Ask DN: Hiring Designers — what do you look for in a portfolio?

over 7 years ago from , UX Designer

Hey DN,

What do you look for when you're browsing candidate portfolios? What are your parameters for a good portfolio? What are your turn-offs and deal breakers?

I'm trying to gather some opinions for an upcoming article on portfolios. Thanks :)

EDIT: Whoa, that's a bunch of great answers! Thanks everybody :D


  • Account deleted over 7 years ago

    For me, I first look for details and the general aesthetic that's needed.

    Case studies are hard for many designers who have a small role or don't have the time to do all that jazz.

    THEN, I prefer to talk with them face to face about their role, how it went all down, etc.

    How someone talks about the work they did speaks volumes. You can see so much in their body language, facial expressions, etc. I also look for how often they mention the people they worked with. It's a fine line, but an important one. You don't want someone who says "I did this, I did that, I made this. I, I, I" all the time... and you don't want someone who says "we" for everything either.

    In one interview I had to stop him and have an honest chat and basically I was like... "Look... you can't keep saying "we" for everything... because from where I'm sitting, it sound's like you did nothing but execute other's ideas and wishes. Tell me what you did... it's OK to be proud. Tell me what YOU brought to the table." Afterwards, things went much differently. He admitted he was afraid to take too much credit and that it would look bad, but didn't realize the other extreme could hurt him just as much.

    Turn offs:

    1. Hyping up school work as if it were real-world client work
    2. Having a sick portfolio but absolute shit work in it (anyone can design something great they care about and they make the rules for).
    3. Portfolios with too much stuff. Cull it down. Make it clear there is more if they are interested. I have limited time... show me your top 6 things... and if I'm into you, I'll ask to see more when we meet or take a call.

    Turn ons:

    1. Good typography skills
    2. Nice grids/layouts
    3. Consistency
    4. Desire to grow
    24 points
    • Aaron SagrayAaron Sagray, over 7 years ago (edited over 7 years ago )

      Counterpoint to the "I" vs "we" nuance – someone that says "I" too much might be considered a prima donna. Design is a team sport, and I've seen that when several designers put their heads together on the same problem, the outcome is almost always better. In highly-collaborative scenarios it can be difficult to describe exactly who did what, since iterations and suggestions come and go quickly, and files get passed back and forth.

      If you want to know what someone brings to the table, you can always ask, "What do you bring to the table?" I think it asks a lot of a candidate (particularly junior candidates) to guess what type of answer you're looking for, if asked passively.

      2 points
      • Account deleted over 7 years ago

        That was exactly my point. You don't want someone who says "I" too much... nor "we". Balance. I have made the mistake of hiring a prima donna once... lesson learned.

        2 points
    • Ix TechauIx Techau, over 7 years ago (edited over 7 years ago )

      I fully disagree. The use of "I" vs "we" is often a sign of mirrored importance. Someone using "we" a lot is likely the most important person in the room, and vice versa. Plenty of research on the matter of pronouns that back this up. If someone uses "we" a lot we hire them immediately.

      1 point
      • Account deleted over 7 years ago (edited over 7 years ago )

        Absolutely good point. Think the difference is the tone in which they are using those words and in what respect. It also depends on what you are asking them. I/we can be positive OR negative things to say depending on the context.

        As a whole, "we" is very rarely a negative thing.

        In my example, my questions were constantly steered towards what his specific contributions were on a large project. We had already gotten past the part where we knew he was a solid team player, but then it was more about what elements was he passionate about, what choices did he drive/execute/etc.

        When you get to the point where you're asking him/her "what did YOU do then?" or "what other thoughts did YOU have early in the process"... but the responses are always "WE"... you wonder if they are overstating their role in the project. It's great that a collective group delivered a great product. I still want to know what parts you built, what parts you loved to do and what parts you would love to try and focus on in the future.

        0 points
  • Joel CalifaJoel Califa, over 7 years ago
    • You have a good understanding of the problems you work on, and you can articulate them.
    • You have a solid process and you make sound, backed up decisions. I'm only interested in seeing things that are relevant and explained. Pleeease don't show me a slide of the persona you made if it's wasn't useful to the process, or isn't useful to me.
    • Bonus: You get into the results. Was the project successful? Why?
    • Bonus: I get a feeling for who you are based on your messaging. Humor is a plus, but don't go overboard.

    Disclaimer: if your portfolio looks bad I'm not even going to read through it. Visual design is just one aspect of what I'm looking for, but it's a requirement for my team. If you don't pay attention to color, type, layout—there's no point in spending time vetting other stuff. That's always my first filter.

    13 points
    • Daniel GoldenDaniel Golden, over 7 years ago (edited over 7 years ago )

      I second your disclaimer. I've received ~20 portfolios in the last month, and (frustratingly) more than half weren't worth digging in to. These basic visual design skills are non-negotiable.

      0 points
  • Daniel GoldenDaniel Golden, over 7 years ago

    Hiring a Web/Graphic designer right now. Case studies are key. Don't just show your work, show how you arrived at your conclusions.

    6 points
    • Jay WycheJay Wyche, over 7 years ago

      Excuse my ignorance but do graphic designers usually do case studies?

      0 points
    • Josiah DJosiah D, over 7 years ago

      YES. During our last hire I looked at so many portfolios that were a just a Dibbble-like collection of work.

      Knowing how someone went through the process and what role they played is huge.

      5 points
  • Ollie BarkerOllie Barker, over 7 years ago

    While I haven't been in the position of hiring anyone, I often checkout others work for inspiration.

    When I'm looking at someones portfolio I really like to see the decisions behind their work. To understand some of the choices they made and how those choices helped to shape the project.

    2 points
  • Alexei BoronnikovAlexei Boronnikov, over 7 years ago

    The very first thing I look for in a portfolio (and emails) is copywriting. Then attention to typography and system thinking.

    1 point
  • Mark McConachieMark McConachie, over 7 years ago

    Can anyone show an example of a well done case study? I am never sure how much details should be in there... although I do know that it will vary from case to case.

    1 point
  • David C, over 7 years ago

    People who don't design (and preferably code) their own sites is usually a deal breaker for me.

    1 point
    • Sjors TimmerSjors Timmer, over 7 years ago

      Could you elaborate on that a bit? For me (as someone who uses the default 2015 Wordpress theme) it's important that designers chose the tool that is best suited for the job.

      I'd much rather see someone putting their hours in a clear case study on how they make design decisions than spending these same hours doing some 'pointless' html/css work to show that they can code portfolio sites.

      0 points
  • Christian BehrensChristian Behrens, over 7 years ago

    Besides obvious things like project examples or some background info about the process, I like to look at the portfolio's execution: Layout inconsistencies and typos are a good hint that the applicant lacks an eye for detail. I've seen applications garnished with "God is in the details", riddled with typos and submitted as a 60 MB PDF download link.

    1 point
  • Aaron Charles-Rhymes, over 7 years ago

    What you said about "Hyping up school work as if it were real-world client work" Whats wrong with school work projects

    0 points
    • Daniel Fosco, over 7 years ago

      School work projects don't have the pressure and real-life constraints client-work presents. Nothing wrong about school projects, just don't try to pass them as actual client work.

      0 points
  • Robin RaszkaRobin Raszka, over 7 years ago


    0 points
  • Denis RojcykDenis Rojcyk, over 7 years ago

    Those commenting about scanning other ppl portfolios, could you elaborate on the order of information you look for?

    0 points
  • Andy LeverenzAndy Leverenz, over 7 years ago

    My biased opinion:

    • Variety
    • Attention to Detail
    • How they go about problem solving (case studies) as opposed to just some mockup of a screenshot
    • If they submit their portfolio and sound like a human in their submission
    • If they attach a resume or write more than three paragraphs in an email submission I personally won't give it the time.
    • If they have a presence (blog, dribbble, github, side projects etc..)
    0 points
  • Josiah DJosiah D, over 7 years ago

    Some sort of look at a designer's process on at least some of their projects. For example, when I see a logo I don't know if it was simply the first solution that presented itself, if the designer worked on it with a team, if the designer quickly copied an existing logo, etc

    0 points
  • Eduardo EspinozaEduardo Espinoza, over 7 years ago

    Portfolios are great but personality is better. I've been in both positions as the interviewer and interviewee. But I will say that portfolios aren't everything. I'm just ok you do the same thing as everyone else on Dribble and you coded your own site but what about how you work with teams. Fast pace environments and quick turn arounds.

    0 points
  • John Jackson, over 7 years ago

    There are a few things that I look for in a designer's portfolio.

    • Attention to detail in high fidelity mock-ups. If you feel that a specific piece is good enough to be present on your portfolio, take the time to make sure that it's pixel-perfect. The elements of your design should be consistent; if you have 12 different versions of an input box in your mock-up, I'm going to assume that 1) you don't know the importance of consistency with such things or 2) you didn't pay enough attention to notice it. Neither of which are favorable. Make sure that your colors, padding/margins, borders, etc. are clean and consistent.

    • Tell me why and how you reached a design decision. You don't have to get granular; I don't need to know your thought process behind every little thing that you do, because some things are just "it's a good design practice." Tell me why you made the big decisions, such as your flow for on-boarding new users. Also, let me know how you reached the decision; did you spend time sketching out various versions? Did you whiteboard it?

    • You have to use Sketch. OK, I'm kidding. But really...no Photoshop fanboys/girls allowed.

    0 points
  • Brian HintonBrian Hinton, over 7 years ago

    What I look for is their ability to Sketch ideas, and visualize outside of an application. Pencil before pixels is very important. I also look for the ability to write, and describe a projects challenges, why decisions were made, etc.

    0 points