Build a portfolio interviewers will love


I’ve recently been interviewing new applicants for the design team at Pancentric and having been through a significant number of CVs and portfolios, thought it worth putting some advice out there for design job seekers. As an interviewer, I’d like to help you all avoid the most common mistakes and get the best result you can next time you apply for a job as a digital, industrial or service designer.

To recap, there are three components to your application – the cover letter, CV (or resume, if you’re in the US) and portfolio.

For designers, it helps to think of each job application as a design project in itself. Your users – those you design for – are your potential employers.

Start by considering their needs. They’re pushed for time, they’ve got to read dozens of CVs and pick out the good ones, they need to ensure you have the right skills and fit into the team. How can you craft the three components of your application to better meet user needs, and hence improve your chances of getting that job?

The cover letter

These days the cover letter may be an email or sometimes not asked for at all, but if you have the option to attach one, do. This is the place to explain your background and current situation, including why you’re looking for work, giving interviewers quick context by which to make sense of your portfolio. Format-wise, always ensure to use correct terms of address and double check the recipient’s name, gender and job title. Get these details wrong and you’ll not even get past the first hurdle.

Even if you’re using a similar letter template for all your applications, take the time with each one to tailor it to the audience. Nothing will get your application deleted more quickly than a copy/pasted cover letter with the wrong name on it. Include your contact details and portfolio link here – in fact, always ensure they’re easy to pull up – potential employers will be referring back to these during the recruitment process.

The CV

This is likely to be a PDF of similar, but it works together with the portfolio, so ensure the two are always linked. A digital copy of your CV present on your folio site is never a bad idea. Some large corporates require you to fill in a pre-configured online form, so it’s worth having the text in a format you can copy /paste out quickly. Laying out a PDF is preferable, though.

Design it to be scanned quickly
Your interviewer is trying to assess you and several others in addition to doing their day job, and they’re pushed for time. Help them by considering which information is most critical, and make it discoverable – much as you would with any project where you consider user needs and make it easy to find what they require. Critical stuff will usually be:

  • Contact details and portfolio link

  • Summary paragraph introducing yourself, your skills and current work situation. A shortened version of what’s on your cover letter.

  • An easy to scan list of your previous employers, dates and the roles you had.

  • An easy to scan list of your relevant qualifications.I also like to know if people have come from an arts, psychology or tech background by reviewing their degree and early roles. If there has been a significant career change at some point, this should also be made clear.

Follow good graphic design principles

Everything you send should be an example of good quality design work, from a digital portfolio that’s easy to navigate, to a CV and cover letter that feel modern and are easy to use. This is a minimum requirement for a design job.

  • Group information logically, and prioritise key things by putting them higher on the page or highlighting them visually.

  • Style-wise, avoid anything gimmicky or loud and instead create a clean, professional layout with subtle colours and good spacing.

  • Choose modern and legible sans-serif fonts. One for the titles, one for the body text, no more. Also don’t let them get too small – as cool as it may look – your CV needs to remain legible and clear.

  • Keep to one or two pages. If your CV needs more pages than that, it’s time to trim it down – no ‘one has time to read more than two pages.

Whilst one could argue graphic design matters less for a UX or service design job, you will still be expected to produce quality deliverables that are easy to read and give a professional impression, as well as giving excellent presentations. Your job application is already setting the tone and you need it to build confidence you know how to communicate and present.

Keep LinkedIn up to date
Used more and more these days, consider LinkedIn as a second, online CV and ensure that it and the one you send match up perfectly. If your interviewer needs to check something last minute and hasn’t got your CV to hand, they may well look you up here instead.

Keep online material professional
It’s great if you can add links to blog posts, talks or workshop videos etc that show the interviewer you’re actively engaged in the design community and builds their confidence in your capabilities. Keep it professional, though. Avoid linking to a hobby photo gallery or any social media that veer into personal territory, as this is not relevant to the interview. Consider carefully the tone of what you include, and only use it if it helps show more of your professional engagement.

The same goes for any photos you add to your CV or LinkedIn – ensure they’re professional, well lit and you’re dressed smartly. Absolutely no selfies or sunglasses.

Work out how to add real links
PDFs can be made with real, clickable links from Adobe CC, Keynote etc, and it’s worth learning how to do this. It makes linking to your portfolio or blog that bit easier and makes them more likely to be read.

The portfolio

The portfolio is the biggest of the three components; taking the most time and effort to put together, but it works wonders in terms of showing you off, and your interviewer will spend the longest scrutinising it. The portfolio serves as a reference point during interviews and helps everyone in the room understand clearly what you offer, by proving you’ve done it successfully before.

Why you need a portfolio
There is occasionally debate amongst UX and service designers, about whether a portfolio is something they should build. The argument being that it encourages focus on deliverables rather than say, insights or design thinking.

For an interviewer, a portfolio holds immense value as in an industry with no real standardisation (design), it allows me to quickly gauge the applicants capabilities and experience by reviewing their past work – along with recommendations, this is the best yardstick an interviewer can have. When the applicant then uses the portfolio as a framework to talk through a project in more depth, I get all I need to understand the thinking and hard work behind the design.

Portfolios do so much to build potential employers’ understanding and confidence in your abilities; they are always worth investing time in. I implore you, make the effort and you won’t regret it. Never apply for a design job without one.

Choose a format that works for you
It doesn’t matter whether you send a PDF or a link to an online folio, as long as the content is good and your interviewer can browse easily. A PDF folio is easily exported from InDesign, Photoshop, Sketch, even Keynote.

Go the online route, and today there are a myriad of online folio sites you can sign up for which will make getting your content up very simple and straightforward. There are loads: SquarespaceWixFormatBehance and Portfoliobox to name just a few, and the list never stops growing. If you have an Adobe subscription, you also have free access to Adobe Portfolio, which is well worth a look. Finally, you could also choose to lay your work in say Sketch and export to Invision. For an interviewer, the format is unimportant so you should consider what you will find easy and affordable to keep updating in the future.

If you do use an online site, remember you may need a Wi-Fi connection when you got for interview for it to work. Check beforehand so you know there’ll be no awkward surprises when you arrive.

Plan your time efficiently
Working on a portfolio can easily suck up many free evenings and weekends if you let it. It’s always a big and involved task to gather your content and plan how you’ll present each project, particularly if it’s been a while since your last job hunt. Avoid late nights and too many lost hours by planning your time well in advance – remember you only really need a handful of great projects for an interview – three good ones is enough. Consider dropping those that aren’t your strongest.

Work efficiently. Sketch out your pages or frames to decide what content is required before you create polished assets, as you would with any digital project. Keep the designers’ perfectionist streak in check and know when the quality is good enough, too. Don’t get caught in the trap of tweaking it forever. A second opinion from a creative friend is often the easy way to check.

Plan well and manage your time –  you shouldn’t need more than a couple of weekends to put together the whole portfolio if you’re organised. 

Record as you go
The majority of portfolio build time is spent digging up old sketches, cleaning up photos and just giving those mockups that extra bit of polish. It will help to record your sketches and maps as you’re working on projects, rather than trying to organise them later and remember what all the bits and pieces meant. This can be as easy as remembering to snap photos of project rooms and sketches each week, and organising them in clear folders for later use. Get into the habit today and you save time later.

Good UX, of course.
As with the CV, your portfolio needs to be well designed, that’s a given. Ensure your online folio is a good example of UX – clear labelling, simple navigation, simple IA. Browsing a gallery of projects, I should understand what each project is before I dive in to see the details, so think carefully and avoid any cryptic project titles or superfluous content.

Don’t waste time on your personal brand
New entrants into the industry sometimes feel that a personal brand is important to help them get established. It typically results in a personal logo (often made of the applicants initials, for some reason) and slides describing their philosophy and preferred design methods.

Whilst it’s helpful to introduce your experience and specialities in the design field in your cover letter and CV, avoid making a meal of this with extra slides about your preferences. The company you’re interviewing at will have their own, and will be trying to discern if you area good fit for that. Your interviewer can easily figure out your approach by seeing your work, and will not need to see any more. The personal logo should just be dropped – it’s not appropriate when you’re joining an agency or in-house team as you’ll be working under their brand.

Personal branding is a worthwhile consideration if you’re starting your own venture, but generally speaking it should be avoided if you’re after a job at someone else’s company.

Start each project with an executive summary
To help ground your audience quickly, start with a paragraph or a few bullet points that serve as an executive summary. Unless you’re interviewing within the same industry, they are not going to understand industry jargon or project codenames. Stick to straightforward, layman’s terms and make it clear for everyone.
For example, here’s one from my portfolio:

  • Project activity – Completely redesigned experience and relaunch for ageing web application.

  • Product /service – Used by renewable energy technicians to monitor weather measurements and assess suitability of potential new wind or solar farm sites.

  • Project duration – 1 year

  • Team – Product owner, UX designer, developers, key customers

  • Activities – Research, user journey mapping, IA design, UI/UX design, interactive prototyping, usability testing, visual design, CSS stylesheets

  • Deliverables – Personas and user story maps, Axure prototype, user testing metrics, Bootstrap CSS stylesheets

  • Outcome – Relaunched application. Huge boost in user engagement, reduction in main task time by approx 25%

Projects should tell the story of how you work
Browsing each project in your portfolio, your potential employer needs to understand the story very quickly – Starting with the brief or project goal, you need to be able to walk them through the design process in just a few minutes or less.

They need to immediately understand what you designed, who the user was, what value it brought to them, and how you followed a good design process to ensure the right product got built.

You need to be clear about which activities you carried out, and in which order – your interviewer likely has a mental checklist of skills they need to hire, and when you show your projects, they will be ticking off the things they see you can do from the evidence.

Show your development work – sketches, journey maps, abandoned concepts. I cannot stress this enough. A portfolio that only shows polished renderings or pixel-perfect UI screens will not get taken seriously, as it skips over the skills you are interviewing for.

Use big images and videos, keep text to a minimum
No potential employer will have time to read a lot of text, and any slides that are text-heavy will just get skipped. Each project should be mostly comprised of large images and videos, with just enough clear titles and captions to tell the story.

Your interviewer will likely scan the projects when they first receive your application, then in interview, ask you to walk through them describing more detail, so they can ask questions. Use the projects as a framework and go with your own notes to talk through, rather than putting the text on screen. This is a good principle for any kind of presentation.

Choose a couple of strong projects to talk through
In interview, you’re going to be asked to talk through two, maybe three projects and you should go prepared to do that for anything in your folio the interviewer is curious about. That said, you’re often asked to pick, so decide beforehand which your interviewer would be most interested in by thinking about their industry. It helps if your choices showcase some variety and get across the breadth of your skills.

Projects that didn’t make it to launch, or went wrong for some reason, are equally valid to present as long as you can articulate clearly why, and what you learned from the experience. This is particularly important for junior designers who may be worried about showing mistakes. Especially early in your career, mistakes are expected and will not put your interviewer off as long as you can show you’ve learned and improved.

Agency vs. in-house expectations
If you’re interviewing at a design agency, they will most likely be looking for a set of particular skills – in user research, persona creation, prototyping etc – and you should therefore signpost this in your project work. They will typically also place greater emphasis on great-looking presentations and deliverables.

If you’re interviewing for an in-house team, then relevant industry experience may be more important, as well as experience working with Agile development and related teams such as marketing. Consider highlighting any projects you have that are particularly collaborative or involved working in a related sector.

Sensitive projects
Inevitably, some of your best work will be your most recent and therefore likely to still be covered by an NDA (Non-disclosure agreement), or your previous employer may only have release certain details into the public space. This often leaves designers unsure what they can show and frustrated that their best work remains under wraps.

One thing you can do is contact your previous employer and check what you’re allowed to show. Generally speaking this is whatever has been made public, but particularly if you’ve signed an NDA you must ensure you’re not breaching it in any way, as it is your responsibility to check the facts and get this right.

Some online folio sites allow you to password protect certain projects, so you can have a public-facing folio but control who sees sensitive work. You may also be able to show more in person at the interview than you can put on a public-facing folio site.

Remember that your interviewer doesn’t need to see particular projects, simply evidence that you have certain skills and have used them successfully. If your best work must remain under wraps, consider spending a weekend on a conceptual project to showcase them another way.

You can create alternative sketches and mockups for a fictional client that will serve just as well as long as you explain why you did them.

Practice your presentation and keep it concise
Finally, as with any presentation you will benefit from practicing it. Interviews are typically an hour or two in length, and there’ll be a limit on your presentation time so you need to be confident you can talk through two or three projects in a set time.
Consider carefully what your interviewers are interested in and avoid any info that doesn’t help them – focus on skills, activities, deliverables, lesson learned and project outcomes.

Ask a friend to help and practise a run-through with them, or simply by yourself with a timer running. When you can talk through your selected projects confidently inside half an hour, you’re ready to go.

Matt Corrall