Building a portfolio
A portfolio is a great way to illustrate your range of work, your craftsmanship, and your interests to potential employers. Portfolios are not just for designers and artists, they are a great way to showcase your work as engineers too. Here is a guide on how to get started with making your portfolio.
What is the goal of your portfolio?
The most important thing to clarify before making a portfolio is determining your goal. What do you want to achieve with your portfolio? This will determine what projects you show, how you will display it, and how you will talk about it.
For most people the goal for your portfolio is to land an interview for a job, the main thing to remember is that your portfolio is a way to initiate interest from your recruiter or potential employer. The reality of it is that your portfolio should land you the interview and not the job. With the goal set, the next step is determining who your audience is.
What to do:
- Have a goal before starting your portfolio, your goal should guide your decision making for your portfolio
What not to do:
- Making a portfolio just for the sake of it, your portfolio is not a dumping ground for your projects
Who are your audiences?
It’s a myth that your portfolio only has one audience. There are almost always two types of audiences for portfolio reviews: recruiters and hiring managers. The recruiter will almost always come first.
The goal of recruiters is to find good candidates that they can forward to the hiring manager. Recruiters are overwhelmingly not familiar with nuances of the job responsibilities themselves, thus you need to keep this in mind when you create your portfolio. This usually means you need to do some contextualization and summarization of your projects for the recruiter. Recruiters are also notoriously short on time. They will not be read through the whole portfolio. Thus, You need to quickly show the recruiter what you have done and your impact. The goal of this stage of the portfolio review is to get an interview with the hiring manager. For a guideline on what recruiters want to see for specific industries can be found here (Link to a document with common things recruiters look for in specific industries).
The next group of audiences are the hiring managers. Hiring managers are the person who will be your manager. They are working people within your field or managers who have an in-depth understanding of the job responsibilities. They are also short on time, but are more likely to spend a longer time on the portfolio than the recruiter. The goal of hiring managers is to understand your thought process and level of craftsmanship.
What to do:
- Remember that there are always multiple audiences your portfolio is catering to
- Organize your portfolio in a way that accommodates a recruiter who will only skim through your portfolio
- Keep your portfolio short: Try fitting everything noteworthy “above the fold,” or at least before you think most people would drop off.
What not to do:
- Over-explain your projects. People aren’t likely to read it.
What do you want to showcase in your portfolio?
The first thing to remember when choosing what to include in your portfolio is that quality always trumps quantity. Your portfolio is not supported to be a digital repository for everything you’ve ever made. Rather, it is a public showcase of your very best stuff that you are proud to show off to your target audience.
With your goal and audience in mind, pick the pieces that you think will grab the most attention from them – or even better, ones that your target audience has told you are good to show (link to how to ask for feedback from industry people). These pieces should show your audience what type of designer you are, what type of work you are interested in, and what type of work you are capable of doing. If you are gunning for a specific type of design work, for example interaction design or beam design, you should include more of that work in your portfolio. However, if you want to be more general, include a diversity of projects that will communicate your range of ability to your audience. This balance of quality and range will show prospective employers and clients that you have:
- Demonstrated talent and ability to create beautiful works
- Exposure and working knowledge of a variety of different types of designs, software, and industries
Remember to keep your audience in mind as you pick your pieces.The types of projects the recruiter and hiring managers want to see highly depend on what type of company and product it is. Do your research beforehand and select the projects that are most relevant to the place you are applying. Tip: Have multiple portfolios if you want to apply to many types of companies.
If you are looking to get into a design field and do not feel like you have a lot of work in the area that you are interested in getting in, personal projects are a valid type of work to showcase. These can include passion projects, pro-bono work, and etc. If you need ideas for a project, here are some good websites to find design prompts.
Lastly, remember that these pieces are the ones that pique your audience’s interest and only pieces of work they know from you. These will most likely be the items of work that your audience will ask you about during your interview. Be sure that you can talk about each piece for at least 15 to 20 minutes.
What to do:
- Only include projects you are very proud of, your best stuff that you can’t stop talking about
- Be strategic in the projects that you show. If you are gunning for a specific type of job, show more of that type of design and that you can do it well. If you are applying to more general jobs, demonstrate the breadth of your experience and ability by including a variety of samples
- Always research the company and their product/service beforehand. This will give you an idea of what kind of projects they would like to see in your portfolio.
What not to do:
- Do not include projects you are not extremely proud of. Your portfolio is an exhibit, not a storage page
- Do not include projects that you have little to say about
- Don’t do research on the company and their product/service
How do you describe your portfolio items?
Now that you have selected what you want to show in your portfolio, you have to describe it. Now, imagine which you would rather listen to: a reading of the instruction manual of how to use an iPhone or a well-crafted presentation about it? This is the same situation when presenting your project to your audience. The best way to present your project is to tell it as a story. View some good examples of well-written portfolio projects at casestudy.club.
Almost more important than your images and screenshots is your ability to show your viewers what your design achieved and how. By explaining how you interpreted your project’s goals, problems, and how the design answered these questions, you are signaling to your audience that you are an articulate problem solver and communicator. Your audience should be able to see how your thinking led the project from one stage to the next and how it contributed to the overall design. In each project, you should communicate the following to your audience:
- Project summary: In two sentences or less, can you describe what this project’s problem, solution, and outcome was?
- Your role: Was this a solo project, or were you working as part of a larger group? Did you manage a team, or were you a valued contributor? Did doesn’t matter what role you were in, just remember to let the audience know where you contributed
- Your process: How did you arrive at your solution? What were the project’s goals and main problems? How did you go about addressing each of them?
- Your solution:
- Your impact: What was the impact of your solution to the problem? Having a success metric at the beginning would help you determine if your solution was successful. It can be as simple as you were able to submit the assignment on time, your client was happy with your work, or your solution was able to increase acquisition percentage.
- Your tools:
With all of this in mind, it is helpful to craft the story of your project and get feedback from other people. It doesn’t have to be people in your field, if anything, it’s better if you get feedback from people outside your industry as most recruiters will not be familiar with your line of work. This would be a good case to ask if they understand what you are trying to describe and if there is enough contextualization of the problem for someone unfamiliar to understand.
What to do/include:
- Keep it concise, your audience are full-time employers and don’t have time to read everything you wrote. A good rule of thumb is your audience should know what you are communicating within 2 mins.
- Remember to contextualize your work and give people a quantifiable reason to hire you. These projects on your portfolio are the only pieces of work they have about you, so you should help them understand it as much as possible.
- Give the audience a sense of what was involved in every design in your portfolio
- Be sure to proofread all your work to avoid any grammatical errors
- Focus on the problem, solution, prototype, and outcome of each project. Remember, the point is to be interesting and impactful so that you make an impression and get the interview.
What not to do/include:
- Unfinished case studies — just don’t include them
- Pictures of post-its and whiteboards — these pictures are not helpful to getting the story. Half the time, we can’t even read what it’s saying.
- Assume your viewers will understand why your design was significant or what your design is a solution to.
What online platforms can you use to make your portfolio?
Once you have decided your goal, your audience, and what you want to decide, the next step is to choose a web platform that makes viewing your portfolio easy and enjoyable. It’s a myth that your portfolio has to be a website. For many interviews, companies will require a separate slide deck that you can use to present as your portfolio. However, having a website is better in terms of being discovered by recruiters. Thus, it’s recommended that you have both.
There are many more platforms available than the one listed in the table below. There is no wrong platform, rather the best choice is all based on your technical skills and practical needs.
That doesn’t mean that a self-made website is better. On the contrary if you don’t want to get into an industry that requires software engineering skills or just don’t have the technical know-how, it’s best if you use an out-of-the-box web hosting platform. You can focus more time on the content on your site without having to worry about the web development or maintenance. These websites generally have a number of templates you can choose from in which you can customize within the frames of the template to upload images and add content. Generally speaking, these platforms will offer less flexibility in formatting and presentation. FYI, “hosted” means that the platform takes care of server cost and space to store your portfolio so you don’t have to worry about it.
|Platform||Free Version Available||Student Discount?||Good For||Not Good For|
|Powerpoint slide into a .pdf
||Yes||N/A||Projects with lots of NDAs. The portfolio actually used during interviews. Very customizable||Not SEO compatible, can't be found easily|
|Squarespace||No||Yes||Easy to use and update. Easy to expand into e-commerce if you want to go that route. Great customer service. Lots of templates||Custom HTML|
|Wix||Yes||Yes||Easy to use. Lots of templates.|
|Webflow||Yes||Yes||Highly customizable||If you don't know code|
|Figma||Yes||Yes, for paid version||Real to use, lots of templates||You're not actually hosting a real website. Not SEO compatible.|
|Behance||Yes||Portfolios related to Interaction Design||Not customizable|
|Dribbble||Yes||Show and tell for designers||Not customizable|
|Cargo||Yes, for select colleges||No||Personal publishing platform aimed at creating accessible tools and a networked context to enhance the exposure of talented individuals on the Internet.|
|Coroflot||Yes||N/A||Created by Core77, this is an excellent free portfolio site to show your work and discover the work of thousands of designers|
|Artstation||Fine arts and visual arts|
|Carbonmade||Inexpensive||Not a lot of templates|
Ways to optimize your portfolio for viewers
An enjoyable viewing experience for your audience means it’s more likely that they will read more of your work. To guarantee this experience as much as possible, we recommend:
- Resize your images: Don’t make people wait for images to load while they are trying to view your portfolio. It’s more likely people will leave than wait. Thus, resize every image to match the space in your template of choice.
- Compress your images: Try to shrink the size of your images to make your page load faster. Head over to TinyJPG and compress every image before uploading it to your platform.
- Contact information: Always include how the audience can get in touch with you. A clear button, contact form, or social media link. Be sure a link to this contact method is on every page.
Don’t forget to add an About Me section!
Always remember that while you are interviewing for a job, in essence you are interviewing to work with other people. Thus, people want to know a little about who you are so they know who they are working with.
The About Page is a great way to tell people about yourself and the best page to get creative. Just remember to include the following information:
- Expected Graduation Date
- Links to your Linkedin and other relevant social media
Other than that, feel free to add anything you want!
Overall things to remember
- Think of your portfolio as a product design in of itself, that will help you determine what are the right steps for your portfolio
- The biggest thing most recruiters and hiring managers want to know about you is that you are a good thinker with a high level of craftsmanship in your field.
- Here is a big list of resources on portfolio making.