Editors note: A portfolio is one of the key things you can create to set yourself apart from the competition. In this article Maya Patterson, a product engineer at Facebook, will walk you through the steps needed to make your portfolio shine amongst the pack.
Understand why you’re building a portfolio
At a macro level, a Product Designer’s job is to solve messy problems while being laser-focused on the user’s needs. The path to solving these problems falls somewhere in the land of pens, post-its, and pixels.
No matter what stage of the process we’re on, our job is extremely visually focused. We lean on paper sketches, static mocks, and hacky prototypes to express our product vision. Interviewers need to see these artifacts in order to adequately assess your skills.
A resumé can only tell a hiring manager where you’ve worked and snippets about what you’ve done. A portfolio shows what you’ve done and how you made an impact. Show them your process!
As you craft your portfolio, remember that hiring managers are seeking to understand how you problem solve. Focus less time on highlighting the end result and more time demonstrating how you got there.
Add focus to your content
I’m not gonna lie to y’all, this is probably the hardest part. There are two trends I see with weaker portfolios.
– Trend 1: The Jack of All Trades
You try to showcase every semi-related design skill you have. Your portfolio includes branding projects like logos, business cards, posters, merchandise. Finally, you conclude with high fidelity mocks of an app redesign.
If you fall into this camp, your main objective is to determine the specific role you want. Are you looking for a role in brand/marketing, UX, purely visual design, or product design? Pick one and only provide related case studies to that role. If you want to be considered for a product design role, it’s rare that showcasing your merchandise design projects will add value to your portfolio.
– Trend 2: The Over-Sharer
These are the portfolios that have a ton of examples of app redesigns, class projects, freelance projects, and personal projects. We ain’t got time to read through all of that. Let’s add some focus.
Your goal is to pick 2-3 of these projects and build a story around them. Present the projects that flex a range of your product design skills. The remainder of your projects should be shelved entirely or placed in a special sub-section section of your portfolio.
For example, if you participated in Inktober you might want hiring managers to see your illustration skills to help differentiate yourself. Bucket these explorations in a separate section below your case studies. Provide a brief explanation of why you participated and how you leverage your illustration skills as a product designer.
Whether your portfolio falls into the above, the most important takeaway is to add focus to your content.
Step 3: Narrate your product design process
Now that our content is focused on our product design work, we need to bring these stories to life. This is possible whether you have one or many relevant past work examples.
– If you only have 1 relevant project
Don’t freak out. If a hiring manager is looking for interns or entry-level candidates, they should be expecting a sparse portfolio. Your objective is to build one case study. Choose a class project, a freelance project, or a personal project. Something that showcases your skills and potential.
Focus on the role you played and the impact your skills provided. For example, if you primarily drove the brainstorming, ideating, and UX execution of a class project, then focus your case study on that part of the project. You might say something like, “We were assigned X problem. I played the role of UX strategist and UX designer. I began by helping our team frame the problem by leading a User Journey Map exercise. This resulted in…”
– If you have a range of relevant projects
Rather than leaning on your volume of past work, instead pick a few projects that showcase your diverse product design skills. I’ll use myself as an example here:
At Trunk Club, I worked on a bunch of feature-level work along with a few larger products. Rather than presenting all of my work, I chose projects that highlighted my technical design skills and my accompanying soft skills. My goal was to show hiring managers I was a proactive designer with leadership potential, so I leaned into examples that highlighted that.
No matter how many relevant projects you have, when writing about your projects focus on the narrative you’re telling. Use photos, notebook artifacts, snapshots of messy Sketch artboards, and videos of your prototypes to help you articulate your process. Case studies don’t have to be long, in fact, it’s better if you can be concise. A good range might be 500-1000 words.
Build your portfolio
Now that we’ve got the right content and our case studies fleshed out, it’s time to go live. Most designers, myself included, spend too much time deciding how to build their portfolio. The goal is to get your work online as fast as possible. It’s okay if you don’t code your portfolio. Use whatever tool makes the most sense for you. Here are a few options you can use:
– Hand Coded
There used to be a lot of buzz around Product Designers being expected to code. Unless you’re at a startup or applying for a role that says you need to code, don’t be shamed into coding your portfolio from scratch. Coding your portfolio might make sense if you already are comfortable in HTML/CSS and web hosting tools. I made the mistake of trying to create a gorgeous portfolio and teach myself how to code while under the pressure of job hunting. If you’re using your portfolio to learn how to code (like I did), then make sure you already have a live portfolio you’re proud of.
– Website Builder
Sites like WordPress, Squarespace, and Wix are really excellent resources for Product Designers who aren’t comfortable in HTML/CSS. My first portfolio was built on Wix and my second used WordPress. WordPress is the hardest of the three but offers really powerful customization. The benefit of using these sites is that they do most of the hard part for you, like clear navigation structures, clean layouts, and pretty themes. That means you can spend more time on the content.
– A Deck
This option has become my favorite of the three, and I’ll be migrating my personal portfolio to this. Typically, during a portfolio review you’ll be asked to walk through 1-2 projects. It’s easier for both the interviewee and interviewer to walk through work in a presentation format. So why not use a deck for your online portfolio? You can create a landing page that highlights a bit about you and offer a link to download your portfolio deck. You save time and energy in the long run because you’re not dealing with the headache of designing an entire website.
Whatever option you choose is completely up to your own preference. Just choose something that allows you to focus most of your attention on highlighting your content and less time wrestling with the tool your portfolio is built on.
Finally, remember to add splashes of your personality. Some people choose to add pictures of themselves (or their pets), while others highlight their hobbies like music or cooking. Do whatever you’re comfortable with. Good luck y’all! I can’t wait to see what you create.
Here are a few helpful resources related to portfolio building:
Maya Patterson is a self-taught Product Designer at Facebook creating new ways for people to tell their story. She’s most happy designing experiences that are culturally relevant and solve real people problems. In her spare time, she writes articles, advises designers on how to navigate the design industry, and listens to a lot of Beyoncé. Find her on Twitter if you want to continue the convo @mayagpatterson.