How to make your digital design portfolio stand out, according to a chief creative officer.
By Stephen Clements, October, 28, 2020
Back in March, we lost three clients in the space of one week due to COVID-19: two big restaurants and a major retailer. Ugh.
Across the industry, we watched businesses hemorrhage and countless talented people lose their jobs. Collectively, we took a deep breath and braced for the worst.
But it didn’t get worse. Demand for designing and building digital products increased dramatically during the pandemic. They are, after all, the ultimate social distancer. Now more than ever, perfecting your online offering is key.
So in light of the economic woes faced by many in our industry, we find ourselves in an interesting position: we’re hiring. I put a post on LinkedIn stating that fact, which got well north of 30,000 views and over 500 interested applicants.
I got to work reviewing portfolios. And lots of them. Here are nine tips for aspiring digital designers looking to stand out among the crowd.
1. You have 30 seconds.
And if I like what I see, you might have two minutes more.
Agency executives are busy. Getting across your value quickly in your portfolio is crucial. If it’s a maybe, I may spend a few minutes digging a little deeper before passing it along to our design leadership – who pretty much do the same thing.
2. Show, don’t tell.
Not only does writing out your creative journey step-by-step not translate well, but it distracts from the work. I personally hate text-heavy portfolios. We’re in a visual industry where pictures and videos do the talking.
3. Product, not process.
On that note, don’t agonize over showing every step you took to develop a creative product or solution. Your portfolio is just a door opener. We can talk process in an interview.
Less high-res pictures of Post-Its, more high-res, high-crafted design images. It makes you look better, and makes me look longer.
4. Slick sells.
If you’re a visual designer, this is a no-brainer. But this still applies to UX designers, as visual design is a huge part of digital experience.
When you’re pitching a client, all deliverables need to look polished and professional. Don’t skimp on showing that you value this in your work.
5. UX matters
In the vein of “show, don’t tell,” the UX of your portfolio matters, too. You can’t say you’re a bad-ass experience designer if your own site’s experience sucks.
And I can’t believe I have to say this, but make sure your portfolio is optimized for mobile. We live in a mobile-first world, and I review a ton of portfolios on my phone in bed (yep, I’m that guy, and there are more like me).
6. Brand yourself
Your brand matters. You need to stand out in a crowd of literally hundreds. Make sure your portfolio shows your style and personality – not just your work.
Even your profile picture makes a difference. If you can’t design a picture of yourself that stands out, you will probably struggle designing anything that stands out.
7. Keep your side projects to the side
To be blunt, I’m not interested in seeing your watercolors or crochet side projects.
A few personal projects are okay, but if you’re not 100% committed to a career in this field, I begin doubting you’ll work out.
8. Don’t F up the basics.
This goes for job applicants in any field: watch out for typos, alignment mistakes, broken links and glaring errors. Double and triple check everything. Have your friends help you QA it too.
I once saw a portfolio that said, “I’m a designer with excellent atention to detail.” That’s a hard pass, thank you very much.
9. No is not the enemy.
No is how we get better. Take every rejection as a learning opportunity. Ask for feedback — I’ll give it to you straight, it’s the least I can do — figure out why you failed and adapt. Learn from your mistakes and bring that to the next interview.
There you have it, from a time-starved, 40-something CCO, with iffy eyesight, bad posture (designing for a living does that to you), and a relentless passion for people, products and design.
I hope it helps.
Illustration by Kevin Tudball
About the Author: Stephen Clements
Stephen Clements is Chief Creative Officer at YML. Formerly co-founder of Junior: the Rapid Invention Company, a product design accelerator for big brands, and before that, Executive Creative Director for AKQA, San Francisco, Stephen has over 15 years industry experience working at the top of the game. An accomplished product design and innovation leader, he created breakthrough work for brands such as Activision, Anheuser-Busch, Audi, eBay, Jordan, Levi’s, NVIDIA, Verizon, Visa, Xbox, and YouTube to name a few. Stephen’s work has featured in Wired, Forbes, BBC, WSJ, PSFK, the New York Times, USA Today, and has been joked about on Conan O’Brien. His efforts have been recognized in global awards including Cannes, One Show, ADC, D&AD, the Addys, the Webbys, and the Effies.