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The Job of Your Portfolio
Getting that first call
As someone who has been on both sides of the design world—creating designs and hiring those who create them—I've seen my fair share of portfolios. Thousands, in fact. And if there's one thing I've learned, it's that many designers misunderstand the primary role of their portfolio. You might think it's a comprehensive showcase of your skills, a digital museum of your finest work, or even a platform for your personal brand. While these are valid points, let me offer a simpler perspective: The primary role of your portfolio is to get you that initial call with the hiring manager (when looking for a new role, that is). This is not to undermine the importance of showcasing your skills, but rather to refocus your efforts on what really counts when job hunting. After all, a portfolio that doesn't lead to conversations is like a beautiful car that never leaves the garage.
The Resume-Portfolio-Call Sequence
When I'm hiring, the sequence is straightforward. First, I look at resumes. If the resume piques my interest, I move on to the portfolio. Only if the portfolio impresses do I proceed to schedule a call—or more accurately, ask the Recruiter to schedule a call with you. Your portfolio is the bridge between your resume—a static list of your qualifications—and a dynamic conversation with a potential employer. It's the gatekeeper, the make-or-break point that determines whether you advance to the next stage of the hiring process. Think of your portfolio as the second act in a three-act play; it needs to build on the introduction (your resume) and set the stage for a satisfying conclusion (the call). In other words, your portfolio should be the compelling middle of your professional story, making people want to stick around for the ending.
What Hiring Managers Look For
So, what do I look for when I look through a portfolio? Four main things: clarity, creativity, problem-solving, and impact. I want to see that you can not only create visually appealing designs but also solve real-world problems. I want to understand your thought process, your approach to challenges, and your ability to deliver effective solutions. Importantly, I also want to see the impact you had with your work. And I want to see all of this quickly; hiring managers don't have the luxury of time to explore every nook and cranny of your portfolio. The key is to make your portfolio a quick but compelling read, something that can be skimmed but also invites deeper exploration. In essence, your portfolio should be a highlight reel containing a few deep dives into your most impactful work.
The Importance of First Impressions
You've got seconds to make a first impression. In those crucial moments, your portfolio should communicate the essence of who you are as a designer. Is your portfolio cluttered and disorganized? That's the impression you'll leave. Is it crisp, clear, and straight to the point? You're already ahead of the game. Remember, your portfolio is not just a reflection of your work; it's a reflection of you. A well-crafted portfolio can speak volumes about your attention to detail, your organizational skills, and your aesthetic sensibilities—all in a matter of seconds.
This should also determine what you put at the very top of your site or within the first few slides/pages. As well as for each case study you showcase. Make sure that hiring managers get a quick look at what you can bring to the team. Your portfolio's opening act should be a showstopper that makes hiring managers eager to see what comes next.
Given that you have limited time to capture attention, your portfolio should be a streamlined version of your best work—not an exhaustive archive. Choose projects that align with the job you're applying for, and provide enough context to understand the problem and solution. But don't go overboard; too much information can be as detrimental as too little. The goal is to strike a balance between showcasing your skills and maintaining brevity. You want to give just enough to intrigue, but not so much that you overwhelm.
This is also why I recommend showing the end results early in a case study. Let me quickly see how you solved a particular problem, and then show a high-level process, learnings along the way, or more detail. But don't add too much detail. I've seen case studies that are miles long, and I assure you that managers don't read all of that content. Think of each case study as a short story that delivers a satisfying conclusion early on, then delves into the 'how' and 'why.'
The "Skim Test"
Let's face it: your portfolio will be skimmed. I know you spent a lot of time on it, but this is the truth, especially in today's market. There are simply too many candidates for each role and not nearly enough time to go through each and every case study. Knowing this, design it to pass the "skim test." Use clear headings, concise text, and compelling visuals to guide the viewer's eye. Make it easy to navigate and quick to understand. Bullet points, icons, and well-placed calls to action can all help your portfolio pass this crucial test. Remember, the skim test isn't about reducing your portfolio to the lowest common denominator; it's about making your content accessible and engaging, even at a glance.
But, also know that prior to that first call with the hiring manager, many will take extra time to dig into your portfolio and case studies. So, you must pass the "skim test" and have more details for hiring managers to dig into. Often these will help managers craft questions specific to you and will help you to have a more engaging conversation. Think of it this way: Your portfolio should be like a well-designed app, intuitive for first-time users but rich in features for those who want to explore more.
Call to Action vs. Information Overload
Your portfolio should have a clear call to action, but it shouldn't overwhelm the viewer. Whether it's a prompt to view a case study in more detail or an invitation to get in touch, make it simple and straightforward. The goal is to lead the viewer to the next step, which, in this context, is picking up the phone to schedule that call. A well-placed call to action can serve as the tipping point, the nudge that transforms a passive viewer into an active participant in your job search journey. It's the equivalent of a well-timed cliffhanger that makes the viewer eager for the next episode—in this case, a conversation with you.
I've seen portfolios that were visually stunning but lacked substance and others that were rich in content but visually overwhelming. The portfolios that led to calls were those that struck a balance: visually appealing, contextually rich, and easy to skim. They made it easy for me to say, "Yes, I want to talk to this person." These successful portfolios had one thing in common: they were designed not just to showcase skills but to initiate a conversation. They served as an effective bridge from the resume to the call, fulfilling their primary mission. In a world full of portfolios, the ones that initiate conversations are the ones that truly stand out.
Quick Tips for Immediate Improvement
Use a clean, simple layout. Prioritize your best, most relevant work. Include concise case studies that show problem-solving skills. Make it easy to contact you—don't hide your contact information. Test your portfolio on multiple devices to ensure it's fully responsive.
These tips are not just cosmetic improvements; they're strategic moves designed to bring you closer to your end goal—a conversation with a hiring manager. Each tip is a lever you can pull to open the door to new opportunities.
Your portfolio is more than just a showcase of your skills; it's the key that unlocks the door to opportunities. Its primary mission is to secure you that all-important initial call with the hiring manager. By focusing on this goal, you can streamline your portfolio to highlight what truly matters and make it easier for hiring managers to see your potential. After all, the best portfolio isn't just a collection of your best work; it's a strategic tool that gets you one step closer to your next opportunity. So, as you revisit your portfolio, keep its primary mission in mind: to get you that call and bring you one step closer to your dream job. Because at the end of the day, a portfolio that doesn't lead to conversations is a missed opportunity.
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About John Wayne Hill
John Wayne Hill, a seasoned product designer based in San Francisco with over 15 years of experience, is the creative force behind Design Is Hard. Previously a Director-level IC at Twitter, John Wayne has a proven track record of challenging the status quo and pushing for innovation. He has managed teams and helped grow designer’s skill sets for 8+ years. His collaborative spirit extends to working with fellow designers, engineers, product managers, data analysts, and researchers, fostering a team-oriented environment. Check out John Wayne’s Design Portfolio and Experience.