I hired designers for fifteen years, so I’ve probably seen thousands of portfolios, many of them pretty awful. This isn’t necessarily the designer’s fault: there’s a lot of bad portfolio advice and bad examples out there.
The first thing you need to understand is the purpose of an online portfolio, which is to get the hiring (design) manager to want to have a conversation with you. There might be a step before that, which is a recruiter looking at your portfolio, but ultimately you want the portfolio to be appealing and interesting enough for the hiring manager to want to meet you.
The second thing you should know is you need to have two portfolios: one that is online and another that you’ll use to walk through with the hiring manager and probably the team members you will talk/present to. The two portfolios are not the same thing! The online portfolio does not need to have every piece of information about your process and every detail about each case study. Remember: the purpose of the online portfolio is to get you a conversation with the hiring manager. You only have to show enough to demonstrate your competence. More on that in a minute.
The third thing you need to understand is that the hiring manager is likely looking at online portfolios in batches, sometimes batches of 10 or more. You’ve got about 30 seconds on that landing page at most to engage them enough to keep looking through your projects. Once they start looking through your projects, you’ve got about five minutes of their time. Five. This is why your online portfolio shouldn’t contain everything because no one is going to read through a 5000-word case study. You want just enough to show you can do the job.
There are two types of online portfolios: professional and weird. Professional style portfolios are clean and not-distracting while also not being completely a yawn. If you’re going to use a canned template, make it your own. At a minimum choose an interesting typeface. Weird Portfolios are when you really want to stand out and try something very different. (“This portfolio was generated entirely by AI!”) Weird portfolios can work great or they can flop hard. Risk level: high. Unless you have a really good, really unique idea, default to professional.
Your online portfolio needs only a few sections: the home screen, projects/case studies, a resume, a way to find and contact you, and an about me. These can be separate pages or one long screen if you want. Just that these pieces should all be there and easily findable.
The home screen
The first screen of your online portfolio is critical. The first line is critical. That headline should tell who you are (your name, some kind of identifier so the viewer knows they are in the right spot) and your secret sauce. Your secret sauce is your differentiator, what you’re great at, or what is unique about you. “Hi, I’m Sarah and I have a passion for design!” is not the way to go. “Hi, I’m Sarah and I’m a UX designer with experience in ecommerce who excels at user research” tells so much more. If I'm a hiring manager who is looking for a designer with research skills, I know I’m in the right place. Sure, you run the risk of turning someone off (“I don’t need someone with research skills right now”) but they’d likely discover that later anyway.
The home screen should be a gateway to what you want to show off. If you have one amazing case study, that should be right at the top with a big image. Make interesting headlines for your case studies. I don’t want to say clickbait (no “7 Things You Won’t Believe About This B2B Dashboard”) but engaging. The image and the headline should intrigue the viewer to click through.
Once again, I’m reminding you that hiring managers don’t have 20 minutes to read a giant case study. Highlights, headlines, bullet points, and especially images/short (seriously, short) videos are what to focus on.
Your portfolio should have at least five case studies, at least two of which should be sizeable. Small projects = small case studies. Be judicious in what you want to show and the order you present them. Your best one should be at the forefront, obviously.
The top of your case study should tell:
- What the project is
- Who the client was
- What your role was
- Duration of the project
- The team size
- What the problem was that you were solving
That last one is super important. It frames the whole story. At the end of the case study, you should show what the result was: that is, did you solve the problem? It’s ok if the answer is No, by the way. As long as you know why and what could be done to fix it.
So the structure of each case study should be: context and problem, process, and result. Good old-fashioned storytelling. There was a problem, hilarity ensued, and the problem was solved after many hijinks. But here’s a secret: your process probably isn’t all that interesting or different. You did user research and stakeholder interviews, you found some insights, you did some sketching, some wireframes, some testing, some visual design. We know the drill. And hiring managers definitely want to see some kind of process to ensure that you’re competent, that you aren’t just designing pretty things with no thought behind them. But you’re better off here doing visual storytelling (i.e. showing pictures, diagrams, etc.) than long paragraphs of text. Most design managers are visual people. They like to see nice diagrams and catchy pictures. Focus on those. If you have a short movie or animation, great. But it better be short. Like a commercial.
Caveat: definitely call out things that were out of the ordinary. Weird findings, new methods, big setbacks, etc. Those are dramatic and drama is interesting and memorable.
Result is important: it’s the end of the story. What happened? Did it work? What’s the proof it worked? Numbers here go a long way to prove it’s serious. “Signups increased 3% after the change.”
Do not put a “What I learned” section in. No one cares. At least not at this stage. You can talk about it in the meeting with the hiring manager if it comes up. Because that’s what the goal is: to get a meeting with the hiring manager so you can talk about the details.
Why have this section at all? Isn’t this for a job and thus professional only?
Hiring managers care about two things:
- Is this person competent and can do the job? Your case studies should be the demonstration of that.
- Is this person good to work with? The About Me section should be that.
The About Me is the place to be yourself. This is not the place to talk about your passion for design. Tell your story. Talk about your interests outside of design. Show hobbies and projects. Have a picture of you. Have a picture of you doing something fun. Reveal the human behind the portfolio. Make the recruiter or hiring manager interested in you as a person. Even if they reject you, make them feel bad about it because you seem like you’d be awesome to have on the team.
I’m iffy on testimonials “Bob was great to work with!” because it feels too cringe. In About Me, you want to make it clear you would be cool to work with because you’re a cool person. Even if you don’t feel cool. Even if you’re a super nerd. You can come right out and say that.
Don’t make it too long. Remember: you’ve got five minutes at most.
I realize this probably feels harsh. But I’m trying to give it to you straight. This is also just my experience and probably shows a lot of my biases. As with everything, break the rules if it’s more interesting to do so (and the consequences are low).