that clearly and concisely shows:

  • What was the problem you were trying to solve?
  • How did you go about solving it?
  • What were the biggest challenges?
  • How did you overcome these challenges?
  • What were the results?
  • What worked well?
  • What would you do differently next time?

Being able to tell this story across a few different examples will show whoever you are trying to impress that you don’t just have an eye for pretty screens, but that you’re a well rounded and valuable asset to the team.

4. Less Is More

As always, there’s nothing like 80% white space. When you’re trying to get something done that is personal to you, it can be easy to forget yourself and overdo it. Stay minimal, like you would with any other client.

When you think you’re done, go through each section of each page and ask yourself what is the most important thing you want the user to get out of that snapshot? Then ask yourself if there’s anything on the screen not critical to making that point. If so, remove it and reassess with a critical eye. 

Take a break from your portfolio for at least a day and then come back to it with fresh eyes. You’ll quickly know if you need to bring anything back. (And chances are, you won’t.)

5. Build and Test It

Don’t get stuck in Sketch. There are so many sites now that help designers build websites without any developer skills whatsoever. Get your hands dirty and get your “MVP” up and running at least enough to run it by some people.

Don’t be afraid to get the same feedback you would on any of your other work. Put it in front of some friends and family and gage their responses. Listen to their feedback, draw insights, and iterate as needed.

Also, there’s nothing like testing it in the real world. Start applying! Every conversation you have, whether it leads somewhere or dead-ends, asks for user feedback. What were they looking for? How might you land the next job? What in the portfolio stood out (good and bad)?

6. Market It

This isn’t technically part of your portfolio, but definitely part of its effectiveness! Like any product, you need a way to market it. Link to it in any professional profile you maintain, post it in the many designer networks (Dribble, Behance, etc.). You don’t need to spend money on Google indexing and SEO with these other sources, but you could do that, too! 

Keep in mind, your portfolio is a living document: never stop testing and tweaking! You will soon find that the work you get is more and more in line with the work you want. It’s cyclical:  you’ll add that experience to your portfolio and it will be even easier the next time around. Soon enough, you’ll have a portfolio that’s doing all the grunt work for you!