We do portfolio reviews for the wrong reasons, but a simple change in our review methods can make them useful again.
Portfolio reviews are a staple of the design industry, and I previously wrote that they are useless. But I’ve realized reviews can be valuable if we approach them differently.
Getting useful feedback during a portfolio review is difficult, even though design critique is a common practice. Most reviewers feel they have to find something negative or they aren’t being helpful, so reviews tend to be negative. Worse, it’s the wrong format for discussing details in designs because when you’re reviewing a large body of work, there’s not sufficient time to consider the context and purpose of each project in depth. So, feedback tends to be incomplete and surface level.
But as I’ve worked with students in my design course and continued to review portfolios (despite my hesitations), I’ve realized that portfolio reviews can be a worthwhile tool if you use them in the right way.
The problem isn’t with portfolio reviews themselves—it’s that we do them for the wrong reasons.
As I mentioned, we usually use portfolio reviews to discuss details and get advice for improving each design.
But I’ve realized it’s better to approach a portfolio review more like a user testing session than a critique session.
Portfolios have a purpose: to get you hired. When you show your portfolio to someone, you can evaluate how successful your portfolio is in achieving that purpose.
When you do normal user testing, you’d never let a single user’s feedback determine details and changes. Sure, they will definitely comment on whether they like the fonts or colors, but you usually ignore that kind of specific feedback because you’re looking for bigger insights. You’re trying to read between the lines. What outcomes does the design drive, and are they the correct ones? What aspects of the design prevent the correct outcomes? And so on.
Portfolio reviews can work the same way. When you ask someone to review your portfolio, rather than asking them for detailed feedback, you should be trying to figure out if your portfolio will get you hired. Again, as you listen to their feedback, you should try to read between the lines. Or, just come out and ask them directly, such as:
“If you were hiring a designer, and you saw this portfolio, would you bring me in for an interview?”
“Do you think this portfolio shows I can deliver high enough quality to work at Pentagram?”
“Does my work match the quality level you produce yourself?”
These kinds of questions give you a solid yes or no answer as to whether the reviewer thinks you’ll get hired—or even if they’d hire you themselves. Of course, don’t completely limit yourself just to yes or no questions. Ask the reviewer to elaborate:
“What’s your overall impression of my design work?”
“Did you notice any positive or negative trends or themes in my portfolio?”
“Which aspects of my portfolio were the most memorable and why?”
Your reviewer will almost certainly try to discuss details. You can use the questions above to redirect them and try to uncover whether your portfolio would get you hired.
It’s tempting to let portfolio reviews become critique sessions. We designers love to dig into the details of designs, and it’s easy to get lost in those details and forget the entire reason for doing portfolio reviews in the first place—to figure out how to get hired.
Critiques are certainly valuable, but portfolio reviews are not critique sessions. They have entirely different purposes. So keep your portfolio review session on track.
If you can get the right information from the review, the outside perspective can be really valuable. I wrote in the previous article that “If you have to ask whether your portfolio is ready, you probably already know the answer.” It’s important to pay attention to your own gut feelings, but I’ve realized I was wrong to say that outside opinions aren’t valuable.
Taking that advice alone, you might always find some reason to say your portfolio isn’t ready because there’s always something left you could try to improve. You could be stuck improving your portfolio forever.
But you have to cut it off somewhere. A portfolio review can help you figure out where to cut it off.
Just as user testing allows you to see your design through the eyes of a user, a portfolio review helps you see your portfolio through the eyes of the person you want to hire you.
That perspective is essential for making an effective portfolio.
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.
Enter your email address and I'll send it to you along with my newsletter. You'll get 1 email per week on average. More details here.