Or “stop judging someone’s portfolio before knowing their objectives”.
Should design portfolios be straightforward and focused on the work, or should they be a piece of art that showcases the designer’s capabilities and vision? Is this even a binary question in the first place?
Browsing through my feeds the other day I come across the following discussion:
If you are not familiar with the portfolio shared in the discussion above, here’s a screencast to give you a bit more context and the link so you can test it yourself:
You can probably guess what followed: a long, heated discussion about usability versus creativity, form versus function, performance versus beauty, contrast versus legibility, republican versus democrat, mine versus yours.
But that’s what happens with most discussions online: they quickly become about polarization, and people thinking in a pretty binary fashion about what they consider to be correct or incorrect. Don’t get me wrong: the participants of the discussion are not to blame at all. The reality is that short-form online discussions like the one above can only go so deep in terms of understanding all the complexities of a design decision.
Halfway through reading all the comments in that thread, my eyes start to space out. I couldn’t avoid stepping back and asking myself “but hey, what is the real role of a design portfolio in the first place?”. Until the people engaging in that discussion don’t align on what a portfolio’s objectives are, they won’t have any fruitful conclusions coming out of it.
So let’s do here one of the things I enjoy the most: to break down problems into smaller pieces until they become more manageable to solve or answer.
Question 1: what is the role of a designer’s portfolio?
First step is to understand all the possible angles to define the role of a portfolio:
- Is it to show the final output of the projects the designer has worked on? If this is the case, the design of the portfolio itself should be as simple as possible, focused on the content rather than the form. Expect big, full-bleed images beautifully crafted to create visual impact. That’s what platforms like cargocollective, behance and squarespace focus on.
- Is it to demonstrate the designer’s thought process? In this case, expect project pages with much more writing, behind-the-scenes deliverables and long-form explanation.
- Is it to be a piece of art in itself, that showcases the designer’s vision? In these cases the portfolio itself is the way the designer has found to demonstrate their design skills and vision, without all the constraints that projects sponsored by clients usually have. It shows to the world their vision on what good design is, in its purest form. In the example shown above, narrowdesign.com, the portfolio homepage is showcasing the designer’s knowledge on design theory (golden ratio rule), their craft on motion design and animation, their great taste for color palettes — and much more.
The options above are not mutually exclusive, though. While some people will say “all of the above”, having a clear focus can help your portfolio achieve its goal more effectively. But in order to really understand in which of the three areas your portfolio should focus on, you have to ask yourself another question.
Question 2: what is the designer’s objective?
- Is it to document their past work? Some people update their portfolio simply because they don’t want to lose track of the projects they have worked on. There isn’t any secret agenda here: they are just looking to build a repository of past work that they can easily refer to in the future. A memoir.
- Is it finding a new job? Is the designer actively looking for a new job? If that’s the case, with which type of company are they looking to engage? A design studio? An agency? A business consultancy? Client-side? Product-focused? What is the type of project recruiters and managers will be looking for?
- Is it to be seen as a specialist in a certain area? Some people redesign their portfolio website as a way to position themselves professionally in a slightly different manner than they have been doing. It’s that good old saying: “put the work you want to be doing in your portfolio, not the work you think others want to see”. And that might be the case for some designers, depending on where they are in their careers.
Not really. There’s yet another layer that needs to be taken into consideration when judging someone’s portfolio…
Question 3: how does the designer want to be seen in the world?
This one is about defining an area of focus in Design, and about understanding how the designer wants to be seen by their peers and by prospective employees who are visiting their portfolio. While it is important to demonstrate your ability to navigate across multiple design specialties, thinking through one’s value proposition as a designer can keep priorities in the right place.
What is the takeaway you want people to leave your portfolio website with?
“Wow, this person is a ______ that really ______!”
A few examples:
- Wow, this person is a graphic designer that really knows digital.
- Wow, this person is an interface designer who really values motion.
- Wow, this person is a front-end engineer who knows a lot about design and UX.
- Wow, this person is a print designer who has years of experience designing business cards.
- Wow, this person is a creative director who really specialized in advertising campaigns.
Thinking about this construct of [discipline] + [specialization] is a good way of keeping your portfolio not too generic, and to give visitors a clear takeaway — an easy way to refer to you once they leave your website.
Getting to this simple articulation of who you are is not that simple, though.
Some designers I know can clearly articulate who they are and how they want to be seen, but some need a little bit of help…
Once all these questions have been answered, you can start to visualize how one’s portfolio should look, what content is should showcase, and what their priorities should be.
And then, only then, you will be able to judge whether one’s portfolio is good at achieving their goals or not.