Perfecting a portfolio is often a designer’s first step towards entering the job market. The practice is taught on university courses up and down the country, and is drilled in early.
Portfolios have been the way of the design industry for decades, but is it all a waste of time? Ikea Retail global experience design operations head Karolina Boremalm is one of a growing number of design leaders to question their utility.
Rather than being the most effective way to convey experience to a hiring manager, Boremalm considers portfolios to be “a legacy from ad agencies”, which in the past focused on “nice posters” and not much else.
“I’m completely uninterested in seeing what you’ve produced”
Speaking at Figma webinar Inside the Minds of Design Leaders, Boremalm explained that while portfolios are often impressive visually, they don’t give her what she needs as a hiring manager.
“My thoughts on portfolios is just don’t do them,” she said. “As a manager, I’m completely uninterested in seeing what you’ve actually produced.”
Instead, Boremalm says her biggest interest is in seeing the thought process behind the work. “How did you collaborate with the stakeholders? What did you deprioritise and prioritise based on the goal or budget?” she asks.
Boremalm says conveying all this in a multi-page portfolio is hard.
“I don’t want a set of graphics from a big folder”
Deliveroo director of design Stuart Frisby also expressed doubt over the use of traditional picture-only portfolios.
“Being able to see someone’s technical skills in a portfolio is important,” he said. “But the old-fashioned notion of a portfolio isn’t what I want as a hiring manager today.
“I don’t want a big set of graphics, from a big folder you carry round with you to every interview – what I want is the context that goes with the work.”
Instead, he said he prefers prospective job applicants to present case studies. This provides context for the work, he explained, such as the why decisions were made, what constraints were present and what kind of team an applicant was working with.
“People ignore their own strengths by trying to do everything”
Both Boremalm and Frisby highlighted that to produce an effective case study, the first step is properly reading a job description and tailoring previous experience to tick the necessary boxes.
But as Boremalm stresses, applicants shouldn’t force themselves to fit the shape of particular role. Designers who specialise and enjoy UX, for example, shouldn’t force themselves to apply for a service design role in a bid to become a multi-hyphenate.
“People ignore their own strengths by trying to do everything,” she said. Instead, she explained people should focus on building a career on what they enjoy doing.
“Different companies look for different things from designers”
One problem with tailoring case studies for each individual job application is that it takes more time. For designers applying for eight or nine jobs, producing tailor-made case studies can take days if not longer, Frisby concedes.
Additionally, the lack of standardisation when it comes to portfolios and case studies alike means everyone is doing things slightly differently. But as both design leaders explain, standardisation isn’t the solution to the problem.
“Of course it would be helpful if there was one standard document you could send to all of the different jobs you apply for,” said Frisby. “But I think the reality is that different companies look for different things from designers.”
“Narrative is the difference between a good case study and a bad one”
As for actually creating a perfect case study for an application, Frisby says the key is to think of it as a narrative. A story with a beginning, middle and end is a sure bet, he explained.
“The beginning is about setting context on the project, helping the person reading to understand,” he said. “Then talk me through the execution, and then end by talking about the impact of the project on the business.
“I think narrative is the difference between a good case study and a bad one.”
What do you think about portfolios? Let us know in the comments below…
Banner image from Shutterstock.