We designers believe that if our work is good enough, we’ll get hired. That the quality of our work speaks for itself. But having great work isn’t enough if people don’t understand why it’s great.
But I met some designers who do quality work but still have a hard time getting hired, while researching my next project recently. As I talked to more designers, I started to see a pattern, and I realized that:
Design portfolios no longer accurately represent what designers do.
This sounds really bad for designers, but it makes sense. After all, the design profession is changing.
All the work we’ve done to advocate for design in recent years by teaching things like UX and design thinking is starting to bear fruit. Clients are expecting more from designers. Clients want us plugged into their businesses, so they can get all the amazing benefits design can provide: better product design, more engaged and delighted customers, and better-performing products and marketing.
We designers obviously know this because we’re changing the way we engage clients. Designers are getting more direct access and making greater impact. We’re crafting entire design systems instead of just page mockups. We’re even starting to get a seat at the table.
But our design portfolios haven’t kept up.
Our portfolios are still just screenshot galleries. We advocate for the value of design during our projects by doing research and testing, but later all we show about those same projects in our portfolios is a few glossy screenshots.
Our portfolios don’t show what we’re capable of doing. Our portfolios actually hide the value of our design work.
We want our portfolios to be beautiful. We rightfully take pride in showing off our work.
But there’s a danger in this. When we design our portfolios to show off what matters to us designers—which let’s be honest is often the aesthetic quality of our work—we’re making portfolios that are not effective at getting us hired.
Clients expect more from designers, which is a great thing, but because of that they also expect more from our portfolios.
We need a more modern take on the design portfolio to match the modern design process. We need to move past the old way of showing our work. We need a format or method for presenting our work that matches the insightfulness and depth of the work itself.
Portfolios filled with only pretty pictures of design aren’t enough to get hired anymore. The new breed of design portfolios must do more than just show the finished design.
Writers are often taught “Show, don’t tell”, the idea being to allow the reader to experience a story rather than just be told about it.
But we designers have the opposite problem from writers; we invite people to experience our designs without giving them enough information to understand the work.
So designers need to “Tell, don’t show.” You need to tell about your design, not just show it. Our portfolios should tell people about:
Even as more people come to understand the value of design, we can’t get lazy. We can’t assume people will see a high quality design in our portfolios and understand that it’s good. We have to tell them why it’s good.
We’ll always need to show our work. We produce a visual format, so we need to show visuals. So keep showing, but start telling, too.
Is your portfolio a relic of the old way of design, where all we did was produce pretty pictures?
Or does your portfolio explain how and why you work, and tell about the results people get after working with you?
If your portfolio isn’t getting you hired, now you know why.
P.s. I’m writing a new course about crafting a more modern, effective design portfolio that’s better at getting you hired. Join my newsletter below and I’ll send you a sweet discount when it launches.
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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