5 Keys to a Breakthrough Design Portfolio

Design Portfolio

By Michael Pastko – Sr. UX Designer & Product Lead

Perhaps more than any other field, a designer’s body of work must speak for itself when seeking new opportunities. Whether you are in the beginning stages of your career or are already an established professional, that next big role is going to require a concerted effort to land. How will you break through? While many factors are important, one “must have” is a strong portfolio that makes it clear to your potential employer or client that you have what it takes to succeed in the role. Further, knowing that your portfolio is likely to be reviewed before you even get invited to an interview, what can you do to convey your skills, approach, and fit before you even step through the door?

#1 Know Your Role

It seems obvious, but it can actually be quite challenging to put a finger on exactly what type of role you are seeking as a designer. As our field evolves, more and more facets of design specialization emerge. Are you aiming for a role as a visual designer? UX designer? Interaction designer? Are you a specialist or a generalist? Do you want to work on desktop or mobile projects? What about emerging technologies like VR and IoT? Do you want to work for a small company or a large one? Work deeply on one product, or with multiple clients at an agency or as a freelancer?

If you don’t already know the answers to these questions, especially as a beginner, make a decision; while you can always change course, it’s vital to have clarity on your primary pursuit. Once you carve out a direction, you will feel more comfortable putting together a cohesive body of work in support of your objectives. If you already have a broad array of work under your belt, you’ll also have to make some decisions about the right work to showcase for the right role. Fortunately, publishing your portfolio online makes it incredibly easy to experiment with what pieces you display at any given time. If you are a generalist, think about how can you identify the common thread in your work and tie it all together.

#2 Know Your Audience

Just as important as knowing your role is knowing the company or client you are seeking to work with. Do they work primarily with visually elaborate designs, or a simpler and cleaner design aesthetic? Is there a focus on consumer products, or complex business products? No matter your preference, it is a smart choice to showcase portfolio pieces that will be relevant to your audience. If you find you’re short on the type of pieces you know are needed, identify a project that would double as an ideal addition portfolio piece.

Another key question is whether you will be a specialist or a generalist. Something I personally enjoy about working at Dom & Tom is our diversity of clients and projects, and being able to adapt and call upon a variety of skills is incredibly valuable. Choose what works best for your innate talents and preferences, and that will lead to successful engagements. That means that it’s equally important to know yourself as it is to know your audience. Which leads us to…

#3 Just Be You, And Keep Working At It!

We have a fun obsession with robots at Dom & Tom, but what really makes things work around here is the people. Use your portfolio to communicate who you are as a person because who we are as people informs so much of who we are as designers. It might be a personal statement in your portfolio, or by simply letting your work reflect who you are and your design ethos.

It can be overwhelming to keep up with the leading designers in our industry, especially when we’re just starting out. By all means, go ahead and emulate that really cool design that inspired you. Take cues from successful designers. And at the end of the day, let that inform your own personal style. Through experience, you will discover your unique strengths and preferences, and that is why you will land that project or job you’ve been eyeing – because you are uniquely suited to it.

#4 Highlight Positive Outcomes

The value of any work is measured by resulting outcomes. While some portfolio pieces – especially for a beginning designer – may simply be created to demonstrate design skills, the most effective pieces are real work created for a real audience. And real work is evaluated on its effectiveness more than anything. Focus on two types of measures of effectiveness: objective and subjective.

Objective feedback is rooted in metrics and KPI’s (key performance indicators):

  • “This redesign resulted in a 35% increase in conversion rates.”
  • “Shopping cart abandonment decreased by 60% after implementing these changes.”
  • “Sign-up rates exceeded the industry average by 250%.”
  • “Engagement increased by 100%, with users logging in 4x per week instead of 2x.”

Subjective feedback is an evaluation of your work by a key stakeholder:

  • “Susan quickly grasped our needs and translated them into an effective design.”
  • “Jason was a true professional – a great communicator and easy to work with.”
  • “The quality of Sarah’s work was excellent. Our team was incredibly happy with the results.”

Nothing speaks louder than positive outcomes. Do good work, measure and keep track of your successes, and be proud to share the results. Ask key stakeholders if they would be willing to write a brief testimonial to include in your portfolio, and they more than likely will say yes if it was a successful project.

#5 Keep It Current

Design is an evolving field, especially in the digital industry. What have you been working on most recently? How are you keeping current with trends and showing that you are capable of adapting to change? Your portfolio can demonstrate that certain principles of design are universally applicable across any medium and industry, and that continuous learning keeps you current in the ever-changing world of design.

Follow these five guidelines, and your portfolio is sure to help propel you to your next breakthrough role!

Are you a designer looking for your next role? Dom & Tom is growing! We have been named one of the Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Companies in America for three years running. Check out our Careers page to view available positions.