Five Tips for a Successful Design Portfolio Review; Are You Ready?

As a student, it was during my final portfolio review that I got my big break (by talking to the person that would become my first boss and employer). It was also during the portfolio review process that design professionals reinforced what my professors had been teaching us all along (which, maaaaaaaybe, I was too stubborn to accept).

So I love giving back when I can. And to help with another year of portfolio reviews, here’s my advice. (Want more? Other Atomic designers have also written on this topic; find their posts here, here, and here.)

1. Know What Kind of Review You Need

The first step in a successful portfolio review is to understand what type of review you’re looking for:

  • Seniors work toward a “Final” portfolio review, which should represent what they will be using during their upcoming job search.
  • Before that review, there can be one or many “Work in Progress” reviews for both juniors and seniors.

How you approach these reviews should be quite different to maximize their effectiveness.

Work in Progress

This is not the time to lead with your best, most refined project. While it may feel good to review something you a proud of, you might not get a lot of critical feedback. And that would be a waste of your time.

This is your opportunity to focus on a project that you are struggling with. Bust out the requirements documentation, your old sketches, past iterations, etc. Describe your vision for the project and the roadblocks you are trying to overcome.

Having an outside perspective from your classmates or your professors can sometimes make it all fit together. This could also be a time to ask the hard question: “Should I even spend the time on this project and put it into my portfolio?”

Final Review

By this point, you should be feeling pretty good about all of the pieces in your portfolio. Use this time to fine-tune your spiel. The review should be a stress-free environment where you can practice a new way of talking about your projects, both as a whole and the individual components.

A good reviewer should act the part of an interviewer, whether they are currently interviewing or not. The reviewer is there to help make sure your portfolio (and ultimately, how you talk about your portfolio) will help you get a job in the industry.

2. Focus on One or Two Pieces

Rarely is there enough time at a review (or during an interview) to talk about your whole portfolio. Focus on one or two projects, representing a wide spectrum of design abilities, i.e., Branding, UI/UX, experience, illustration, etc.

Use this time to tell a meaningful story about the project, but don’t drag it out. The reviewer doesn’t need to know all of the details about the brand or organization. Instead, focus on how your solution solves the problem.

3. Make it Predictable, but Surprise & Delight

When looking through a portfolio, I want there to be consistency from project to project. Are the project details in the same place? Are callouts handled the same way? If you have “Results” on one project, make sure there is a results section on every project.

A portfolio I saw recently used a single line and arrow element throughout each project in his portfolio. It was a nice touch that made walking through their pieces extremely easy.

4. Reduce, Reduce, Reduce

The design practice that rules all other practices — reduce, reduce, reduce. Your portfolio doesn’t need fifteen projects in it when five will do the trick. Each piece doesn’t need to show all of the interface screens and how they react responsively. You don’t need to show how the logo “totes” unless it is essential to the brand, and specifically if it is solving a problem.

5. Oh, and Craft!

Seriously, rule numero uno. If I can tell at first glance that your mockup is photoshopped, that’s a problem. If you are using pixelated assets, that’s a problem.

The people that will be interviewing you for your first job want to know that you have excellent attention to detail and hold your designs to a high standard. If you can’t bother to make your own portfolio pristine, what confidence does that give your employer or future clients?

Want Feedback?

I’d be more than happy to review a senior portfolio. If you have something that you’d like to share with me, please don’t hesitate to reach out — especially if you’re local and want to grab a cup of coffee while we’re at it. My treat!

And here are a few more