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Creating a Design Portfolio that Gets You Hired

Every spring at Atomic, we go through the process of finding, vetting, and interviewing candidates for our competitive summer internships. About a month ago, I was heavily involved in evaluating the portfolios of potential design interns. After looking at an impressive variety of work from many talented students, I would like to share the things that really get my attention and make me say “Now, here’s somebody I’d like to have as my design intern!”

AO Interns
Summer 2011 – Intern Sean Fisk works with summer-intern-turned-employee Joseph Roth and atom Justin DeWind.

Want to be a kick-ass design candidate?

Here’s what your portfolio has to do:

1. Show your interest in (or experience with) designing for the web and for mobile devices.

Here at AO, we create software products: websites, mobile apps, desktop applications, and other pieces of software. Designers who succeed at AO are interested in computers and are pretty good at using them. We’re fascinated with the ways in which people interact with software, and intrigued by the opportunity to improve on those interactions, and create new ones. When I’m looking at a candidate’s portfolio, I want to see somebody who has those same interests. A strong portfolio will have links or screenshots for websites you’ve built. I also love to see screenshots of mobile apps. If you haven’t designed a real app, that’s fine — why not dream up a new app concept, or come up with a new design for an existing app?

2. Demonstrate that you know HTML & CSS. (Bonus points for JavaScript!)

At Atomic Object, we strongly believe in being generalists. This means that as a designer, I don’t specialize in “Graphic Design” or “Interaction Design” — I get to work on a project from start to finish, as it goes from ideas, to sketches, to mockups, to code, and all of the steps in between. Designers at AO should want to be constantly expanding their skills in all directions, and this includes having an interest in the code that creates a project. So I’m always really thrilled when candidates include links to websites that they’ve built or helped build themselves.

3. Display your flexibility and diversity with different styles and mediums.

An impressive portfolio will show off different projects that contrast in style. Effective software design depends on the designer’s ability to use different visual languages to convey difficult concepts. While every designer brings a unique perspective to his or her work, it’s important to be able to meld your style to the project’s needs. Another way to demonstrate the flexibility of your talent is to include your work from other mediums. Sketching, illustration, print, and even packaging design are skills that have implications for software development.

4. Include examples of real-life experience (if possible).

Another thing that really makes a candidate shine is if they have experience on some real-life projects. It could be something as simple as designing a poster for a local event, or a website for your friend’s band. Doing work for somebody else shows you can communicate with a “client” (even if it’s not a paying client) and listen to somebody else’s requirements

5. Be accurate.

Pay attention to details, please. Presentation and spelling count. One of our values here at Atomic is to care deeply about your work, and one form of caring is to use spellcheck (you would be surprised how many spelling errors I found in candidates’ cover letters and resumes. It was deeply disappointing.) Have another person (professor, friend, parent) review your cover letter, resume, portfolio, and writing sample, before you send it over. And while it’s not a deal breaker, I love to see a nicely-formatted portfolio. So if you want extra brownie points, showcase your work in an online portfolio or create a PDF with a nicely designed cover page and table of contents at the beginning, instead of sending me 10 separate files of your work. Your portfolio itself can be an example of your talent for developing a great user experience!

To other software professionals: What do you look for when you’re hiring an intern? Share your thoughts in the comments!