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A Different Kind of Portfolio

In the most vague possible sense of the word portfolio (collection of stuff to show skills), I believe that every designer should have one. Unfortunately, feel like the solution is still a very unclear and intimidating to a lot of young designers. I’ve tried several different approaches over the last 10 years, including not having one, and hope to bring some clarity to the issue.

Getting started

One of my favorite Andies (people named Andy) recently posted up a provocative tweet:

“Is amazed by the number of UX people who don’t have a portfolio or other means of showing their work.” – @andybudd

About 5,000,000 tweets later, while trying to clarify what he meant, he said something profound:

“As a side note, good UX portfolios tend to contain examples of design artefacts with explanations and justifications, not pretty pictures.” – @andybudd

This really clarifies, from a seasoned pro, that a portfolio doesn’t need to be just pretty pictures. As obvious as that sounds, it took several years for that to occur to me. Realizing it didn’t need to be just an end result of a compete website was very liberating.

What can I show?

I tend to spend most of my time on whiteboards, rough sketches, jumping right into HTML prototypes, and integrating thoughts into live applications. I only work to the point of the team coming to a reasonable expectation, then it’s on the next problem. This doesn’t leave a lot of complete or clean deliverables. This leads me to believe the better UX designer I become, the less chances I’ll have to prove myself through a typical portfolio.

I’m definitely not disagreeing with Andy Budd. He runs a larger company and his clients need deliverables to take to their bosses and coworkers. Andy has a vested interest in his clients being able to use his deliverables as tools to be persuasive within their company. This is a very good reason to give them clean and polished wireframes, personas, mock-ups, etc.

I, typically, don’t have this problem. Most of the artefacts that fall out of my process are only legible to my team. And I’m certainly not proud enough to show them off.

Proving your competency

Even with more seasoned pros, like Andy Budd, it can still be difficult to create a portfolio that proves anything. While browsing around his company’s portfolio I see a lot of great looking websites and explanation of what their roles were, and what they executed. I still don’t see much proof of success, after-the-fact statistics, or know what differences it made for the client.

This is leading me to believe a lot of what differentiates the hungry from the fat is almost completely dependent on reputation and integrity. Your portfolio will only show people that you’re competent to do a particular task and your reputation will be what causes others to believe that you’ll be better than the next qualified designer. Competency is pretty low bar, in my opinion.

This low bar of competency is why I took down my portfolio for a couple years. Those ended up being the busiest years of my life. I’ve recently cut back my hours to work on side-projects and added a portfolio only because it was getting so annoying explaining to everyone why a designer doesn’t have a portfolio. Seriously, I was to the point of punching the next person who asked me that question.

Showing how you think

Most of the value I deliver, in my opinion, is how I identify and approach problems while empathizing with the audience. Also, most of the projects I work on involve other designers and developers which makes me feel uncomfortable implying in any way that I’m responsible for the audience’s experience. The best option I’ve come up with to accommodate this situation is video explanations of how I think and work.

This probably has similar results to speaking engagements (or even blogging) in a smaller way. People can listen (or read) to develop a sense of expertise. Video-casts, podcasts, and blogs could potentially become something that replaces, or at least augments, a traditional portfolio.

In a recent article Playing UX Matchmaker, Andrew Maier builds a good case for designers prioritizing the “why” portion of a project the most. He also links to similar thoughts by Whitney Hess and Jeffery Zeldman.

So ditch the portfolio?

In short. No.

During my adventures without a portfolio I bumped into other designers that “specialized” to a point where they felt a portfolio wasn’t necessary. I was always skeptical of their skills until they could really nail a sophisticated interaction problem through conversation. I imagine that’s how a lot of people felt about me.

Or to put it like another one of my favorite Andies:

“Just because some designers lack breadth does NOT mean design is rightly chopped up into arbitrary “disciplines.” Inability != discipline.” – @andyrutledge

Ditching your portfolio too soon might make it hard for people to see your breadth.

Can you explain why?

To me, the ultimate goal is explaining why. Showing and demonstrating that something should be a certain way is a great start, but getting people to believe in that approach based on sound logic and reason is where you can really prove yourself as a designer. A decade into my design career, and I still struggle with this.

If you can do that on your site, you’ll be in good shape.

Posted on September 23, 2011 in Articles

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