If you’re a design student or a new grad designer, you need a portfolio. Period.
You need a portfolio to show people what you got as a designer.
In this post, I will provide a step-by-step guide on how to build a design portfolio. To make it easy to follow, I will use the design thinking framework as our guide.
This is a written version of a portfolio workshop I gave in December 2021. I’ll share the presentation link at the end of the article.
First, we need to answer two questions before building a portfolio:
Let’s dive right in.
A portfolio is your greatest hit album.
It’ll contain three-four of your best work and showcase who you are as a designer. It’s your chance to flex your design muscles.
I believe there are two reasons.
Let’s be honest here. Who doesn’t want to get an internship or job?
This is the ultimate goal for a design portfolio, and we will focus on this when we start building.
Yet, it’s important to note: A portfolio is essential, but it’s not the single thing that will get you hired. There’s a lot more to it (interviews, networking, design challenges, and more). But don’t be discouraged. Let’s take it one step at a time.
Building your portfolio is a lengthy process. You need to decide which projects to include, plan out the design, and build the website.
But in this process, you will learn a lot more about yourself as a designer. What is your proudest work? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What is your design superpower? What are your design principles?
Think about these when making your portfolio. It’ll help when you’re applying for internships/jobs.
After going over the basics, let’s get into the meaty part of this article: building!
Have you ever heard of this portfolio-building advice:
Treat your portfolio like a design project.
I never get what it means. It’s so vague.
Thus, let’s use the design thinking framework and try to build a portfolio.
In this stage, we will specify our audiences and the type of research to conduct.
This is an important question that most people overlook. They’re so eager to finish their portfolio that they forget who it’s for.
In short, these two personas will most likely view your portfolio:
This is also a crucial step before you start building. Look into:
If you want to get into Spotify, go check out past/current Spotify’s employee portfolios!
Find portfolios that you like and don’t like and add your favorite elements to your portfolio!
If you know what company you want to work at, check out their job description and see what skills they look for!
After going over your audiences and research, here are two takeaways:
Remember, your audiences don’t have time! The common consensus is that you only have 20 seconds!
The point of a design is to solve a problem. Show what and why you did to solve the problem in your case study!
In this stage, we will do something very important: Self-reflection time.
Wait, Guo... Why aren’t we building yet?
I know. I know what you’re feeling. But let me explain why this is important.
Remember our personas?
This is what they see on a daily basis:
This is what it’s like when you’re applying for an internship or job. You’re competing against thousands of unique and talented applicants. It’s overwhelming.
Thus, how can we stand out amongst the sea of applicants?
The answer: Your voice and personal brand as a designer.
How should I package myself so that I stand out from the rest of them?
Trust me. If you can figure this out early, you will be miles ahead in the game. Because as a designer, self-awareness is a valuable skill.
After you contemplate who you are as a designer, you now need to select projects to showcase. Here are four criteria to consider:
Goes through the full design process that can be explained clearly.
Mobile, web, watch, VR/AR - It’s good to diversify the medium unless you’re specializing.
Goes through the design process and has measurable and high impact (#).
A personal project that you’re passionate and proud about.
The barebone structure for a design portfolio is as follow:
This is your opportunity to grab your visitor’s attention. It’ll establish their first impression of the site. Tell the audience who you are and display your projects.
How you want to format this page depends on you. Feel free to show a more personal side of you.
I’ve seen people have a separate “work” page with all their case studies. I prefer showcasing all my case studies on my home page, but it’s up to your preference.
Here is a common structure for showing projects:
In this stage, we will brainstorm the look & feel, structure, navigation of the site. Here are some reminders when ideating:
As mentioned earlier, both hiring managers and recruiters don’t have much time. Thus, grab the visitor’s attention immediately (animation, 3D modeling, bold colors, typography).
If a visitor can’t see what he wants with a few clicks, it’s over.
Make sure that each visual you use has its purpose. When done right, it’s powerful.
In this stage, we will start building the portfolio. We will also answer the most asked question for a portfolio
For me, the answer varies based on your preferences:
In this stage, we will ask for portfolio feedbacks. Here are some tips when doing this:
ADPList is a place where you can book appointments with industry professionals. It’s a GEM!
Know what you want to ask and be specific! For example, what’s your first impression of my portfolio?
Sit down with a designer and go through a case study yourself as if you’re in an interview.
Remember: design thinking is never a linear stage. So iterate and refine your portfolio as you build it out and gather feedbacks.
Woohoo! You made it to this section! 🎉
Here, I want to answer specific questions from imaginary personas. Hope this will answer a question you might have.
Hi Guo! I don’t have a portfolio now! Where should I start? (John, college freshmen)
Hi John! I will recommend first find at least three projects you believe is worthy for portfolio.
If you can find them, write out the project details in a document and start designing. If not, join hackathons, work on side projects, and take design courses at your school to gain project experience.
Also, look up designers and portfolios you like. Learn what works well and doesn’t on their portfolio.
Hi Guo! I do have a portfolio! But I don’t feel like it’s strong enough... (Isabella, college sophomore)
Hi Isabelle! I will recommend you to try to realize why exactly does it feel “not good enough” and fix them. For instance:
Add more visuals or infographics to break up the text!
Delve deep into your values as a designers & what makes you stand out. Then try to apply that to your entire portfolio visual!
Hi Guo! Why does everyone’s portfolio look so much better than mine... :( (George, college junior)
Hi George! This is such a common and valid concern. Imposter syndrome is real. And if not treated right, it can turn into an infinite rabbit hole of negativity!
I will suggest avoid “comparing” at all cost. Focus on yourself and see if you’re improving as a designer.
These “better” designers should serve as inspirations. They should not beat you down mentally.
Remember that it’ll take time and trust the process.
This is my portfolio back in 2019.
And this is my current portfolio in 2022.
Trust the process!
Onto the last section of this article, I want to share some helpful resources.
Cofolios: Showcase of design intern portfolios at top tech companies.
Awwwards: Great site for more experimental designs.
LinkedIn: Find designers you like on LinkedIn and check out their portfolio.
Bestfolios: A gallery featuring portfolios, resumes, and other design inspirations.
ADPList: A gem in the design community. Reach out to as many industry professionals you want!
Design Buddies: The largest design community. Feel free to join their Discord and share your portfolio for feedbacks.
Here is the link to the Figma presentation.