5 Takeaways from a Portfolio Critique

What I learned from a top designer

This weekend, I was fortunate enough to sit in on a portfolio review hosted by one Silicon Valley’s top interface designers. Due to issues of confidentiality, I can’t reveal his name or company, however, I can say that his work has influenced products that many of us use everyday. I can also say he’s a pretty great guy. Holding a two-hour session with a handful of my UX design peers, this is what I learned.

1. Never let anything distract your audience from your work

Within the first minute of the session, we came to a stop.

“The Chrome browser is pretty distracting.”

It’s a small detail but an important consideration. No one wants to see your open tabs or bookmarks and in general, framing your work in a browser detracts from the experience. If you can, go ahead and create a PDF. (If you have to present online, make sure to show your work in presentation mode.)

2. Order your portfolio pieces with intention

The order in which you present your work matters. Consider how you want to make a first impression. When you present your portfolio, you’ll be judged on how you make decisions — focus on demonstrating that first. One of my peers showed a usability study as his initial portfolio piece and walked us through how he conducted user testing to come to a number of design recommendations. The piece was great at demonstrating how to expose usability issues and illustrated the importance of user testing but it wasn’t effective at showcasing independent design thinking. For your first portfolio piece, make sure to set the tone by emphasizing who you are as a designer.

3. Be clear why you embarked on your design journey

Often, designers are caught spending too much time explaining the “what” of their project and never getting to the “why.” Your audience will be interested in who you are and why you made your decisions. Although projects that you present during interviews might be fascinating, the audience won’t care to focus on the details. They’ll want to know how you think through a problem, derive your solutions, and potentially see how you might contribute to helping their company. Remember to always explain the “why.”

4. Have a point of view

It’s your responsibility to have a point of view. The difference between a designer and everyone else is that a designer is supposed to be aware of design and how to improve it. It’s important to be user focused but to not rely too closely on what users say. Often, users will provide you with symptoms of their problem but won’t have the vocabulary or awareness to truly get to the root cause. It’s the designer’s role to identify and synthesize user problems and think creatively about solutions. Having a clear point of view differentiates you from other designers and lays a foundation to inform your decision choices.

5. Tell a story

As designers, we’re responsible for not only creating elegant products but also responsible for communicating about them. By nature, people respond to stories. Stories allow your audience to relate their own experience with the one you’re developing. Stories also present a clear beginning, middle, and end. On a foundational level, when talking about a portfolio piece, consider following this story arc — recognize, define, and develop.