The Myth of the Design Portfolio

Posted on 17 November, 2008 at 12:09am

It’s that time again. I’ve been putting it off for months, but it doesn’t go away, and only gets more urgent with each passing day. It will probably be the most miserable thing I’ve had to do all year. No, I’m not talking about holiday shopping. I’m talking about updating my portfolio.

I hate design portfolios because they are a symptom of a myth that helps no one. The myth is that a designer’s portfolio somehow gives you insight into how well that person does their job. This is about as true for a portfolio as it is for a resumé. Neither tells you the important information about a person, and if you are thinking about hiring a designer you should be aware of what you’re not seeing.

Myth: The portfolio showcases the designer’s sense of style.

If the designer is at all experienced in their field, their portfolios will represent their clients’ tastes more than their own. Any creative professional who imposes their own style onto their clients isn’t doing their job very well. Every client needs something different, and portfolios do the injustice of removing the work from the context of the project or brand identity it was meant to be a part of. The designer used their judgment to create something that suited the needs of their client. They may not even like it very much, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t do their job well.

Myth: Great designers will make a great portfolio for themselves.

The slicker the portfolio, the more time the designer has on their hands. Think about that for a moment. A talented designer in high demand is using their creative energies on their clients, not themselves. This is why you see spectacular portfolios on people coming right out of school. College gives you the time to fritter away tweaking your personal site, but the real world doesn’t. Most top designers don’t even maintain one (Jeff Veen, Amy Hoy, and Jesse James Garrett, among others).

Myth: An attractive portfolio indicates a good designer.

Have you ever worked hands-on with a designer? If so, you probably understand that the final work is a product of their ability to work with you and to extract the essence of what you need from your head. A portfolio is a bunch of static images on a page. It doesn’t tell you one whit about their ability to work with you. This is why people test drive a car before buying it. It’s not enough for the car to be beautiful; it has to work the way you want it to or you’re just going to be unhappy with it.

Myth: The portfolio shows you what a designer has worked on.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. The portfolio shows you what a designer has worked on, and is allowed to post publicly, and has actually shipped, and is visual in nature. This is likely a small portion of what they have actually done in the course of their career. Sometimes a designer sells all rights to a work and can’t use it for self-promotion in any way. Sometimes (often) the project they worked on never saw the light of day. And let’s not forget the important fact that most of what a designer does is research. They talk to their clients, they analyze competitors, they draw diagrams and sketch and make flowcharts. None of this critical planning makes it to the portfolio, but could easily represent six months of work.

Okay, so how the hell do you hire a designer then, if the portfolio is so useless?

The same way you hire anyone. Treat their portfolio like you do a resumé. It’s a good start for screening, but it doesn’t give you enough information to decide between qualified candidates. Try conventional hiring approaches to get a better sense of who they are.

1. Have a quick interview with the designer. They should be willing to answer some questions over email or the phone. It almost doesn’t matter what you ask them; what matters is how well you can establish a comfortable conversation and mutual understanding.

2. Google their name and look for blog entries or articles they have written. You can learn a lot about a person this way, as well as gain a sense for how they approach their work. Are they active in communities related to their field?

3. If hiring for a long-term position, try a trial project or contract-to-hire situation. (Thanks Daniel Jalkut for this idea.) There’s no substitute for actual hands-on experience working with someone. But be aware that not everyone is willing and able to do this sort of thing, and it shouldn’t be a strike against them if they aren’t. It’s a more situational evaluation tool.

4. Ask for references, and actually contact them. You can afford a few minutes to fire off some emails, and this feedback can be critical to your decision.

A word to designers

Ya know, I hate to say it, but portfolios are still a necessary evil, at least until you are famous enough that your clients are willing to take it on faith that you’ll do a good job. But responsible clients will want to see more than that.

Don’t sink all your time into it. Don’t redesign it constantly. Start simple and keep it simple. Make sure you have a traditional resumé and keep it linked in plain sight. When you can, give a few words of context about the project. And then let it go. Focus on your work, not your image.

And on that note, I should get back to it. I promise I won’t work too hard on it. After all, I’ve got better things to do.

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The Discussion

6 Comments on “The Myth of the Design Portfolio”
  • WHAT? seriously, you think showcasing what one can do is useless??? i am sorry but i think i can tell the difference pretty easily between a crappy designer and a talented designer based on their portfolio. heck, based on one sample of work. no offense but this post is preposterous.

  • Love it. Some great myths with an unfortunately true conclusion (that most of us still need a portfolio).

    My fav:

    “Myth: The portfolio shows you what a designer has worked on.”

  • I think you present some very valid thoughts on the value of a portfolio versus that of the actual designer. However, I wouldn’t assume that someone reviewing my portfolio will have the same insights. Rather, I would assume that my portfolio will be up against some incredibly strong portfolios, and if I want to make the cut, I’ll have to do whatever I can to ensure my portfolio is just as strong (or stronger) – even if it means putting in the extra time. Relevant work experience (outlined in the resume) is obviously important too, but having been on both sides of the hiring process, I know that the portfolio is what gets the interview. And the interview provides the opportunity to discuss things not available in the portfolio, such as work ethic, process, and other projects. Personally, I think the portfolio can say so much about a designer, especially in how the work is presented – attention to detail, ability to apply important design and marketing concepts, organization skills, etc. I think it’s worth it to put in that extra effort.

  • [...] Random Non Sequitur » Blog Archive » The Myth of the Design Portfolio Focus on your work, not your image. (tags: design) [...]

  • I think you’re right on the money here. For a long time, we weren’t showing a portfolio at all because we didn’t want our clients asking for things that had already been done. You know: “can you make it look like that thing you did last year for so and so, only can you make it blue?” Hells no! You might be interested in this: http://www.tinygigantic.com/2007/04/30/the-problem-with-portfolios/

  • “Jeff Veen” who?
    “Amy Hoy” WHO?
    “Jesse James Garrett” WHO??????

    Oh a bunch of blogging wankers, I see.
    you really need to learn something about real designers, of course you are right flashy portfolio= alot of time on their hands. But also some of the best designers around at the moment have great portfolios.

    Matt Pyke – universal everything
    mimeArtist
    Kate Moross

    and none of them are blogging circle jerk cunts who don’t know what they’re talking about

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