Much Ado About Portfolio

Note: This is Part 21 of the Ruminations for Aspiring Designers series.

Would you rather be a UX/UI designer who creates beautiful but unusable designs, or a UX/UI designer who creates functional but unattractive designs?

It appears that most designers prefer the first option. At least according to their portfolios.

Source: Twitter

In other parts of the world, 3P means pee, poo and paper. It reminds people of what can be flushed into their toilet.

But in the design world, 3P means portfolio, portfolio and portfolio. It reminds designers of what can be splashed onto their resume.

That’s a shame, because portfolio is often a reluctant reaction to the stupidity of market expectations, not a sincere expression of values.

Portfolio is a tricky thing that you have to do no matter what. There’s no flexibility in whether you should. You just should.

However, no one’s barring you from redefining what a portfolio is. In fact, you need very different kinds of portfolio for very different kinds of situations.

Plus, your portfolio definitely shouldn’t be the only thing available for people to see. We all find one-dimensional characters in movies boring or lacking. We love multi-dimensional characters. Portfolio is just one dimension. You don’t want to be that lacklustre one-dimensional character in the eyes of people who might otherwise hire you.

You need more than a portfolio. You need a presence. Besides your physical presence, you also need a digital presence. It’s exactly like designing any other thing: what are the channels where people can find more about you and your work? How easy is it for them to access those relevant information? What dimensions do you reveal and where? Those are the questions to ponder.

I never really had what people commonly call a portfolio, while I did have something remotely similar to it in one way or another. I had one in my Dropbox – several folders of embarrassingly outdated screenshots, diagrams and documents. I had one on my website, where I called it portquarto because I thought it’s not quite a portfolio. I had an even older PDF deck, which has lost to time.

The reservation I have about portfolio is that, it’s a backward-looking thing. It feels wrong showing something I used to be proud of but that which now I feel embarrassed about. It doesn’t matter what it is, there simply aren’t that many things in the past that which you’re absolutely proud of. Perhaps even fewer at work.

You see, portfolio is a tiny bit like pornography – maybe the resulting arousal is real, but it’s also inevitably rather shallow.

A deeper problem, perhaps, is that it relies too much on visuals. There are great advices from veteran practitioners, suggesting that you can describe what you did even when it’s not something visual. But let’s be honest – few people read that much, maybe especially when your portfolio is the only way through which they get to know your expertise or work experience, and particularly so when people don’t even have the time to read carefully (do you really want to know how many resumes and portfolios a hiring manager looks at every day? No, you don’t.).

Long story short, I kind of dislike this whole portfolio thing. I don’t know which case it is, it never did me any good therefore I dislike it, or I dislike it therefore it never did me any good.

But I need a portfolio too. Eventually, I’d need to have something to show for people to look at and, hopefully, think “hmm… this guy did some interesting work.”

So do you.

Here are three simple ways to start–

Firstly, find some good advices. For example, Ian Fenn is pretty well-known for UX portfolios, and he’s got a book on it.

Secondly, explore how your portfolio relates to yourself as a person or to your personality. To others who look at your portfolio, you’re a brand. What’s your brand? Maybe you need a brand vision. Sometimes I tend to think that, maybe my blog is part of my portfolio because it tells much louder than my visuals can ever do, even when I do have some visuals.

Lastly, duh, research and test. Start with something, anything. Ask people for feedback, then iterate and refine. Ask anyone you can grab. Grab me if you’d like. Some feedback may surprise you.

A designer’s 3P shouldn’t be pornographic. It should be problem framing, problem solving and portfolio.

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