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11 Dos and Don’ts to Make Your Portfolio Shine

Great portfolios aren’t built in a day. If you haven’t already created one, it’s a great idea to get started sooner rather than later. Once you’ve created your portfolio, take time to iterate on it and polish it. Here’s a collection of dos and don’ts to consider as you refine yours.

1. Do dig into details.

The devil and the delight are in the details. Pick your favorite small details and sprinkle them throughout your portfolio. Doing so illuminates moments readers might otherwise miss looking at the big picture.

Don’t focus on details. Instead, add them as asides throughout each project’s story. This can serve as a mental break in longer portfolio pages and as a way to draw readers into a specific project.

2. Don’t hide your failures.

Share your successes, but share your failures, too. Sharing what you’ve learned shows that you are open to learning, that you are human, and that you are humble. No project is perfect, and you can learn and grow from both successes and failures.

So take a few minutes for each project in your portfolio to document what went wrong. Then address how you might fix those problems in the future. It’s a wonderful opportunity to learn from your mistakes and to teach others.

3. Do share photos and sketches of your process.

Most of the work that goes into a great user experience is the process leading to the final product. Make sure to document your processes, sketches, and any other “boring” artifacts.

I have a confession: I’m terrible at this. I tend to clean my desk often and to delete old photos (unless they are of family or special memories). As a result, I’ve lost or destroyed many of the photos and sketches I accrued along the way.

I’ve started countering this by creating a folder within each project to document my process. I also create repositories with git to keep my files versioned, archived, and easy to share. This way, going forward, I’ve got better records of the journey.

4. Don’t share NDA projects.

Sometimes NDA work is all you have. But it’s rarely worth the potential legal issues to share that work. Instead, find ways to do work on the side: personal projects, non-profit work, or freelancing.

Yes, NDAs are often awful, stifling, and unnecessary. Yes, the web was built on openness, transparency, and sharing. Yes, you created that work and you deserve to show it. Yes, you can create a password-protected portfolio to share your NDA work. There’s a good chance you won’t even get caught.

But consider what you are saying to your future partners when you share that NDA project with them. By sharing it, you are admitting that you are willing to break a contract for personal gain. Is that the version of yourself you want to evoke in potential employers or clients?

5. Do keep it up to date.

Schedule time to add new projects to your portfolio. Here are a couple methods I’ve used to remind myself to update my portfolio:

  • Set recurring reminders. Consider when you have more free time. Set reminders for those times to tackle portfolio updates. Don’t set them too often or too rarely. Try something between three months to nine months so you have time to create new work.
  • Make it part of your project post factum. After you release a product or ship a major feature, you have a wrap-up process, right? Before you archive the project and head out for drinks with the team, take some time to write the story.

6. Don’t forget to retire old work.

You don’t still wear clothes from 10-15 years ago, do you? Why would your portfolio still sport the stuff you designed years ago? I bet you’ve grown in the intervening years. Do you want potential clients or employers looking at work you’ve outgrown?

As you add new projects, remove your old ones. As a rule, I retire a project every time I add one. I like to keep my portfolio at twelve items. Why twelve? Because it’s divisible by two, three, and four. And that makes for a nice responsive grid.

7. Do share the results of your work.

How did users react to the project? What did you measure? How has this product or feature changed outcomes for the people who use it? We design to solve problems. Did your work solve the problems you set out to?

Even if a project didn’t meet expectations, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth sharing. (See the bit above about sharing your failures.) Sharing your results shows that you considered how to measure success.

8. Don’t expect readers to stay long.

You are putting more work into your portfolio than any one reader will put into parsing it. Most visitors will know after a minute or two whether to stash your work in the keep pile or the round file. Your portfolio should be as thoroughly considered as everything else you create.

Knowing that your visitors may take only a few minutes, think about what you want them to see. Consider how to pull them in through visuals, storytelling, and details.

9. Do add links when you can.

Unless you’re an Intranet designer, some of your work is public. Add links to your projects so readers can see your work. Yes, sometimes your work may change from your initial creation. You can always remove the link later or wait until you retire the project from your portfolio.

But while your projects still match your intent, you should give your readers a way to test them. Whether you add a link, they will search for them if they want to see them. Even better, add links to specific features, pages, or details.

10. Don’t hog all the credit.

Unless you designed and built every aspect of a project, make sure to share the glory. Share what your role was on the project. Share how you contributed. And then step back and let your teammates bask in the limelight. By sharing credit, you reveal that you are a good team player.

11. Do seek feedback.

As with any project, get your portfolio in front of others early and often. Have someone you trust look through your portfolio and critique:

  • the content: Is this project appropriate for your portfolio? Do you provide enough background for the project? What’s missing? What don’t you need?
  • the writing: Are there spelling or grammatical mistakes? Is the writing clear and concise? Do you have enticing headlines?
  • the visuals: Do you have good screenshots, appropriate photos of the process, and sketches? Are the visuals consistent in style?
  • the flow: Does each section make sense in context with the others? Does it tell a coherent story?

In conclusion

Your portfolio is your most important product. It’s another opportunity to show your skills as a designer. Treat your portfolio like you would any other project. Plan it, test it, and iterate on it, and you’ll end up with a portfolio that shines. Think you’ve got a great portfolio? Share it!

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