Why we should take portfolios less seriously
Typical portfolio case studies often fail to demonstrate product design skills
Originally published at DesignChallenge
Twenty-thirty years ago, when most of the designers were graphic designers, assessing design work was as easy as judging its looks. In most of the portfolios, you’d see the design itself, a brief if you’re lucky, and some community appreciation, whether it’s an award or number of likes on a platform.
With the growing complexity around digital products, it became clear that a lovely image is by far not enough to know if the work is good. We need to know how well it serves customer and business needs, and is it the best solution to customers’ problems in the first place?
In fact, how well does the designer know who the customers are? And where did the product or the feature idea come from?
Plenty of questions that a single image will not answer. So the portfolios got upgraded with more talk about the design process and artifacts to support the talking.
A typical case study that includes everything from wireframes to personas to visual design was born. Before long, we replaced one type of artifact with a whole new bunch of artifacts (wireframes, personas, pictures of sticky notes on a window).
And while some designers do focus on explaining how they applied their skills, others feel the pressure to follow “industry standard” and enhance their case studies with artifacts they think they have to have (hello, personas!). Even if it wasn’t part of their work or didn’t add any value.
But wait, why do we use portfolios in the first place?
We need portfolios to assess or showcase a designer’s skills.
What skills are portfolios good at showcasing? Storytelling and visual design. As for the rest, it’s more or less a matter of chance. Here’s why:
What on earth does this formula mean?
The first part is straightforward: whatever the artifacts we see in a case study are a combination of specific skills and the designer’s environment.
The second part is where things get interesting: one might expect multiplication there and presentation to enhance what the designer did. But the presentation also can remove facts or add something that never happened, therefore being a reality bender instead.
Quick example: let’s say I have excellent analytical skills. It won’t really matter if the current company I work for has zero data (believe me, it’s not as bizarre as it sounds). So, I have nothing to put into my “case study”. Unless I decide to bend reality a bit and adapt my story to what I think a future employer expects by adding what I could have done.
Or say you’re a brilliant visual designer at booking.com who’s trying to make a difference on the search results page. After 2 years, you have nothing to put in your portfolio (the page is highly optimized for conversion, and it’s literally impossible to make significant changes there). You can show the current state of affairs, pointing out which 2 pixels you managed to change, or you can show the design that never went live, hoping no one will check.
Note about bending reality.
Some of my failed interviews as a candidate include:
- “presentation was too short” feedback when I was trying to cut the fluff
- explaining why it was hard to act on user research data instead of expected “we fixed everything we discovered”
- explaining why in a particular project I didn’t do wireframes (we had evolved design system, and at this point, it was faster to do low fidelity visual designs) instead of, well, showing wireframes
No wonder one might get the impression that being honest won’t get you far, and it is easier to say what’s expected from you to say.
Where do we go from there?
As designers, break free from “the best case study” template and focus on highlighting the skills you’d like to show. For example, there’s plenty of ways to understand who your users are and their needs, and creating personas is just one method.
As employers, stop treating portfolio artifacts as an end goal and start focusing on how to assess real skills.