Hardik Pandya Notes   Talks   Work with me

Design Portfolio Advice

It aches my heart every time we hire, seeing the lack of thinking designers put in building their portfolios. All I have spotted across hundreds of portfolios is a consistent set of errors repeated time and again, and similar issues with signal-to-noise in the information presented. The end result is almost always the same – making it a very tough case to consider these candidates.

Now I’m not saying everyone ought to follow the same cookie-cutter approach in building their portfolios. Doing things differently to stand out is perfectly fine. But when the objective is to get hired or get the right kind of work, there are a few things you cannot take too many liberties with.

Most designers struggle to have any impact with their portfolios not because they’re bad designers, but because their portfolio actually gets in the way of someone trying to understand their work and their skills.

First off: If you see your portfolio as something ‘you need to get over with’ / a liability / a necessary evil, I’ve got bad news for you. Not having a portfolio (or proof of work) is not an option for designers.

With that premise out of the way, let’s look at the tactical tips to get your portfolio right.

Important tips

Your portfolio must communicate 5 things with as low effort as possible for the reader:

  • Who you are and what you have done
  • How good you are (proof of work)
  • What makes you unique
  • What kind of work you like doing, and are looking for
  • How I can contact you

Who you are and what you have done

One tip that was recommended to me by my mentor about a decade ago: Make yourself a punch-line. A punch-line that describes what you’re uniquely good at and what sets you apart from the rest. Lead your portfolio with this.

Coming up with a punch-line for yourself is no trivial work though. It requires you to think harder to go beyond the “user-centric designer” and “working at the intersection of tech and craft” drudgery. You need to be very specific. Punch-lines that are generic are useless. A good punch-line tells me that you really know your strengths well.

Here are a few good punch-lines:

The proof of work

A good portfolio gets to the point quickly after the punch-line. Time to show the projects. If you’re building your portfolio for safekeeping and documenting your work for posterity, you should store all your projects you’ve ever done. But when you’re optimising portfolio for a recruiter / hiring manager, you need to cull down your projects to select 2 or 3 top ones only.

Present your absolute best work – the 2 or 3 projects, and put the rest behind a link, accessible if needed.

There’s a trick that is often missed in how you title the projects too. Most people title them as ‘Sales portal’ or ‘Consumer app’ or ‘Booking experience’ and so on. These are boring. They don’t evoke any interest from the reader.

A better way to present them is doing it with punch-lines: ‘🗣️ Improving retention of food ordering app by 7%’, or ‘💪 Reducing onboarding dropoffs by 12%’ and so on – these give me the required context and also make me interested in reading more.

Picking the right projects also needs some thinking. Here’s how you can do the culling –

  • Go for variety of mobile / desktop
  • Different impact - Growth / Retention
  • A project you were guided on & a project you led
  • Project where you saved the day / went out of your way…

Story of a project

Put the one line problem statements right at the top. Don’t lather the narrative with too much context-building and storytelling. The reader wants to see your designs and you need a faster path to get them to those.

The one line problem statement is usually enough to explain what you were solving for. You can optionally explain why this problem was tough one to solve for, and the constraints you were working with.

After that, skip writing too much about your design process. Each company has their own way of working and you’d likely end up having to work within that system anyway. It doesn’t matter too much what your process is. What matters is the path you took to coming up with your design explorations.

Show 2 to 3 really compelling directions you explored. This could be at medium- or high-fidelity explorations. Along with showing the directions, write clear trade-offs associated with each of them. This shows your critical thinking and ability to understand the cost / benefits of UX choices you made.

Don’t show walls full of stickies and wireframes. Skip the empathy maps and persona diagrams. Most companies struggle with putting their users into clear and concrete archetypes. They’re often impractical in real-life use. Decorating your projects with them just gets in the way of the reader and your design work.

Once you get through the design iterations, highlight the one you actually ended up testing or shipping. Highlight the impact of your launch. One caveat here – absolute wins in metrics are extremely rare when you build products. Which means, when you show the metrics that go up and to the right, also show what you traded off in return. Showing the awareness of real trade-offs is a compelling way to show that you took ownership fair and square.

Then comes the time for what I call a ‘Wall of love’. What’s a wall of love? When you ship something useful, you often get commendable feedback from internal teammates, leadership, and most importantly the users. I love to read those in projects. Include them. It builds trust.

Verbatim testimonials

I love collecting these in my work. These are generic comments, observations, nice words people have said about working with you at different times during your tenure. Collect them as screenshots.

These testimonials often encapsulate what makes you unique as a design partner. When you collect them and have them handy, they can be an invaluable proof of how unique working with you can be. Don’t miss out on collecting these, and put the best ones on your website so the world can see.

A few tactical bits

Once you follow the advice above, it’s about avoiding a few obvious errors. Here’s what I recommend to ensure you don’t make those errors –

  • Do not use Notion or Figma for your case studies (if you can). They are not really optimised for such a use case where you depend on the other person being able to open them and navigate through them quickly. Notion opens terribly slow. Figma sometimes flat out gets stuck on the opening loader. I’ve had so many instances where I give up because even a maxed out MacBook can’t open the links.
  • A simple PDF document at a 16:9 aspect ratio can be a great way to show your work. You can design it however you want, still be creative and tell a great story through this document. They are very quick to make (I make them in Figma), easily shareable and you can even share confidential projects because they’re not public. I’ve had a few people surprise me by doing an amazing job at a PDF, they definitely stood out.
  • You can build your own website too if you want, I’ve always had one and it has helped me in a million ways. Jekyll, Squarespace, Framer, Webflow are all great ways to go about making one. But you’ll likely have to pay if you want to put it on your own domain.
  • If you go the website route, keep your project case study very very easy to scan. Recommend going with high contrast typography: Make large headers that help with skimming. Use decently small body text for considered reading. Don’t go beyond 3 font sizes. Don’t waste time on building out light and dark modes for your website. They don’t really matter much.
  • Do not make me request your case studies or share them without the password. Being blocked from viewing a case study kills the motivation to consider your candidacy because it adds delay. Just share the password.

Design systems projects

I see many people opt for putting a DS project in their portfolio. It’s an interesting one. My controversial take is that it’s hard to hire just based on these. A Design System is a commodity now and doesn’t really take more than a baseline level of skill to create and maintain.

But if you must include a DS project, make sure you really highlight the unique decisions and deviations you made from the norm. If it’s just a Red / Purple version of a sticker sheet available on Figma Community, it’s not going to be enough.

Help the recruiter help you

Whenever a recruiter / hiring manager opens your portfolio, they want to like you and your work as much as you want it. Your job is to help get them to that level of confidence in the least amount of time.

Every time you put them through hard work in figuring out how good you are, it weakens your window of opportunity. Remember: The worst portfolio is where the reader can’t make a clear judgment call. And when they can’t, answer is sadly a No.

I have a few more thoughts on this but hopefully this is sufficient. Your portfolio is probably the most high-leverage workstream you need to continue to invest in. It won’t “take care of itself”, you’ll have to make a conscious and concerted effort to stand out.

In the end, it’s up to you to become easy to get hired. Hiring is a matter of getting the hiring manager to a state of confidence and trust in your abilities.

So go get to work on your portfolio, and I guarantee that your portfolio will go to work for you.