Illustration by Bettina Reinemann
Arguably a more important asset than the designer resume, your UX portfolio is critical in helping you land a great career opportunity. It doesn’t just showcase your best work, it helps an employer or client understand how you think and what sets you apart.
The current situation in the professional world, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, is undoubtedly very challenging and has brought a lot of job uncertainty with it. So, if you do find yourself at home and have some free time on your hands, now could actually be a good opportunity to either start work on your portfolio website design or polish and improve it.
To help you take advantage of this time, inspire you, and boost your skills, we talked to some leading designers and portfolio experts. Their insights and practical advice will help you create a strong, memorable portfolio that stands out and puts you on the path to a successful interview.
Know why you’re making a portfolio
“The first step is knowing why you’re building a portfolio,” points out Juhie Tamboli, senior product manager for Adobe Portfolio, currently free on a 60 day trial (which you can activate any time before the end of the year). “Is it to land a freelance gig? Or perhaps you’re looking to switch careers? If you answer this well, the rest will come more easily.”
Then present your best work with the why in mind, Tamboli recommends. “You don’t need to showcase everything in your portfolio, but focus on your best work to help you land the opportunity you have in mind. Amplify what’s uniquely you, and share it throughout your portfolio whether that’s in a stellar About Me statement or in the body of your work that you’ve selected.”
Finally, Tamboli advises not to forget to share the process. “A part of what makes your portfolio unique to you is the process behind the work, not just the final piece.”
Start simple and don’t try to perfect it
Multidisciplinary designer and creative director Tobias Van Schneider acknowledges that it’s very easy to procrastinate on your portfolio – especially when you’re feeling the pressure of a job search. Tobias says we do so for the same reason we put off anything else: because we’re overcomplicating it.
“Start simple,” he advises. “Choose two projects – yes, only two – that represent the type of work you want to do more of in the future. Think of those projects in phases – phase 1 being the ideation phase, phase 2 concepting, etc – and write a few sentences about each phase, accompanied by an image. Done.”
With your projects out of the way, Van Schneider says you then just need to design your homepage, create an About page, and launch your portfolio.
“As you do so, remember your portfolio doesn’t need to be your creative masterpiece,” he points out. “Just focus on putting the work you’ve already done in the best light.”
Jessica Ivins, a UX designer and faculty member at UX design school Center Centre agrees and in her article, How to Get Great Feedback on Your UX Portfolio, she writes, “Even if you’re a senior designer, it’s tempting to make your portfolio perfect because it’s about your work. But flawless designs don’t exist in any project. There’s a saying when it comes to software: ‘Perfection never ships.’”
Use your research and design skills
Ian Fenn, author of Designing a UX Portfolio, has found that people often feel real terror towards the act of creating their UX portfolio. A practical solution can help: exploit your research and design skills.
“Research the needs of your intended audience,” Fenn suggests. “Then design the content that represents you and that will resonate with them. Once you consider your portfolio just another product, the process ought to become much easier.”
Ivins favors the same approach and points out that by treating your portfolio like a high-priority design project you’ll give it the care and attention it needs.
Make your portfolio represent your personality
Designer, developer, and artist Lynn Fisher refreshes her portfolio every year (see our interview, her archive, and her case study of the 2019 redesign). She says your portfolio is one of the few spaces that are completely yours and recommends making it represent the ways you’re uniquely you.
“If you’re a bit weird, make it weird,” she encourages. “We apply for pre-defined positions, but each of us will fill those roles differently based on our own experience and perspective. The more your portfolio can convey your distinct strengths, the more memorable it will be.”
Fisher also suggests writing about your experience, perspective, and challenges you’ve had to solve, if you don’t have a lot of work to show.
“As you rework your portfolio, document your process and decision-making to compile it into a case study. If you have side or just-for-fun projects, write about those, too. The way you talk about your work can often be more compelling than a set of screenshots and gives teams a look into how you might approach projects with them.”
Van Schneider also recommends keeping the copy simple and straightforward (“clever usually translates to confusing when it comes to a portfolio”), making your case studies scannable (“nobody’s going to read longer than two minutes”), and thinking of each case study as a magazine feature (“you wouldn’t design every story in a magazine the same way, you’d customize each to tell that unique story in the best possible way”).
Find a mentor to give you feedback
If you need feedback on your portfolio, Fenn cautions to not just post it online and ask for feedback.
“You’ll get conflicting answers that will only serve to confuse you,” he explains. “Instead, find somebody you trust and ask for feedback in the style of a product critique. Explain to this mentor who the portfolio is for and what you were hoping to communicate. Then ask them how you can make it better.”
“Seek feedback early,” Ivins adds. “Process it, make changes, and get more feedback. Repeat this iterative process as much as possible throughout your portfolio project.”
Iterate and optimize your portfolio
All the designers we talked to agreed that iteration is crucial for the success of your portfolio.
UX designer Sarah Doody, founder of The UX Portfolio Formula, points out that your UX portfolio is never ‘done’. It’s a work in progress, and just like a product, you keep evaluating and iterating it.
“Even if you’re not actively looking for a role,” Doody says. “Being proactive and ensuring your portfolio is up to date will ensure that you don’t rush to finish it if an amazing opportunity came your way.”
Doody also warns that rushing to get your UX portfolio ready will increase the chances you make mistakes – such as not considering the three users of your UX portfolio, or failing to write effective case studies that truly convey the process instead of just showing final deliverables. Like Ian, Sarah stresses that when you work on your UX portfolio, you’re also honing your UX skills because you must consider the UX of your UX portfolio.
“The beauty of a portfolio is that you can continue iterating and optimizing as you go,” Van Schneider adds. “Once the foundation is there, it becomes easy to make it better and better. And every time you update your website, it’s another opportunity to promote yourself. The first step to a successful portfolio is simply launching it.”
Don’t just read articles about portfolios
There are a lot of articles (like this one!) crammed with tips on how you should improve your portfolio. However, Fenn warns that some of the advice is heavily biased (not like this one!) and suggests exercising caution.
“Be sceptical of much of what you read online about UX portfolios,” he says. “Many articles are solution-heavy, reflecting a single person’s opinion of what they think will work. They can’t tell you what will work for the hiring manager you are trying to attract. Even if they are hiring managers themselves, what someone says they need can be very different from what they actually need. Conducting your own research is key.”
Take some of the advice you hear with a pinch of salt, and ensure you get the essentials right. Ask yourself why you are creating a portfolio, keep it simple and focus on your best work, make sure what’s uniquely you shines through and document the process behind the work. Make use of your research and design skills and treat your portfolio like a product, find mentors to provide feedback, and then keep evaluating and iterating. Good luck!
Adobe Portfolio is currently free for 60 days to support our creative community in these times of uncertainty.