Through our How to Get a Job at X series, we've talked with creative directors and recruiters from companies like Nike, Spotify, Pentagram, Disney, Shopify and BBDO. These people see dozens of design portfolios a day and might make their decision about a candidate within seconds of landing on their page. So we asked them for the secret to a successful portfolio – one that gets us a job at their company.
Given my work with Semplice, I have my own opinions about online portfolios. I know what makes me want to keep browsing and what makes me exit immediately. And while many companies echoed my opinions, others felt differently.
In more than 20 interviews, we asked each person these two questions: After seeing countless design portfolios in their career, what do they never want to see on a portfolio again? What do they want to see more?
Consider this your portfolio’s new year resolutions.
Less of This
“I have seen way too many design process diagrams. They’re all the same. I want to understand your process, so I can be sure you’re thinking about users and giving yourself room to develop creative ideas. But four bubbles, a few arrows and a bunch of words is just fluff.” - Katie Dill, previously at Airbnb
“Dull representations of process are challenging for me. Usually this is pages of descriptive text accompanied by flow charts. This could be the most fascinating work, but I don’t have the time to get into it.” - Mel Cheng from KISKA
"Swiss design templates. It’s crazy how people are copying what is meant just to inspire."
Trendy and Generic Designs
“We don’t want work that simply copies everything else. Our clients come to us to help them meaningfully resonate and differentiate. That means that we need to be on the bleeding edge of what is relevant, inspiring and thought-provoking.” - Karin Soukup from COLLINS
“Here a list of design cliches that turn me off right away:
Clean, fashion-y websites
Hipster logos with crossed arrows
Swiss design templates. It’s crazy how people are copying what is meant just to inspire.
Anything in Millennium Pink! Please, there are an infinite amount of other possible colors!”
“Generic writing and visuals. C’mon, this is your portfolio, the most important thing in your arsenal as a designer. If a portfolio looks and feels just like every other one, it’s hard for me to think that you’ll create a great product no matter how much you say you ‘handcraft websites.’” - Stephanie Liverani, Mikael Cho and Luke Chesser from Unsplash
“While this type of exercise certainly has its value, it’s not something I would encourage designers to put in their portfolio. Unsolicited redesigns lack real-world constraints, which doesn't allow us to assess your product design skills.” - Elyse Viotto and Kevin Clark from Shopify
"Edgy" or Complicated Design
“Don’t make me think. Convoluted portfolio designs that try to be edgy by challenging the way you interact and navigate with them can be a fun design exercise – but when your users are people who want to find out as much about your skills in as little time as possible, it misses the mark. Clear and readable wins the day.” - Erik Ortman from Electronic Arts
“We’re product designers so don’t get too flashy with your portfolio website. The focus should be on the work you’ve done in its purest form, not the packaging around it. I’ve gotten links to some pretty ‘unique’ websites where I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to view the individual projects. If I don’t know where to find your resume and clear examples of your work in that initial few seconds of landing on your site, then I’m probably bouncing.” - James Cabrera, Refinery29
“Things that make it hard to see your work, like: “Website coming soon,” passwords for everything, really old content, links you cannot open.” - Shine Thomas from Nike
“I have an aversion to designers doing their own logo for their portfolios. Better to spend your time focusing on showing your work, not how you can combine the letters of your name in a monogram. I find it distracting.” - Simon Endres from Red Antler
"Pick your favorite pieces. It doesn’t need to be for the most famous or biggest clients as long as you are proud of it."
Outdated & non-curated portfolios
“I don’t want to see every piece of work that you have ever done. Pick your favorite pieces. It doesn’t need to be for the most famous or biggest clients as long as you are proud of it and want to talk about it.” - Simon Mogren and Bart Mol from BBDO
“Magazine cover designs. I see this often with emerging creatives, as it was likely one of the pieces they worked on for a design course. They don’t really relate to the needs most companies are trying to fulfill, and often the designs look cluttered and poorly laid out.” - Andrea Trew from Flywheel
More of this
“We wish we would see more designers who write. Writing is great because it helps people understand your thinking. And your thinking is what ultimately shapes your work.” - Stephanie Liverani, Mikael Cho and Luke Chesser from Unsplash
"Our job will always change, so we need to know that you have the capacity to adapt."
“If you’re just starting out as a designer, a good alternative to unsolicited redesigns are personal projects. These self-initiated projects are a great way to build up your design and product skills, while also putting something out into the world for people to use.” - Elyse Viotto and Kevin Clark from Shopify
“I would like to see more personal projects in portfolios. The work that you did in the best of conditions and with full artistic freedom.” - Simon Mogren and Bart Mol from BBDO
“I want to see more personal projects, some experiments you did in design. People need to show more about how they think and see the world. Our job will always change, so we need to know that you have the capacity to adapt and find elegant solutions to the most diverse problems.” - Maitê Albuquerque from Mother
“I like to see people who present their work with care and intelligence. The best portfolios are ones that are comprehensive enough that you get a sense what’s going on, but sufficiently open-ended so you are intrigued by what you see.” - Michael Bierut from Pentagram
Thoughtful Case Studies
“I’d prefer to see the process through the work. Show me how you’ve gone from insight, to concept, to solution, to impact with a real project example.” - Katie Dill, previously at Airbnb
"I always enjoy seeing a bit of storytelling in a presentation. It’s such an important skill for designers and is a tool for sharing work broadly across teams and functions. Telling the story of your work — how it all relates, why it’s important — matters." - Audrey Liu from Lyft
“Seeing more work presented in case study format would be so helpful. Major bonus points for an animated prototype/flow. There are more than enough tools out there to add motion to your work (Principle, Framer, Flinto, etc.)”- Ryan Le Roux and Oliver Brooks from MetaLab
"Trying to come off incredibly senior when you’re actually quite junior could end up hurting you."
“Positioning yourself properly in terms of skill and experience. Trying to come off incredibly senior when you’re actually quite junior could end up hurting you. Be honest about the work you’ve done, what you’ve learned, and the things you’re interested in learning more about.” - Ryan Le Roux and Oliver Brooks from MetaLab
“They should briefly describe the work and the particular role they played. We get a little nervous when someone’s portfolio includes a lot of team projects. We want to clearly understand someone’s strengths and weaknesses before we hire them.” - Helen Rice and Josh Nissenboim from Fuzzco
“I wish more portfolio websites included little descriptions of what the designer’s role was in a specific project, or even pointed out some specific problems or personal thoughts about aspects of their designs. Too many portfolios now are just vanity shots and client name-dropping without actually communicating what was done. To me, the way you communicate what you’ve done is just as important as the work itself.” - James Cabrera from Refinery29
“We want to see work that is consistently good. The best portfolios take a well-rounded and curated approach to showing work.” - Helen Rice and Josh Nissenboim from Fuzzco
"I think it’s perfectly OK to start with a joke, or something that tells me that this person has a unique perspective."
Personality & Humor
“I’d love people to share more of themselves: What made an impression on you recently? What objects do you own that you love or hate? What are you reading?” - Stanley Wood from Spotify
“I wish more portfolios had personality. I think it’s perfectly OK to start with a joke, or something that tells me that this person has a unique perspective. On a good/bad day I look at maybe 20-30 portfolios. Most of the time for maybe five seconds before I decide if it’s worth exploring further. So my first recommendation would be to make sure you grab the audience straight away. Show me something great and/or unexpected. Ideally both.” - Haraldur Thorleifsson from Ueno
“From a product design perspective, I also prefer seeing work that is technically feasible, as it demonstrates awareness and respect for the engineering side of the equation.” - Todd Dominey from Mailchimp
"A portfolio isn’t just a documentation of all the work you’ve produced to date; it should be adapted with time."
Current design & curated projects
“I wish all applicants would update their portfolios at least once a year. Nothing stands still in our industry, so if you are looking for a new position you must be able to demonstrate that you are current in your design thinking and skills.” - Steven Boone from Disney
“Simple, curated books with one or two of your greatest projects are the best. If you are posting your work, it should be at a quality level you are proud of.” - Shine Thomas from Nike
“A portfolio isn’t just a documentation of all the work you’ve produced to date; it should be adapted with time. It needs curating bespoke to the prospective client to ensure relevancy both in terms of content and aesthetic, to demonstrate your understanding of the business.” - Michael Stephens from Virgin Atlantic
Breadth of skill
“I cannot reiterate this enough — I like seeing variety. Seeing your personal projects, work in progress or experiments demonstrates to me that you’re willing to explore new territory beyond making a polished case study. I love seeing your process, sketches and writing/notes that show me how you go about making the work.” - Simon Endres and Maureen Edmonds from Red Antler
"There is definite value in a portfolio that’s diverse and showcases a wider range of design thinking and skill. Showing your ability to think outside a given set of lines and emerge with something new and innovative helps further set you apart. Show your most creative stuff (the projects where you had more freedom to have fun with it) and your most challenging stuff, (the projects with the most restrictive guidelines). Both have a story to tell." - Daniel Myer from BMW
For tips on writing case studies, building a portfolio as a young designer, creating UX portfolios and more, check out our otherportfolio articles. And be sure to read the full interviews in our How to Get a Job at X series for inside advice from some of my favorite companies.