November 2, 2015
Your Portfolio Sucks
Finding a job that’s a perfect fit as a designer can be one of the hardest challenges you will ever face. Not only do skills count but so do personalities, perks, and real work-life balance. Honing in on your craft is essential in finding that perfect match, but to do so you need to tell your story in the right way. There are more ways than one to tell your story so keep in mind that trying to be more original than the other designers out there will often lead to better success. You have to stand apart...in a good way. Designers do this through their portfolio, most of which suck.
I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum when it comes to hiring someone as well as being hired by someone else. Until I got to be a part of the hiring process did I realize how most portfolios that come through you simply suck. (Seeing so many poor representations of work forced me to rethink my own approach which I’m still currently working on.)
On top of the sucky portfolios, prospects often send a cover letter that’s a mile long with information no one needs to know or would likely take the time to read. Sadly, in this industry most will judge a book by its cover because otherwise too much time is wasted.
Trying to get hired doesn’t mean you need to send the employer you wish to work for a novel worth of information about yourself. Nor do you need to list your skills and skill levels on your website like everyone else. If you’re good at something then prove it. Most employers want to see how you got from point A to point B and not see only the end result.
Show Your Work
Do remember when you were in your math class in grade school and had to work out a math problem by hand? Your teacher would often tell you to show your work so he or she knows you didn’t cheat as well as prove you didn't use a calculator (those bastards). Showing your work allowed your teacher to see how you progressed from the beginning to your final answer.
The same theory should apply to your design work. Start from the beginning by documenting everything you can such as brainstorming sessions or initial sketches all the way to the end of a project where you show off a live website for example. Even if it’s a simple logo or a small website, you still need to show how you got from beginning to end.
A lot of good creatives call these case studies, which are just basically a glorified portfolio piece.
A case study shows progression. You don’t need a ton of these to show off how your work or even your style. I would say a handful would be more than enough as an entire portfolio. Each case study is made up of multiple parts that when viewed as a whole, denote how you when through your decision-making process.
Showing Too Much
Most portfolios show off too much work. Some of this work is even published for the sake of just having more work live. Some designers tend to think that the more work they publish, the better they will look, whereas the truth is actually the opposite. I made this mistake starting out. I think we all probably have.
Showing off too many categories of design leaves possible employers and/or clients unsure of what the hell you actually excel at. Rarely will a single designer be good at everything so it makes sense to perfect one or a few styles and go from there.
Highlight Your Niche
If you prefer to design and build websites, then your portfolio should be case studies of websites you have designed and built. If you are a logo designer and seek to get more logo design jobs then your portfolio should feature logo design work. See the pattern? I hope so because it’s dead simple.
While it may seem smarter to add many types of work to your portfolio, you will eventually come to realize that employers will hire you more often for only one of these types. The truth of the matter is, you should have in your portfolio only what you enjoy working on the most because otherwise, you will hate working on something you aren’t passionate about. Niching out what you enjoy most and are likely the best at will grant you the highest yield in work from potential employers and clients.
Skill Graphs Also Suck
Charts and graphs are cool because they are visuals; things designers love, but really, just because you say your knowledge of
PHP is 100% doesn’t mean crap to an employer. It’s the equivalent to the sticker price on a car for comparison. Would you really walk into a car dealer and assume the car is completely worth what’s on the sticker without negotiation? I sure hope not.
The point I’m trying to make, as if you already didn’t know, is that I would avoid adding these to your portfolio site. For some reason, I’ve seen a lot of portfolios who make use of this idea and I have to say it instantly makes me turn off towards that prospect. Keep in mind, I’m only one voice.
Apply For The Job Your Portfolio Reflects
I get it, we live in trying times. Getting a job is hard enough but finding a good fit is even harder. Submitting your work to an employer who is looking for something other than what you specialize in is a guaranteed waste of time. It’s great that you know all there is to know about print design, but that doesn’t mean shit to an employer looking for someone who can build a new website or app from scratch.
In the creative industry, image matters. If you come off as desperate it could likely ruin your chances of going very far. It’s a sad truth but you either have to put up or shut up.
Take design services sites like freelancer.com or 99designs.com. Both are successful websites no doubt, but people don’t go there to get quality work. They go there for fast and cheap work from contractors who are willing to work for very little compensation. Some contractors will offer virtually any service related to design and development under the sun and still charge very little. This kills the image of a designer or developer for the rest of us leaving us fighting to get paid what we are truly worth. It’s a cut-throat industry at times.
Forget the Resumés
Resumés are a waste of time in the design world. There I said it! Your resumé is your portfolio. If you’re applying for a job, do yourself a favor and save the trouble of creating one. Now, it may come in handy later, say after an initial interview but in reality, employers looking for a designer are going to move fast from candidate to candidate.
If they decide to pick you out of the applicants I can almost guarantee you it won’t be because of what was on your resumé. All this said if you simply must create one, try an alternative digital approach as opposed to any type of printed resumé. It’s way easier to update later and also more likely to be viewed by the employer. Make a simple web page with all of your information. Never attach a resumé to an email. It won’t be viewed.
What Should Be In Your Portfolio
Below I have outlined what I think are the necessary components that make up a good portfolio. Every designer will have their own opinion, but I personally have seen a lot of awesome and shitty work over the years. I feel like I can spot the difference. Obviously you need to showcase your best work. I hope this goes without saying. Many designers may be great at what they do, but their portfolio doesn’t tell you so. Other designers have amazing work and are lucky enough to get it right.
If you want to get hired, try the following:
- Always display your contact information or a call to action on your portfolio so in order to make it easy for people to contact you.
- Format your work in the form of case studies. These tell a story of how you got from idea to execution within a given project.
- Real-life clients are great to feature in your portfolio but you don’t always have to feature them in your work. Plenty of case studies exist that are redesigns or complete refactoring of brands we all know about already.
- Quality over quantity. I’d rather see one good case study as opposed to twelve pieces of shit.
- Resumés are old school. You really don’t need one but if you must make it a part of your portfolio in some way.
- Only feature the work you want to do in your portfolio. If I’m a fan of designing and building websites I wouldn’t want to feature too many logo design projects would I?
- Cool it with the skill charts!