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Every Designer Should Have a Portfolio

Jared Spool caused a commotion this week on Twitter with a single tweet. It was directed at hiring managers who require a portfolio from design candidates, and his goal was to point out that many designers don’t have a portfolio online.

If you’re trying to hire designers & require a portfolio, you’re not gonna get top talent.

The best designers don’t have them. Too busy.

Jared Spool (@jmspool), November 2, 2016

The second half of his tweet caused at least some designers (myself included) to react differently. The forced brevity of Twitter removed an opportunity for nuance that could have softened his intent. As it reads, it’s easy to infer that having a portfolio means you’re not one of the best, but Jared’s tweet was aimed more at recruiters requiring portfolios than designers. So let’s stop dissecting the 138 characters that led to this ruckus and discuss portfolios.

As a hiring manager, I am willing to start the recruiting process without a portfolio, if there are other positive indicators in play…

Peter Merholz

In which I agree

First things first, I agree wholeheartedly with Jared that recruiters and hiring managers should not require a portfolio at the beginning of the application process. Good portfolios take time to put together, and designers actively working may not have the time to put a full portfolio together before applying.

Not having a ready link to add to a job application doesn’t mean a designer can’t show their portfolio later in the process, even if that’s literally walking through live sites in an interview and discussing the decisions and process that led to them.

You have a portfolio

Here’s a secret: You already have a portfolio. It may not be online, but it exists. Your portfolio is the collection of work you’ve created, the process you took to get to it, and the many decisions you made along the way. Even if you haven’t posted it online, you still have a collection of stories you can tell about the things you’ve done and why.

Why isn’t it online?

There are good reasons not to show some or all of your portfolio online:

  • Your work is under NDA. Whether you work for a company with strict security requirements or with a client that’s concerned about competitive advantage, signing an NDA means you can’t share the great work you’ve done with them.
  • Your work is incomplete or unpublished. You worked for weeks, months, or even years on a great project, only to see financial, political, or other decisions lead to it being shelved.
  • Your work is outdated. Whether you’ve been out of the workforce or under an NDA, there are times when the work you can showcase either doesn’t represent the work you want to be doing or current trends.
  • You’re just starting out. You’re new in the design field and haven’t yet built up a portfolio.

And there are bad reasons not to have a portfolio online:

  • You don’t have the technical skills to make a website. Use one of the myriad hosting services, like Squarespace, Behance, or even Medium.
  • You are too busy. Sometimes it’s important to take a break and think about the work you’ve created. Spending time periodically updating your portfolio can help you reflect and grow.
  • You don’t need one. Maybe you’ve been lucky and gotten jobs without having a portfolio before. That doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from one. Why? Keep reading…

Why should you have a portfolio?

Here’s another secret: Your portfolio isn’t just important to the people hiring you. Building your portfolio can help you:

  • Learn from your prior work. Creating a great portfolio is an extreme act of self-introspection. You must revisit work you may or may not be proud of and pick out what’s worth sharing (and just as importantly, what’s not). Then you need to delve into the decisions you made, evaluating whether they were ultimately successful or not. Each portfolio piece is an opportunity to reflect on what you created, why you created it, whether it was successful, and what you might do differently in the future.
  • Share your methods and process. We are always learning, and what you’ve learned from your projects can be just as instructive to others. If you’ve taken the time to build a portfolio, you can reuse and reference lessons from it in your writing, speaking, and later projects.
  • Frame what you want to be doing in the future. Want to move in a specific direction like product design or mobile design? Start by working to fill your portfolio with pieces that reflect the direction you want to go. It’s not unlike the saying “dress for the job you want, not the one you have”. How? Take on pro-bono projects, side projects, or do exploratory redesigns of something like what you want to be doing.
  • Attract potential partners, clients, or employers. Maybe you’re not looking for work currently. That’s all well and good, but nothing lasts forever. You never know what opportunities might pass you by if you don’t have a way for others to learn more about your work.

In conclusion

Good news: You already have a portfolio! It just might not be online. Yet. Want to get started? Write down the story from a recent project.

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