“They only show part of the story”: how designers really feel about portfolios

Following an article earlier this month that saw design leaders from Deliveroo and Ikea call out “old-fashioned” portfolios, we asked designers what they think is the best way to showcase experience.

“As designers, we are fortunate we can rely on more than the humble CV to share experience, but a portfolio that only focuses on the glossy end output is utterly opaque when trying to get to know a candidate – how they think, how they problem solve and what they bring to a team. Nothing is more uninspiring than scrolling through endless product shots on a portfolio site with no explanation of what, why and how. Product design is a team sport and many different designers may work on a product over time, so understanding an applicant’s role in the work is critical.

I’ve seen and trialed many different formats to get to know candidates better – from setting a brief to workshopping together and I’d still champion a well-crafted portfolio walkthrough above everything. But it all boils down to effectively showing your process. Treat your work as a case study and take the time to share the journey of your work. Hiring managers will have gone through your portfolio once already, that’s why you are at interview, so show a couple of key projects in depth rather than a scatter of old work. Done well this is often enough.

And share side-hustles or personal projects if you have them, the best interviews are the ones that not only reveal your best work, but show the real you too.”

– Helen Fuchs, executive design director, UsTwo

“Portfolios only show one part of the story – the output produced. Sometimes the output is by an individual, but sometimes it is from a whole team. What we look for when hiring is an understanding of the creative process. We want to see how the concept came together throughout the project cycles – through inception, discovery, research, pushbacks, amends and refinements. We’re not looking for someone to have the same process as us but to have a sound understanding and consideration for how the design process and creative delivery are intrinsically linked when delivering for a real-world client.

We usually ask designers to talk through their portfolio, pulling out one or two hero case studies and talking through them in-depth. The best way to lay out an effective portfolio is through the transparent output of each stage – let us see how it went wrong and how you got it back on track, not just the pretty work produced.”

– Sam Fresco, co-founder, Wildish & Co

“A portfolio is an invaluable tool for Templo when we are hiring. First and foremost, we want to see raw technical talent (can you make things that look beautiful?) and the work must be underpinned with real-time research and evidence of a proper thought process. In an agency like ours there’s no place to hide and everyone in our team has equal responsibility for delivering our projects, from the creative director to interns. So we need to know first and foremost that applicants have the ideas and the design capability to make the right choices.

There is no comparison with an in-house design team who probably have different requirements – where often their visual identity will have been created by an external agency along with strict guidelines and brand toolkits. Internal design teams might be seeking designers who are able to vocalise design thinking over raw technical abilities and ideas generation. I would argue though that you would still need to see a portfolio to demonstrate this.”

– Pali Palavathanan, co-founder and creative director, Templo

“A folio is a great way to show me the type of work you’ve been exposed to, the calibre of clients and the breadth of the projects. It gives us the ability to shortlist designers for interview, but it’s the questions we ask that give the most insight.

We ask questions that delve into the work in the portfolio – any challenges they faced, how they dealt with feedback, and the insights that led to the work. It’s important to us to understand their ways of working just as much as the final outcome, which we know can be inhibited by things out of designers’ control. We want to understand what limitations they had to work within while still creating amazing work.

Situational questions are a great way to help us understand their fit with our studio values and experience at a deeper level.”

– Johanna Drewe, creative director, Studio Output

“A portfolio is like a hand shake, it’s important but it’s not everything. Whether it’s too long, too loose or too lively it’s an introduction to a person and an history.

I believe what design leaders are referring to as ‘context driven’, ‘case study-led’ folios are, in fact, what the rest of us call ‘interviews’. A portfolio grabs your attention, piques your interest and, ideally, an interview is held to understand to context of each project. The candidate can then walk you through their work, process, approach and so on. It is in these moments you see the person for the first time, excellent presentation skills is what I’m looking for as well as brilliant ideas.

In short, don’t embellish your handshake with sleeves detailing your life’s story. Grab them confidently and hit ’em with three good pumps. If they’re interested they’ll talk to you and there’s always the usual 3-month trial period if it doesn’t work out.”

– James Taylor, founder and creative director, Dearness Only

“Portfolios are a fantastic way to really understand what makes someone tick and to really understand how they work. And by portfolios, I don’t mean something that only shows the end result – only by you taking us on a journey can we appreciate the end result.

Portfolios should represent not only your creative thinking, but they should also reflect you. Knowing more about you and how we would work together is one of the most important aspects of our decision making.

The best way to share and highlight your experience is through your approach to solving design challenges. Each challenge is unique and so it Is important for us to know the context of the brief, who you are designing for, and how you put people at the heart of your thinking. What kind of a leap did the client want to make? Give us as much context of the boundaries or restrictions that you also had to overcome. We need to know how your mind works and the unique perspective you have and see how that translates into your work.

Lastly, beyond experience it also comes down to seeing big, bold ideas, brilliantly executed. It’s great to hear about the approach, but we all know that we make split decisions on the immediacy of work and how ideas come across. First impressions are important. So using your experience to think about how to sell the design, to give it that wow factor that draws people in to want to know more.”

– Emma Follett, chief creative officer, Design Bridge

“Context is key me for on this one. If the open role is for a ‘maker’ – say a great crafter or a product/UI designer – then a strong folio will always be valid. But for many roles, the importance of a folio has waned. I regularly tell students this.

JKR has tried approaches to hiring which don’t even require a folio, where you instead submit a single example of what represents your personality or bond over an informal conversation. Most hires I’ve made have been because of rapport, trust and a sense of what they’ll bring to the party that’s different. For years I have been saying to people, I want to know how you think, develop a team, and manage a project – so one or two deeper dives are often much more useful.”

– Sean Thomas, executive creative director, JKR

“Recently, I have read several articles about hiring managers needing to see a candidate’s process and emphasising this above all else. I can’t entirely agree. I like to see some passion for design and thoroughness in achieving the result, but the exact process required from a designer is unique to the studio. Learning and adopting the studio’s approach ensures synergy across the team and the high level of storytelling that we are known for. So, personally, I am less bothered about the individuality of a candidate’s process and more about persistence to pursue the best possible result.

Of course, I will also be looking for all the other attributes required by a professional studio, which you will have heard before, such as software abilities, attention to detail, storytelling ability, presentation clarity and design experience. However, perhaps interestingly to candidates, as from my experience, it seems to be the most overlooked – I will also be paying close attention to the email. The introduction email is an excellent opportunity for someone to show a little personality and enthusiasm for the role. I have seen everything from “portfolio attached” (yes, that was the entirety of the email) to a rambling thousand-word letter about cannabis and Johnnie Walker (which was memorable but not for the right reasons). The most successful have been short, informative and honest. As a simple example of honesty, I remember one applicant saying, ‘before today, I had not heard of Blond …’. That was refreshing; I think I interviewed them.”

– James Melia, founder, Blond

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