Portfolio Presentations & Design Work

by March 14, 2024

Portfolio presentations are an opportunity for designers to showcase their design process and problem-solving skills to potential employers, peer groups, and more. Over the years, there's been a clear trend in the portfolio presentations I see: much more focus on doing "work" vs. "design work." Here's what that means and how we're trying to account for it:

In large organizations, getting design done requires a lot more than flow diagrams, screen designs, and prototypes. There's a long list of meetings, processes, collaborations, and sign-offs to surmount before a design gets shipped. Because this kind of work takes so much time and effort, designers begin to view it as their primary job. But being great at navigating an organization doesn't necessarily mean being great at design.

This carries over to portfolio presentations as well. In an hour long presentation most of the time goes to describing organizational challenges or processes and little is left for design skills. Couple this with the prevalence of design systems and UI toolkits, and it becomes hard to know how a designer designs and why.

To account for this situation, I wrote a preface for designers coming to interview with us. Several of them suggested I publish it to be more widely useful. So here's the relevant part (below) and I hope it's helpful.

Portfolio Presentations

While we understand the need to walk through background and work history, we’ve all read your resume before you to come in. So you can keep your introduction brief and perhaps focus on relevant parts of your background that don’t show up on LinkedIn.

These days it's especially hard to get a clear sense of how designers make decisions and bring ideas to life due to the scale of tech companies (so many processes and stakeholders) and the prevalence of design systems and UI toolkits. We’re building companies from the ground up so getting to see your core design skills is critical for us. In many organizations, especially larger ones, a big part of getting design done requires cross-team coordination, resource management, getting buy-in, and more. While this certainly demonstrates your ability to get things done it’s more of a reflection on your ability to operate within an organization, not your product design sense.

We often find designers over-index on that kind of “work” and end up without enough time and depth on “design work.” So try to strike the right balance. Understanding the context behind a design is critical to evaluating it but connecting the two is where we learn the most about how you work as a designer. When presenting your portfolio, focus on the concrete things that you've personally accomplished and the way you accomplished them. Go deep on a couple of examples to provide insight into how you make design decisions. Walk through the 'why' at a big picture level, and then the 'how' at a detailed level.

To communicate your product design skills, answer questions like: why did you decide on a specific design solution? What iterations did you go through to get to it? Basically connect the pixel-level process to your understanding of business, product, and user goals. How did your unique contributions as a designer, not just as an employee or team member, make the kind of impact you intended?