Building an outstanding design portfolio has always been one of the greatest challenges of every college student who is interested in design-related jobs in tech companies and the startup community. It is even tougher for me because my major is totally different from design (I double major in business and japanese studies), and I only started taking graphic design and typography classes during my junior year at Yale as an exchange student. In the beginning, my online portfolio only had work from design classes, and it took me more than a semester to build up my portfolio with design work that I did for organizations and startups at Yale.
It was not until I was in Silicon Valley this summer that I finally had a sense of what an outstanding portfolio should be. After joining multiple events and portfolio workshops from places like AIGA, General Assembly, Facebook, Dropbox, and Airbnb, I discovered that what we encounter in art education does not always apply to the startup world. Product design is different from graphic design: an outstanding portfolio for a creative agency or a traditional design consultancy firm could be seen as superficial in the tech community. Here are 5 tips that could help your design portfolio stand out if you’re applying for a product design role at a tech startup:
1. Do Not Overuse Dribbble (or Behance)
Nowadays, it is really easy to find beautiful portfolios online on Dribbble or Behance. While the design communities on these creative platforms facilitate designers to share their work and design inspirations, it has already become a cliche to many startups who are looking for design candidates. There was one design talk that I went to in which the design product manager said that he would never hire designers who just showed him their Dribbble portfolios during the interview. Many product managers nowadays think that Dribbble is somehow too superficial if you’re doing UI/UX design — most of the displayed UI work showcases similar design trends and highlights colour palettes, fancy button styles, and other superficial details without really solving the actual problem (if there is any). The article “The Dribbbilisation of Design” discusses this issue and shows 8 weather apps found on dribbble with only one that solves the real problem:
On Dribbble, you can find overwhelming displays of fancy lettering, illustrations, Apple-like aesthetics, and highly polished mockups that look perfect on every pixel. Many are just a regurgitation of design trends that most people know would look good — a new Apple logo design, a new Google homepage — without a more careful consideration on the usability, interactivity, and purpose. While Dribbble could be a good platform for sharing design just as how Flickr is for sharing photography, when you are actually applying for the job, you should break away from these common trends.
2. Solve Real Problems
Solving real problems is what makes product design different from digital art. A design that doesn’t fix a problem isn’t doing its job. Steve Jobs probably explained it pretty clearly:
- Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.
Designers don’t just make things that look aesthetically pleasing. They have to think about how to interact with people, fix parts that are broken, create new concepts, and arrange components to form better systems. Therefore, stop imagining problems and redesigning existing brands — the new Twitter logo, the American Airlines rebrand — without understanding the organization’s internal philosophy and constraints. Instead, try helping your friends with actual projects that they are working on — it could be a college startup, a student organization, or a new app that your friend is creating — so that you could have better access to their needs, draft out pros and cons, discover tradeoffs and offer real solutions.
Another advantage of designing for real projects is that you can identify your success (or failure) to solve the problem more easily. Sometimes, it is good to show how you failed in the past during your design interview if you are able to discuss with your interviewers your thought process and the things that you learned. Success can be defined in different ways, such as achieving an organization’s initial goals, improving certain key metrics, or gaining recognition from users, press, or the community. This applies to whiteboarding during interviews as well. When you are asked to whiteboard a design process during your interview, try to ask about the constraints and draft out problems that you need to solve and discuss how they are related to the key success metrics.
3. Show Your Design Process: It’s about the Ugly Sketches
Design process is the most important thing to make you stand out from other designers when the quality of work is very similar. People are very interested in your early thoughts and sketches, which usually involve ugly wireframe drawings on pen and paper. Compared with pixel perfect PNGs, the design process is more valuable because it documents your rationale and intentionality in curating different components of the whole system. Great portfolios often describe projects in specific case studies, showing all the previous versions of the product and explaining the intentionality of different components.
A proper design process should be top-down instead of bottom up. Instead of delving into the gritty details of grid, font, colour, and aesthetic style, designers should start from the business goals, the information architecture, the content planning, and the wireframing. We should also consider other aspects like interaction, product strategy, and ad positions (or revenue streams) before pushing the pixels. According to Julie Zhuo, the product design director of Facebook, her checklist of criteria for hiring designers goes through this process:
- The idea: Does it solve a real problem?
- Usability: Does the design show careful thoughts on how the product is used?
- Craftsmanship: Details, quality, aesthetics, and craft
Most designers spend too much time on the third criteria without seriously considering the beginning part of the design process.
One of my favourite design processes documented by designers is “The Making of April Zero” (now turned into a startup called Gyroscope) by Anand Sharma, which not only included his sketches but also snapshots of his research and sources of inspiration:
4. Link design with data
This is probably one of the hardest things to achieve for most designers. If you have data, you would probably stand out from many others during the design interview. No matter how a product looks, the ultimate purposes of design are user engagement and revenue. If you can get data from your previous company or project — such as increases in calls to action, subscription rates, and revenue — and if you can delineate in your design process how different design decisions affect the outcome, you are ahead of the game. Apart from using data analytical tools in UI such as Google Analytics, Keen, and Mixpanel, you can also interview your users or other stakeholders about the outcomes of the project for qualitative information. If you can tackle this case study like how business students tackle their interviews for business consultancy firms — which often includes breaking down the conversion funnel and drawing diagrams that explain the increase in calls to action and increase revenue — this would help a lot.
One good example of how a portfolio incorporates design and data is this website that I found on the internet:
This is also good website to look at if you want more tips for conversion-oriented design:
5. Design Outside the Container
Product design extends beyond the interface of the product functions. It is about the whole experience. For example, designing empty states is something that many young designers miss out even though it is vital to first impressions and conversions. How notifications are designed, how marketing emails are templated, how easily a user can transition from your competitor to your product are also things that you can consider. It could also be an entry point to a new feature or a product walkthrough.
There are many articles about designing for empty states that you could look at:
Many designers miss out this important step in product design. If your portfolio can take into consideration of the whole product experience, it shows your attention to detail and the maturity of your design thinking process.
Conclusion: It’s Time to Re-design Your Portfolio
These 5 tips are easier said than done. Even though I’m now working as a front-end web developer in San Francisco for my internship this summer, it will still take me a long time before I can actually fulfill all these expectations of an outstanding design portfolio. In the meantime, good luck with all the other student designers out there who are struggling with the same problems!