5 Dos and Don’ts for Your Design Portfolio

I’ve reviewed a lot of design portfolios, from design school applicants to seasoned designers looking to join booming tech startups. In the past few months alone, I’ve reviewed more than a thousand design portfolios to select top candidates for the fifth session of Designer Fund’s Bridge program. As you might expect, a few patterns emerged; some good, some bad. To put a finer point on it, some portfolios were much better at showcasing designers’ skills and abilities.

There are many motivations for having a portfolio site, from personal expression to trying to convince someone that you have the right skills required for a job, school, or program. And the rules are certainly different depending on your goal. I’ve seen many very capable designers get passed over for an interview for the position they really wanted because their portfolio stood in their way. To prevent this from happening to you, here are some tips for making your portfolio as effective as possible:

1. Do carefully edit your work to create the narrative you want.

Don’t use your portfolio as an archive of your entire work history.

The work you include, and the order in which you display it, is critical to how the viewer will perceive you as a designer. That’s why it’s important to start the editing process by determining your personal narrative. What is the story you’d like your portfolio to tell? Based on this answer, you can start to group your work by type of project or company/client. In some cases your best work might not be the most relevant to the goal you’re trying to accomplish.

Once you’ve determined how you’d like to group your projects, another consideration is the point of entry, or where a viewer will click first. It doesn’t matter how much time and care you put into subsequent parts of your portfolio if no one ever sees them. Have a clear path for viewers to see your best work and avoid unconventional navigation.

As far as the number of projects to include, it’s better to have fewer than to include outdated work that will bring down your average.

A quick gut check to determine whether or not you should include something is— ‘if this is the only project a potential employer saw, would they be seeing my best work?’

There is no one size fits all solution, but I would aim for 6 projects, with no more than 12 total. You can always include more projects upon request as you go farther in any interview process.

If you’re a freelance designer who wants to focus on designing for mobile moving forward, then you should prominently feature your best mobile work.

Perhaps you’ve spent the past 2 years at a tech company and want to highlight the range of your contributions. Your narrative should be less about your individual output and more about the projects you were a part of and what your team accomplished together.

2. Do showcase the type of work you want to do professionally.

Don’t include hobbies or personal projects in the professional work section of your portfolio.

The most important thing is that you portray yourself as skilled in the areas for which companies are looking to hire. When you mix in your hobbies without indicating so, it might give the reviewer the impression that your work is inconsistent.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to have a well-rounded portfolio and include your personal or side-projects. It not only highlights your passion and personality, but can set you apart as being a self-starter. However, it’s important to distinguish this work from your professional pursuits.

If you’re developing a new skill such as illustration or prototyping and feel strongly about including it in your portfolio, be sure to indicate your beginner status. Or if you’re trying to transition from communication design to product design, your transitional portfolio can show mastery in one area of design with a written statement about your intention to move into another area.

Example: If you’re a product designer pursuing photography on the side — the minute you mix your photographs with your design work, I will hold them to the same standard as your professional projects. Consider having separate sections for professional and personal work.

3. Do give context.

Don’t rely on images to do the talking.

It’s impossible to know whether you’ve designed something well unless you explain what you were trying to accomplish, the resources at your disposal, and the timeframe in which you completed the project. I’m not the first one to insist on this sort of explanation for product design portfolios, but it’s necessary for communication design as well. How will the reviewer know if you’ve achieved the brand identity you set out to convey? You have to spell it out. Literally. With words.

The trick is to have a balanced portfolio. If you have a lot of words, you likely need to add something interesting to look at, and if you have a bunch of glossy images, you probably need some more words.

There is a trend toward detailed case studies in design portfolios. It’s a good trend. One strong case study says more about your design ability than 100 thumbnails.

One caveat: if you have work that has yet to ship or is under NDA, you can omit context in favor of a teaser logo and a sentence saying to request more information (assuming your employer or client is okay with sharing your work in a confidential setting).

4. Do think about how to represent your work in a compelling way.

Don’t follow the same format for every project.

Not every project will fit neatly into the same template. For a given project, think about what steps are important to include, which can be excluded altogether, and how to best represent each part. For example, sometimes a thoughtfully written explanation will serve you better than a snapshot of an illegible whiteboard. If you are trying to show breadth of your research or exploration, show a compilation of sketches, but be sure to explain why you chose the direction you did.

Don’t overlook beautifully representing your work. Think about what style of presentation will really do your final work justice. If it’s physical work (printed collateral, packaging), invest in good photography. If it’s visual design for an app, show it on a device. For an onboarding flow, include an interactive prototype.

Whatever you do, please don’t take a screenshot and skew it at an aggressive angle so that the design itself is impossible to discern.

5. Do consider the UI/experience of your portfolio site.

Don’t let the design of your portfolio site become a distraction.

The design of your portfolio should be functional and should serve as a backdrop to support your work.

Many designers choose to design their own portfolios. This can be a great way to set yourself apart from the pack if done well.

Just like dressing for an interview isn’t the right time to experiment wildly — you don’t want it to take away from the carefully curated and annotated works you’ve put together.

If you’re not sure where to draw the line, tools like Squarespace or Semplice offer professionally designed portfolio templates, which are well-supported and look good regardless of how they are viewed. I always resize portfolios to see whether they are responsive.

Medium is also an increasingly popular platform to showcase your portfolio. This is effective because the writing portion is so critical and it helps that there’s a talented design team at Medium working to ensure that it looks and feels professional.

Even if you’re confident in your abilities and wish to showcase your design skills with a custom portfolio site, sometimes it’s better to err on the side of simplicity.

Sure, this is a lot of work, and it’s just the beginning of the interview process. But if you want to distinguish yourself in a competitive field, you’ve got to take the time to sweat the details. Not only will it help you get your foot in the door, it will serve as excellent preparation to present your work in person.