I am always trying to understand what makes a good portfolio. What features do today’s designers need to show off their work in the best possible way? What do recruiters want to see in an online portfolio? What will portfolios look like one year from now? Five years from now?
A question we’ve been asking ourselves lately: Does your portfolio change depending on your seniority? Of course, we know the work will evolve. But does the way you present it change too? Should it? Here are our thoughts on the subject.
As a junior designer, your work does not speak for itself.
As designers, we are lead to believe our work should do the talking. That it should be so good it needs no further explanation. If that were true, Apple wouldn’t do Keynotes every time they released a new product. Even the best designers need to explain their work on their portfolio, or it’s just a bunch of pretty meaningless pictures. But this is especially necessary for young designers.
Your work might suck when you’re just starting out, and that’s fine. What we need to see as a company hiring you is how you think and approach your work. We need to understand how you process complex problems and find solutions. We want to see your personality, how you communicate yourself, your attitude about the world. That happens in your case studies.
"Designers with experience know that half of excellence is simply a love for detail."
Senior designers obsess over the details.
View a successful senior designer’s portfolio and you’ll notice the beautiful typography, the perfect color choices, the sense that everything just works. It’s because designers with experience know that half of excellence is simply a love for detail.
They pay attention not only to their headline typography but also their body type.
They perfect spacing and kerning on every page, for every screen size.
They don’t overlook tiny elements and interactions like link states and favicons.
They know a simple, subtle hover effect can change the entire feel of their site.
After years designing, they know the little stuff makes all the difference.
Junior designers share every piece of work they’ve done. Senior designers curate.
Many portfolios I’ve seen from young designers tend to feel unfocused. It makes sense. When you’re new in your career, you’re still figuring out what you’re good at and what you enjoy doing. You also haven’t done much work yet, so you’re pulling together whatever you can between school, self-initiated projects and your first paid jobs.
Senior designers, on the other hand, have learned where their skills lie and what they want to do more of in the future. They have more work to choose from, so it’s easier to curate. They have the confidence to show only their best work, not all the work they’ve ever done.
Junior designers could benefit from a senior designer mindset when it comes to choosing their projects. Even if curation narrows your projects down to two or three, it results in a stronger portfolio and a more clear picture of who you are as a designer.
Junior designers write novel-length case studies. Senior designers write confidently.
There’s a lesson we spend years unlearning after school: That the longer something is, the better it is. In school, we’re rewarded for more pages and extra word count instead of simply clarity and quality of thought. How strange, considering we’re also taught to be concise in Grammar 101.
I see this carry over into young designers’ portfolios. They’re taught a specific formula for a UX project, for example, and feel the need to hit each part of that formula, in exhaustive detail, to get an A+. That may please your professor, but it likely won’t impress your potential employer.
Senior designers learn how to tell a story rather than write an essay. They still walk through their projects and process, but without exhausting us. It’s a fine balance that comes with confidence and frankly, hard work. Writing a 1,000-word case study is easy. Saying the same thing in 500 words takes effort.
Cover image from ayakaito.com
For more on building a portfolio & working as a young designer: