How to Present Your Portfolio at a Software Design Job Interview

I recently had coffee with a young professional designer. She was lacking confidence after leaving her current position and needed a bit of encouragement. We talked for over two and a half hours about her portfolio, interview skills, and the industry in general.

While every person is different, I find myself giving young designers many of the same pieces of advice about interviewing for a software design position.

1. Take Charge of Presenting Your Portfolio

First and foremost, this is your interview time—your time to present who you are as a designer and what you do best. Don’t open it up for a conversation.

So often when I sit down for an interview or portfolio review, the designer asks what kind of “stuff” I’d like to see. Although this is considerate, it’s the wrong approach. As designers, one of our strongest assets is decision making–deciding what’s good and what’s bad. You can make a strong first impression by leading a presentation of your work, project by project.

I would leave the printed book at home, and bring a PDF or Keynote presentation that you can project. This allows you to present more easily to multiple people, and it gives you an opportunity to stand up and control the room.

2. Tell a Compelling Story for Each Project

Designers should be great storytellers. And a good story, at its core, has a beginning, middle, and end. Often, I see people gloss over the beginning, spend way too much time in the middle, and completely ignore the end. To improve your storytelling, remember these points:

  • The beginning is an integral part of the presentation. The interviewer has no context for the client, the problem, or even the industry that your project pertains. Without a problem, all of the work that has gone into the design is meaningless. Make an effort to help the interviewer understand the challenges you faced upfront.
  • The middle is tricky. As designers, we love to do the real estate agent tour where we point out the logo in the top left, the navigation in the top right, and the footer at the bottom. There is nothing compelling about presenting what your audience can clearly see. Instead, point out where key features exist.
  • Use the end to talk about difficult aspects of the project. Where did you really struggle? How did you overcome it? If your work is from a conceptual project that never got developed, talk about it. Were there business decisions that prevented the success of the project? This is an opportunity to have a preemptive answer for a question that is inevitably going to come up later: “Can you describe a time that you struggled during a project, and how you overcame it?”

3. Keep It Short

The old adage “quality over quantity” definitely applies here. Select your three most impressive projects, and keep them relevant. If you are interviewing for a software design position, select projects that showcase strong UX research, interaction design, and systems thinking. If you have done strong work in other types of design, include a brief addendum section.

When I interviewed for Atomic, I added a short section on branding work I have done. It showed that I have a multidisciplinary skill set and that I understood the importance of brand integrity.

4. Pay Attention to the Craft

At a recent portfolio review, a student showed me a mock-up of a screen on an iPhone X. I wanted to see if they did anything interesting with the “notch,” so that’s where I looked first. I noticed that they actually mirrored the photo so that the time, carrier, and reception info were all reversed.

In retrospect, it’s not a big deal at all, except for two things. First, I don’t even remember what was on the screen, and second, it shows a lack of attention when it comes to the small details. Don’t think a client will notice that you made up a price for one of their items on an e-commerce site redesign?

Want to Talk?

For any young professional or student reading this post, I offer an open invitation to grab a coffee, do a Skype call, or email back and forth if you have additional questions, or would love another set of eyes on your portfolio.

Best of luck to you as you move forward in your career.