It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the golden age of digital design, it was the end of good taste, we had every opportunity to create, we had no one to appreciate who we were—in short, we were modern designers just like the designers who came before us. (And we even endured a cheesy ripoff of a classic novel’s opening sentence).
Two designers published their portfolios hoping to get work. They both emailed me asking for a portfolio review the same week. This is their tale.
Editor’s note: both designers I’m writing about in this article are real people and happen to be female. I’ve removed details but kept their genders, because I believe they deserve to be represented as the people they are rather than as stereotypes or hyoptheticals.
Designer A, like so many of us, found herself working for clients who did not use the full extent of her abilities. She designed the sort of online display ads that serve as filler when websites are unable to sell ad placements to more legitimate advertisers—ads in the vein of “one weird trick”, “burn your belly fat”, and worse.
Of course, Designer A was fully aware of these shortcomings and wanted better opportunities. So she set out to create a portfolio to find better, more reputable, and hopefully more fulfilling work.
She began a new portfolio and decided put all of her client projects into it. She organized it meticulously into Dropbox folders and did her best to present the projects clearly, and even though she didn’t have control over the tastefulness of the subject matter, she hoped that the large volume of work would be enough to help her find better clients or even a full time job at an agency.
Designer B, similarly, found herself lacking in opportunities to do her best work. She’d had a handful of freelance clients, and the final designs fell short of her standards. Also knowing she could do and deserved better, she too set out to create a portfolio to find better work.
She took extra time—waiting longer before she could apply for jobs—to produce personal projects to fill up her portfolio. She designed a website about her wedding. She created flyers for a friend’s local art show. And so on. She created her own portfolio website with a custom design expressing her taste, personality, and perspective.
Then, both designers went out and applied for jobs. One of them eventually got hired. Can you guess which?
While I’ve tried to present each designer’s method for creating their portfolio without bias, it’s probably obvious to you.
Designer B got hired. Designer A ended up designing cheesy display ads for a while longer.
“Well, of course that’s what happened!” you’re probably thinking.
But many designers do exactly what Designer A did. We put the projects we have into our portfolios, even when we know it’s not our best work. We use our portfolios as archives.
It’s easy to see this is the wrong approach when it’s not you doing it. But when you’re creating your own portfolio, this is the easiest error you can make.
I share this tale with you as a simple reminder: your portfolio should be your best work. If your current job or clients aren’t allowing you to do your best work, you need to find other ways to create better projects to put into your portfolio.
Your portfolio should show the kind of work you want to do next, not the work you’re paid to do now.
P.s. I teach a course that provides practice projects for filling up your portfolio with your best work. You can grab a free lesson here.
P.p.s. You might think it’s petty of me to write this story about Designer A rather than help her. But, I have been helping her with her portfolio, and she’s well on her way to finding better work. How’s that for a happy ending? Rock on, Designer A!! 🤘
Design's Iron Fist is a collection of essays with advice for both design learners and professional designers. It's been featured as one of the best free design books by the Creative Bloq and the AIGA.
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