It’s safe to say that a portfolio is one of the most important means to landing your first design job. Yet the work to build a portfolio is arduous for designers at any level. Gathering artifacts and documentation from past projects is time-consuming and often reveals disparities in depth, breadth, and overall quality from project to project. Storytelling and content curation require different creative muscles than we designers may regularly use. Reflection on your work and yourself as a practitioner can lead to self-doubt and decision paralysis.
There are unique challenges when you’re at the beginning of your career. Your work may be limited to coursework — projects assigned to you in college, a bootcamp, or an online course — which often lacks the test of real-world constraints and proven outcomes. You may be unsure of your strengths and how to present yourself as both authentic and desirable to an employer. You put your heart and soul into your portfolio and apply to countless job openings, yet you can’t seem to land an interview. If you’re lucky enough to receive any response from HR, it comes with no explanation or constructive feedback to build from.
We get it; the struggle is real! Last summer, Carbon Five hosted a series of portfolio feedback sessions that gave us the opportunity to hear some of these frustrations directly from aspiring designers in our field. We’ve reflected on those conversations, and want to share our advice to a broader audience. Though we don’t have answers to every obstacle you may encounter in your job hunt, we hope these suggestions can help.
Define (or hypothesize) who you want to be
Knowing yourself as a professional typically comes through time and experience, so you may not have a clear sense of who you are as a designer yet. But you’ve got to start somewhere, so it’s okay to make an educated guess.
The most common self-positioning is as a “full-stack” designer with a range of abilities that can contribute to the end-to-end product development process. Do you have an interest in one or two particular fields, such as UX research, visual design, growth, or strategy? Your interests and strengths can stand out through your work, and can be leveraged as potential design superpowers that may be attractive to an employer looking for a particular fit. This “T-shaped” model, popularized by the design firm IDEO, avoids the pitfalls of being a generalist (“jack of all trades, master of none”) or being confined to a single area of expertise.
Once you’ve settled on an approach that both feels comfortable and is supported by the work in your portfolio, you can use this positioning as a hypothesis that you can test during your interviews and early work experiences, revising as you go.
Be authentic and appropriate
Whether you were destined to be a product designer from birth or if your path has been less than conventional (like most of ours!), your unique story and style are important. However, keep in mind that hiring managers are primarily viewing your portfolio to evaluate your work, and there should be a distinction between project narratives and personal narratives. “We’re hoping to see how well you understand business goals and user stories rather than imposing your own views on top of them,” says Nicole Thayer, Principal Designer at Carbon Five.
Within the context of a portfolio, your personal narrative should play a secondary role, and in most cases, it should be stated with professionalism and brevity. Including too much about yourself in your portfolio may actually open up the chance for unconscious bias on the part of the reviewer, similar to what has been documented in regards to résumés. While this may sound overly cautious and restrictive, don’t worry — you’ll have ample opportunity in your interviews to expound upon your story, display your personality, and if the vibe is right, even talk about your fur babies.
Understand who you’re speaking to
Once you’ve settled on how you want to position yourself, get to know the kinds of companies that might be a good fit. What kinds of designers do they already employ? You can often find employee portfolio links via LinkedIn, which can offer some indication of what the companies are looking for. How do they talk about their work? What’s their process? Consider what lessons can be applied to your own portfolio.
Recruiters and hiring managers are typically the front-line portfolio reviewers. Their time is often limited, and they have many applications to sift through. Consider how they experience your portfolio homepage at a glance for the first time. Does it stand out among the sea of bland, formulaic portfolios? Is your work presented in a manner that is appropriate for the job you’re seeking? Does the writing communicate concisely and clearly?
Though it may feel counterintuitive when you feel like you have a lot to prove, focus on presenting fewer, better projects. According to David Hendee, VP of Design at Carbon Five, “Three strong pieces in a portfolio are way better than five or more that are of mixed quality. Consistently editing down your top projects is valuable, especially early in a career.”
And if it isn’t obvious, lead with your best work. “I usually look at the first portfolio piece first and assume that it is the ‘best’ because of its top billing,” says Hendee.
Project pages should show the breadth of your process, not just the final, high-fidelity screens. Highlight key points without getting bogged down in excessive detail, and emphasize any areas that are particularly relevant to your interests and the job you’re looking for. Don’t worry about being exhaustive with documentation; an example image or two for each point will likely suffice. If you land an interview, you will have the opportunity to give a more in-depth case study walk-through of your work.
“Three strong pieces in a portfolio are way better than five or more that are of mixed quality. Consistently editing down your top projects is valuable, especially early in a career.”
-David Hendee, VP of Design at Carbon Five
Visual design matters, even if you’re not a visual designer
Potential employers need to feel confident that you know what it takes to deliver great products, and visual design plays an important role. Even if visual design is not your strong suit or your main interest, as a designer, the basics of formal design should be evident through your portfolio: clear visual hierarchy, orderly type styles, consistent design patterns, balanced visual pacing, responsive layouts, appropriate image resolution and aspect ratios, and an all around eye for detail. When in doubt, keep it clean and simple.
Writing matters, even if you’re not a writer
Just like visual design, writing is a vital part of a good user experience. So if you’re looking to convey a level of product-minded professionalism, it cannot be neglected. Be clear, concise, and structured. Take the time to proofread everything.
Additionally, how you write about your work is a window into your process and mindset. If writing is neglected, you won’t be able to properly display your product-thinking skills.
The more real, the better
Prompts from college classes, bootcamps, and online courses are great ways to learn the concepts of product design. In fact, we would recommend starting with those if you’re new to the field. However, there is nothing more valuable to your portfolio than work that involved real users and real stakeholders. This presents a problem for new designers, though: how do you add “realness” to your portfolio with little to no product experience?
- Offer pro bono work to under-resourced organizations.
Many nonprofits lack quality design resources, and they are often eager to receive any and all help. If you have the bandwidth, volunteering your time and talents is not only a noble thing to do, but it can also provide you a great opportunity to do real work. Even if they have low expectations, use the same process you would for a major client. They will likely be blown away by your contribution, and you will come away with a great portfolio piece, a lot of good practice, and maybe even a great reference.
- Explore a feature for an existing company.
Identify a pain point or a potential new feature with an existing product, and as a hypothetical exercise, work to develop a solution, documenting your process as you go. Though you may not have actual client stakeholders, you can talk to real users in your community to understand their needs, providing a great way to demonstrate your user research abilities. Working with an existing brand and design system can help to focus your project scope and show your ability to work within an existing product framework and create solutions that match the quality of the existing product.
- Work on self-initiated projects.
If you have an interesting concept, along with ample determination and time, cultivate that idea from its infancy as a hypothesis to a validated design solution as a high fidelity, clickable prototype. Recruiting a software engineer peer as a co-founder can not only help make your product a reality, but it can also give you practice with cross-functional collaboration. A self-initiated project not only shows your abilities, but also your interests and holistic understanding of what it takes to build a product.
- Work as a contract designer.
Though it may not be the full-time job you’re looking for, working on a temporary basis as a contract designer for a product company or agency can expose you to a breadth of projects, adding to the diversity of your portfolio. Contracting can also be a low risk opportunity to get a feel for how you like working with the team and how the team likes working with you.
“There is nothing more valuable to your portfolio than work that involved real users and real stakeholders.”
-Ben Dicks, Senior Designer at Carbon Five
Keep up the good fight
Job hunting can be exhausting and demoralizing for new designers, especially if their applications are met with silence. There may be any number of reasons for this, but it’s important to focus on what you can control — improving your portfolio. Seek out honest critical feedback from peers and mentors in the product professions. Get inspiration from others in our field. Find more “real” projects to work on and integrate them into your portfolio. Don’t settle with your initial implementation, and instead continue to revise and evolve.
There’s a job out there waiting for you somewhere. With patience and commitment, you’ll be prepared for the opportunity when it arrives.
Want to have your portfolio reviewed by experts at Carbon Five? Sign up for our newsletter to receive an email invitation to our next session.
Special thanks to Alice Wenner, David Hendee, Suzanna Smith, Nicole Thayer, Erin Murphy, Liat Golan, and the rest of the Carbon Five design team for their helpful contributions and insights on this topic.