A Portfolio Hiring Managers Can’t Deny

Tell ’em exactly what they want to hear before they even ask.

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For designers and developers, one thing stands high above résumés, cover letters, and university degrees: the esteemed portfolio. A great portfolio can get you a high-paying, life-restoring job, even if you don’t have much or any schooling. The converse is also true: you may have many degrees and lots of experience listed on a résumé, but unless you can demonstrate it through a portfolio, that great job opportunity may still pass you by.

What makes for a good portfolio? In a sentence, a portfolio that has the highest likelihood of landing a job indicates you already have the skills to do what you’ll be hired to do. Will you be expected to design inventive user interfaces for senior citizens? That’s what should be in your portfolio. Is that potential job expecting that you’ll build React apps using Redux and LotusNotes? Time to break out that “Domino for Dummies” book.

Many designers and developers think of a portfolio as a simple way to collect the things they’ve worked on over the last few years of their careers. While that might make your mama proud, it’s a distraction from the fact that a portfolio has a job to do—namely, to get you a job.

If you do want to collect your work somewhere, call it a “time capsule” or “archive.” And while those might help to get you a job, there are much better ways to land your dream gig than by just putting a random smattering of work in a place.

Therefore, the first step in crafting a great portfolio is identifying what job you’re actually trying to get. Half of that is identifying the company you’d like to work for; the other half is identifying the specific job you want at that company. Once you know those things, you can create a specific message that addresses why you’d be a great fit for that job at that company.

You might already see the conundrum with that approach: even with the same title, every job is at least slightly different from company to company. A Senior Product Designer job at online medical care appointment booking service Zocdoc is different than a Senior Product Designer job at meal kit service Plated. There’s certainly overlap in the details: both companies are in New York, involve interdisciplinary collaboration, and require facilitation as well as execution skills. But the big stuff couldn’t be more different. Plated is looking for a designer to “help them craft beautiful and engaging experiences that help people transform dinnertime.” Zocdoc is looking for a designer to help create “the next generation of patient and provider experiences to help us transform healthcare.”

How could one portfolio possibly communicate both messages clearly? There probably aren’t many designers out there that already have the skills and experience to rethink meals and transform healthcare. Hiring managers know this. At best, a singular portfolio would probably only be able to abstract the messages to say, “I’m good at creating experiences.” See how much more watered down that is? By generalizing, you put the onus on the person evaluating your portfolio to draw their own conceptual line between your experience and their needs. A good portfolio would do that work for them.

Remember, most managers don’t have training in being managers. No one ever taught them how to interview designers or developers. The easier you make their jobs—finding and landing qualified candidates—by presenting yourself as the person they’ve been looking for, the better the outcome for you.

Which brings us to this potentially unpopular guideline for portfolios: every job you apply for should have its own portfolio. That’s right: if you’re applying for 4 jobs, you should have 4 different portfolios. A great portfolio shows the hiring manager why you’re perfect for that job, and perhaps that job only. That means it may be a bad fit if you tried to reuse the same portfolio for another another job without at least significant modifications.

Whenever I mention this Multiple Portfolio Strategy™ to designers and developers looking for new jobs, they scoff. It’s difficult enough to create one portfolio; tripling or quadrupling that effort seems virtually impossible. But let’s appropriately qualify expectations: you’re looking for a hiring manager to agree to pay you tens—or even hundreds—of thousands of dollars a year, based on something you whip together in a weekend? A good portfolio is an investment: the larger initial loss you can take in terms of how much effort you can put it, the larger the potential for gain at the end of that process.

How easily can I already see this person working here? A great portfolio answers that question as clearly possible before any in-person interviews.

My favorite recent example of these guidelines in action is the site Francine Tamakloe put together to apply at Spotify. This site speaks directly to the role music has played in her life. She uses Spotify’s typographic style and gradient color palette. She frames her work style via song lyrics and embeds a Spotify player of each song nearby. I don’t know the details, but her Twitter bio says she’s now “hustlin’ at Spotify,” and I can imagine this site played a big part in that.

Imagine if she wanted to work at Apple too. A simple “Find & Replace” from “Spotify” to “Apple” wouldn’t really do the trick. This is a “go big or go home” approach. So many designers and developers think of their portfolios as “one size fits all,” and then are baffled as to why they can’t land any job, much less their dream one.

That’s not to say that you have to completely reinvent everything from scratch for every company you want to apply to. There’s some overlap to take advantage of (which we’ll discuss shortly). But each portfolio should speak directly to a hiring manager about a specific position and how well you fit it.

A template for a great portfolio #

In evaluating potential candidates, many hiring managers have criteria that looks something like this:

Though the specific criteria will likely vary, it can often be summarized like this: how easily can I already see this person working here? A great portfolio answers that question as clearly as possible before any in-person interviews.

What could that portfolio look like?

Let’s say I wanted to apply for this Senior Designer, North America Retail Experience Design position at Nike. First, I’d find the person or people who may be reviewing this, and I’d address it to them. For this job, I might address it to Junichi Otake, Experience Design Director Retail Innovation at Nike. I don’t know him personally, but I have 50 mutual connections with him on LinkedIn, so perhaps I could have someone who knows us both introduce us.

As far as the content of that portfolio goes, here’s a rough wireframe of what that might be on there:

A portfolio template

The important bits:

  1. An opening statement, addressed to a particular person, introducing myself and stating clearly why I’d be a great fit for the position.
  2. A collection of my work, specifically tailored to speak to this particular job description. For example, this job description uses specific phrases like “product presentation“ and “retail business targets,” so I used those same phrases in talking about my work.
  3. Something special about me professionally or personally that sets me above everyone else applying for this job. I’m not just another designer; I’m a designer that’s also a sneakerhead.

Remember: this is a love letter to your dream job, so pour as much of yourself into it as you can! As you can probably tell, I used the most vanilla layout I could for this example, but the finished version is another opportunity to show you’re right for the company. Bonus points for:

The intention here is to answer some of the questions the hiring manager might have before they even ask it. For example, they may think, “How would Dan would handle working on Nike+, which has both digital and physical components?“ I answer that—in advance, in my portfolio, before they actually ask me—in my portfolio piece for Crayola, which has both digital and physical components. They might wonder, “Would Dan work well on a large team like ours?” Which I answer in portfolio pieces about working with different team sizes. They might be curious as to whether or not I’d even like working there, to which my sneaker fetish callouts would answer that it’d be a slice of heaven for me. You get the idea.

Reframing portfolios (even if only in your own mind) #

This section was added on September 7, 2018, five days after the article’s initial publishing.

In response to this article, design Fedor Shkliarau pointed out that this may be more of a cover letter than a portfolio. Through that discussion, we arrived at the best term for something like this is a proposal. After I prequalify clients for SuperFriendly projects, I’ll often put together a collection—whether that’s a short email of links or a 100-page, beautifully-designed PDF—of past work that’s contextualized to the particular problem they’re asking us to help them solve.

For the pedants among us, you’re right that the definition of “portfolio” is literally “a collection of past work, used to demonstrate ability.” However, for designers and developers, the connotation of the word has been elevated to often be the sole determinant in whether or not one is awarded a job. Though I believe we could use a new word to represent this idea, “portfolio” is the word our industry currently uses, so it seems more pragmatic in the short-term to clarify its intent as opposed to getting people to change what word they use.

A good portfolio is no different. In fact, it may even be easier to put together than a services inquiry. With a services inquiry, I sometimes know very little about the company, and all I have to rely on for my response is a short conversation I may have had with a client. With a portfolio for an agency, you have all of their past work to look at to determine what’s important to them. With a portfolio for a startup or product shop, you can look at the product(s) they make to understand what kind of company they are. For both, you can also research some of the people who work there to find out what qualities and skills they posses that landed them their jobs.

Thinking of this as a proposal instead of a portfolio can justify why it should be custom every time and help free you from the standard thinking that they way to get a job is to send a link to your online junk drawer or past projects.

While none of this is a plug-and-play template, I hope this gives you a starting point for how to spruce up your portfolio proposal to say the appropriate things in appropriate ways to the people you want to hire you. Happy job hunting!

Though I don’t necessarily agree with everything in these articles, there’s lots of good stuff to think about:

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