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Want to get hired as a designer? Why showing your best work isn’t enough.


As a product designer you speak to the world through the products you design. They show your vision and communicate the story you want to tell. All these stories (products) combined tell the bigger story and give a more complete impression of who you are and what you do best. And the medium that designers use to communicate their stories to potential clients or employers is a portfolio. Whether online or offline, in your portfolio you want to show the best you’ve got, right? And that’s wrong.

Well, at least if you want to get hired. If you are using your portfolio for historical purposes and want to highlight all your accomplishments so that you can sigh and feel proud about yourself, it’s fine. But it will not land you the job. Here’s why.

We all know the general design process. You start with a problem or vision and then that indescribable thing called creativity starts to flow. You get ideas, lots of ideas. Clever ideas, crazy ideas, impossible ideas, but you get a lot of them. Or at least you should. Next step is to go over all these ideas and see what elements or directions make a nice fit with the problem or vision you started out with. The most promising ideas are then taken aside, thought over some more and get turned into concepts.

Concepts are basically ideas that are made presentable. Often, this is the stage where your client or boss gets involved again. Concepts visualise your thoughts and are used to answer questions about the underlying idea and vision or solution to the problem. Concepts are great discussion tools. A bit of Q&A and if everything goes according to plan a concept is chosen to further develop into a final design. The final design goes into production, put onto (virtual) shelves and everyone involved makes some money. Good products, good results. That is what keeps a designer’s blood pumping.

Chances are big that you want to add this last success to your portfolio. After all, it was a lot of work and you have the world a story to tell. Unfortunately, nobody besides your client or boss and yourself really cares about your accomplishment, this fantastic result. Thing is – and recent studies at Stanford University showed this –that people often prefer potential rather than achievement when evaluating others. “This person has won an award for his work” appears to be less appealing than “this person could win an award for his work”.

Heidi Grant Halvorson in Harvard Business Review:
In a particularly clever study, they compared two versions of Facebook ads for a real stand-up comedian. In the first version, critics said “he is the next big thing” and “everybody’s talking about him.” In the second version, critics said he “could be the next big thing,” and that “in a year, everybody could be talking about him.” The ad that focused on his potential got significantly more clicks and likes. [Source]

For a designer this should make sense as well. Your new client doesn’t want to see the perfect solution that you designed for a competitor. Your new client wants to see what you can do for him. And because you probably haven’t designed anything yet for him, you have to trigger him with your potential. And not with your past successes, how counter-intuitive that may feel.

Showing your potential to a new client or employer isn’t hard. It’s done face to face. Once you’ve scheduled a meeting and you’re sitting at the table, you can easily convince the person on the other side of your potential. You tell about your background, some personal facts, how you handle things, how you would handle things, etc. You can use your resume or portfolio as a guide to elaborate on the magic that happens behind the scenes. Because that’s interesting.

But how can you tell about the good stuff without you being physically present? Show your concepts, especially the ones that didn’t make the cut. Because there is a lot of value in them, more value to new clients than the successes you’ve accomplished for existing clients. Why only show the tip of the iceberg if you can tell a more elaborated story on what is beneath? It’s not the destination, but the journey that matters. Show your concepts, show your process, show how you can be of incredible value and show your untapped potential. That will get you hired.

Note: this isn’t the best blog post I’ve ever written, but it very well could be. Go judge for yourself: http://veeel.wordpress.com/author/riemersma

About the author: Jelmer Riemersma is co-founder of Veeel designers in Amsterdam with an ongoing interest for innovation and its underlying processes and models.

{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Advancedboy September 4, 2012, 7:11 pm

    Visualising an add is a bit different story than showing your vehicular graphics bare naked. Unless you are a top designer who is very fluent in sketching I wouldn`t suggest putting your half baked sketches amidst the finalised project. A good designer is one who is able to crank out some good products now and then, with a couple of outstanding hits. An outstanding designer is a bit different- his only purpose is to hold the bar and constantly show that he is unable to crank out a mediocre design or even a mediocre element in his designs.The outstanding designers are constantly noticed by lack of average designs and their top notch ability to sanitise any questionable details. Inability for a mediocrity is what sets the bar. Isn`t that what a customer wants to see in a designer? Just 2 cents.

    • Jelmer Riemersma September 5, 2012, 3:36 pm

      Hi Advancedboy,

      Just to be clear, mediocrity isn’t what I’m promoting. Or -at least- that is not the purpose. My point is that there is a lot of value in a designers’ work, even if it didn’t make the final cut. Concepts leading up to that final outstanding design can show that value. As a designer you should always show the end results in your portfolio, but don’t forget about the way how you got to that point. It can tell a lot about a person and his/her way of working. An important factor in getting hired for a job in my experience. Thanks for your 2 cents.

  • Michael Aldridge September 6, 2012, 6:00 pm

    As somebody who has managed to crowbar his way into a design job and has subsequently seen a number of interns move through the company, I have to say that I agree with this article.

    It is also important to remember every Tom, Dick and Harry will apply for a job with a CV and portfolio, you need something different to stand out, how about a personal website, video etc… Academia and a portfolio can only get you so far, it is vital that you have relevant and irrelevant interests outside work/uni that make you a well rounded individual and designer.

    Also you need to look at what the company do, if there design is biased toward engineering then your application must also be biased this way.

    Finally do not underestimate the power of tenacity… we have taken on unplanned interns, simply because they have made and maintained contact!

  • RhettR September 12, 2012, 3:34 am

    As a recent graduate searching for my place in the industry, I have to say that this is one of the most eye opening articles I have read about portfolio strategy. Thank you very much for this.

    • Jelmer Riemersma September 13, 2012, 6:14 pm

      Glad to have been of assistance. Good luck in finding your place and as Michael suggested: be tenacious as well! Good point.

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