April 6, 2018

Getting your first design job: How to make your portfolio stand out

Stand out from your peers and craft a killer portfolio
"As a design student, how do I make my work/portfolio stand out from the tons of other design students when applying for a design job?"

Graduating is an exciting time, but it can also be stressful. You and hundreds of other design students have been released into the wild and are simultaneously applying for the same jobs. Standing out from your peers is essential if you want your work to be noticed or considered for a position.

There's already a lot of advice online for creating a good portfolio. These articles often recommend what to include such as your personal story and process. 

In this article I want to dive a bit deeper and focus more on the work specifically. What is the best way to present a piece of work in your portfolio, in a way that makes you stand out from the rest?

After viewing many portfolios – both for hiring and inspiration purposes – there's a few things that help a portfolio jump out to me. Some are quick-wins, others take a bit more thought and time.

Before we get started I want to share one piece of general piece advice. I always recommend presenting projects in the form of case studies. A gallery, while shows end results doesn't tell anything about how you work or what your process is. While they can be time consuming to put together, case studies tell so much more about how you work, the approach taken and the background story of the project. These are often the things hiring managers are most interested in.

Ok! Let's get into the details:

Set the context

While you may be proud and eager to show off the end result of a project, the beginning is just as important. Without prior knowledge about the project it's difficult for hiring managers to judge the success of the solution.

Open each case study with the problem statement and goals you had for the project. What did you have or know before you started, and where did you hope to end up? What was the focus? What assumptions were made? Knowing this helps keep the focus on the goals and Northstar of the work, rather than the visuals and flashy presentation.

During interviews at Uber we often ask a few questions around how the team and project was structured. Knowing this context helps us to understand why certain decisions or tradeoffs may have been made. Some questions to consider addressing might be:

In addition to the above, always state your responsibility in the project. What was your specific role in the project and how did you work with others in the team? Knowing this helps to shine a spotlight on your (and yours alone) contribution to the project.

Go beyond the pixels

A portfolio isn't an art exhibition. Showing only a collection of final designs don't tell much about how you work. Final designs do show what you're capable of, but often hiring managers want to know the path it took you to get to the final result. Don't just show what you did – talk about it.

In-depth case studies that show alternative explorations and process shots are a great way to add extra context and go deeper into the decision made within a project.  

Showing final, high fidelity visuals helps to show where you ended up, but how did you get there? Hiring managers are often interested in the alternatives you explored and trade-offs made. They're eager for a peek into your exploration and process. What ideas did you explore but decide weren't the right direction? Why? Guide them as much as you can through how you ended up at the final design.

Don't be afraid to show early mockups, wireframes, bad ideas and messy prototypes. After all, process is messy! Show what you explored and talk about what design methods or techniques were used and how. This helps the hiring manager to understand how you work and what methods you're familiar with.

Include a post-mortem

Don't leave us hanging! If there are results available about the project post-completion, consider including these too. Sharing the outcome helps to close the loop and provides an opportunity to reflect on the goals of the project. Did you achieve the goals you were hoping to achieve?

This opportunity for reflection is also a place to share whether there were any surprising results, or things you may consider doing differently next time. Or, if you've had the chance to iterate and improve over time, talk about what that journey has been like. How did you decide what should be changed or tested? What has the results been of doing so?

Take a moment to reflect on the learnings and outcome of the project. It's not wrong to state you would've done something differently, or identify an area for improvement.

Consider your presentation

Your work should always speak for itself. If you have to explain to someone what they're looking at, you've failed at getting them to see the work in context. There are so many ways to present your work – photographs, mockups, renders, flat images, gifs or videos. 

When possible, present your work in the context or environment in which it's designed to be used. If I were to present some of my recent work that I've done for the Uber Driver app, I'd make sure to show it in context on an Android mobile device, in a car on the dashboard.

If your work is designed for a specific device, always show it in that context of being wrapped in the device frame and in it's ideal environment. This helps hiring managers to understand what it is they're looking at and how you expect it to be used.

It's up to you how realistic you want to go when presenting your work. If presenting digital work I recommend digital mockups instead of real photographs as this shows your work in a better light and helps to keep the focus on the screen. 

Alternatively if your work is print based then photographs are more appropriate. Perhaps you could show a mix of studio-based photographs that highlight the detail and craftsmanship, combined with real-world photographs of it in it's ideal use.

Include some personality*

A portfolio should be a reflection of not just your craftsmanship, but also your personality. Hiring managers are likely to be filtering through tens if not hundreds of portfolio and applications when it comes to finding candidates. 

Take a look at your current portfolio – if someone had only 20 seconds to look at it, what impression do you want to leave them with?

It's worth putting in that little bit of extra effort to put your best foot forward. What's something small you could do to make your portfolio stand-out, or how could you sprinkle some of your personality across it? A good way to grab the hiring manager's attention is to create something that's memorable or enticing.

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Remember, keep it simple. After viewing your portfolio the hiring manager should have an idea of the types of projects you've worked on, what your process is and how you work. Use in depth case studies to go deep into your process and talk about more than just the final result.

Good luck!

*Keep in mind that hiring managers will often make a decision about you in the first 20-30 seconds of visiting your portfolio. I'd advise not to incorporate anything that slows down the experience of getting to know you and viewing your work. This could include things like flashy but slow loading animations, chatbots that go on too long, complex navigation or frustrating scroll behaviour. 

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