Three. Possible Five. Portfolio Rules.
by Jeffrey Henderson·
For years I crafted and recrafted my portfolio based on trial/error, advice from experts/peers and whatever I thought looked cool in the real world. Perhaps to the detriment of my earning potential I haven’t cared much about my portfolio for the last decade. I’m at a place in my career where people care less about my process and more about my track record, management skills, merchandising & business philosophy and my sunny disposition.
Now I randomly throw all of my content on Behance (along with other platforms) simply to keep information readily available for me to pull together a presentation to share with a potential client or investor. Most of it is done on my phone on the train.
I haven’t forgotten about the hours of tedious tending to that portfolio garden that I always felt was never good enough. People would look over them quickly because they knew rather quickly whether they were interested in your work or not. Getting to know the person became a bigger dealbreaker.
So when I look at the portfolios of prospective hires I honestly spend more time on their portfolio than I need to spend. I want them to know I appreciate the effort if the work is good and/or what I think is missing for improvement. I might be an outlier so I want to give them my thoughts on what others might see when they are sharing their portfolio.
Before my first design job at Nike I received a lot of faint praise for my portfolio from design directors. None of them were actually interested in hiring me. They were being nice. Unfortunately, ‘nice’ wasn’t ‘helpful’.
Then I shared my work with Shawn McConnell, the design director for special make-ups or SMUs. Sean sighed and shrugged before I got to the second page of my first project.
“Look at this over here,” Sean said as he pointed to a stack of 20 portfolios on his desk. “I have to look at dozens of these every week. Art Center. CCS. UC. All great portfolios from students at great schools. Open one.”
I opened a portfolio at random that was five time better than anything I’d ever worked on.
“You gotta go back to school if you want to compete,” Shawn told me. It was the first time someone was honest with me in that way about my portfolio.
Now, my story in design goes nowhere near returning to school, but I began to drive my portfolio toward my strengths with stories that celebrated my assets. I had an engineering degree, so I engineered my portfolio. I focused on engineering functional design and steered clear of aesthetic approaches to product.
I still do.
When I began to hire people I had to reverse engineer their portfolios to match the skills and mindset for each job I was looking to fill. I wanted to find a project that matched the projects we needed to complete. Then I would focus on how the applicants approach complemented our team — either as something new or something that fit in neatly.
This is what I try to show in my portfolio and this is what I want to see when I’m hiring.
How Many Projects Do You Show?
The spades reference of showing three key projects and having two additional projects handy in case they want to see more of your actual work. Three projects makes for a solid 20-30 minute discussion on your work and process — including their questions.
It’s not about quantity. It’s about quality.
The portfolios with projects that I remembered typically had three solid projects. For the next day or two — never longer — I could recall those projects and tell other hiring managers about the work I saw. By the next round a new set of portfolios would replace that mindspace dedicated to portfolios. When there were too many projects I would speak randomly about a designer’s work — i.e. “the guy with the blue watch thing” or “the woman with the block font on the cover”.
Perhaps I was simply a bad manager who didn’t take the time to look deeply into each candidate’s work and I’m to blame.
What Do You Show?
Most jobs have tasks that need to be executed by someone trusted. Make sure you show work that you’ve completed that is analogous to the work that your future employer needs completing. If a large aspect of the job include website coding, one of your three projects should involve website coding. You can allude to the other 12 you may have worked on, but that’s redundant if those projects are essentially the same. You want to give yourself room to show your other skills.
If the job your interviewing for involves building video intensive websites for clients, your first project could be about building generic websites and your second project could be about videos that you created and edited specially for other websites.
That leaves a third project that shows an additional skill you’d like to bring to the table based on their potential needs (they need a manager that can give real focus to looking at portfolios) or your specific interests (you design and prototype pet travel bags for fun) in hopes of mixing your work responsibilities with your personal passion.
Either way, you get the opportunity to diversify the conversation with additional skills that the job may require. Thirty minutes on eight different websites that are essentially the same isn’t necessary. Show the work and provide links to the other seven sites as requested but they will ask for more if they want to only focus on that individual skill. You want to show them that you can do more, that you have range.
How Do You Explain Your Work?
Personally I want to learn how your insights informed your design direction and process, but I’ll be bored if you show me bullet points in an orderly fashion. The design process is pretty straight forward and I’ve seen it a thousand times. I may want to see one project shown in a formulaic way, but I’m always interested when there’s a personal story of discovery that lead to an insight in an unconventional way.
I still want to see that the design was informed by a solid insight, but the curveball usually leads to details and forms and colors and graphics that set one design apart from the pack. These stories are often what gets presented to the final consumer in PR or commercials.
Just make sure your thought process and professional understanding is included. Those stories are often superficial and the lack of substance may fail to function to standards. An amazing graphic on an uncomfortable shoe does not make the shoe more comfortable.
Weave those insights and solutions into an inspiring story and you’ll capture everyone in the room.
What Format Should You Use?
When I spent 99% of my time in footwear design I was happy to see sketches, renderings, tech packs, samples and final products. Today I’m happy to look at anything that clearly communicates how a designer gets to their final solution. I like to see pencil sketches though I couldn’t fill a single sketch pad with every sketch I’ve done in my career. I embrace the standard methods and the nonstandard approaches.
Not every hiring manager will be as open as I am.
But I never went to design school.
How Do You Know This Approach Will Work?
This approach hasn’t always worked for me. I’ve had more rejections than offers. I’m hoping that’s normal and a testament to stretching myself with respect to opportunities as opposed to taking the easiest or first available option.
Sometimes my work doesn’t match the business or the hiring managers design sensibilities. That’s probably a good thing because it saved me years of arguing about creative direction with someone I didn’t see eye to eye with.
I’m not perfect and neither is my portfolio. I compare my success rate here the same way I rate the success of my projects. For every 350v2 that I drew or Roshie Run that I directed there were five shoes that never saw a second sample.
But all of those projects had the same process.
Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose.