Creating the perfect portfolio can feel daunting. How do you present your work in a way that gets you noticed and gets you hired?
Denise Burton, Senior Director of UX Design, and Alyssa Zuniga Pytel, Senior Recruiter, sat down to discuss what they look for in a standout portfolio, how to tailor your work to the role you want, and what mistakes could kick you out of the running.
Alyssa Zuniga Pytel: Your portfolio is your first opportunity to tell us who you are. Designers can have various titles within different organizations, so your portfolio helps clarify what you’ve personally worked on. By providing details about what your specific role was on a particular design or product, I can start to see whether you’d be a better fit as an Experience Designer or Product Designer here at H-E-B Digital. Having this information readily available in your portfolio really helps drive the conversation.
Denise Burton: Exactly, it's not about a title. It is crucial to showcase who you are as a designer, your expertise, process, and passions. How you structure your portfolio gives us a glimpse of how you see yourself. Ask yourself, "Does this tell my story? Does it give a good first impression?"
Alyssa: Since I’m not a designer, I use a portfolio to gauge someone's passion and understand their strengths, their weaknesses, and their overall design capabilities. I have candidates walk me through their work, and I notice what they talk about, what gets them excited. Then, I look out for the details of how they worked: what resources did they use, what were their roles and responsibilities for that specific project, did they work with engineers, other designers, product management, business stakeholders, etc.? Those tidbits help me pair them with the right role and squad.
Denise: The challenge is finding a designer with the skills and background to help us round out our organization. H-E-B has both customer-facing and enterprise needs. On my team in San Antonio, we're focusing on building best-in-class internal applications, which requires a range of skills such as workshop facilitation, system design, and data visualization.
No matter what they’ve worked on, every designer has a voice and that should come through in your portfolio. Even if the work isn’t the most "visual," I'll notice their attention to detail, say in how they create a clear visual hierarchy or blend research methods to better understand their users. The work in a portfolio should illustrate how you think. Can you walk me through your process? That stands out because now I know you are focused on the problem—and the opportunity it created.
Denise: I'm always looking for two soft skills that can shine through in someone's work—passion and curiosity. Are you passionate about users? Are you passionate and curious about solving hard problems? If a candidate has both attributes, you'll see innovative, yet thoughtful touches in their work. Passionate, curious designers strive to understand users' needs and behaviors and rapidly diverge and converge to find the best solution to a user's need. They go beyond common patterns and collaborate closely with engineers to deliver an experience that delights their users. Sometimes it takes a few artifacts or callouts in the portfolio to give the viewer the valuable context they need to understand the designer's insights and journey to deliver a successful outcome for the users.
Alyssa: It's really helpful to add in those moments of description. Context is key. Instead of just saying, "here's navigation I designed for X company," note the problem you were solving for and why you did what you did.
Denise: Storytelling is a huge piece of the job. It speaks to your voice as a designer: how do you concisely balance what you’re showing with what you're saying? That's a powerful skill to showcase.
Denise: The one thing that really gets me is grammatical errors.
Alyssa: We've had wonderful people who've gone through the interview process. The first round went well, even the on-site goes great, but then the presentation has typos. Our worry then is their attention to detail. Attention to detail is a top requirement we look for in any design role.
Denise: I'm usually a forgiving person, but typos are big no-no for two reasons. It's the attention to detail, but it's also respect. You should be showing me your best work, not something you threw together the night before.
You should always get a couple of folks to review your portfolio—it is really easy to miss small things. Plus, I like to get other perspectives—it gets me out of my head and helps me see things differently. Another designer can see where you've struggled or had questions or holes you might not have even noticed. Those notes can help you refine your approach.
Alyssa: Curating your portfolio is so important.
Denise: If you are starting out and your best work is in another area, go for it. Show your fine art, the student newspaper, environmental design, whatever. I had someone bring a sketchbook into an interview! If you've had a long career, whittle it down. Too much work feels like you just haven't gone to the trouble to curate it. If you've done more, tailor your portfolio to show where you want to go next.
For example, I've found industrial designers can become excellent interaction designers because they have deep empathy for users. They also understand how to both design and manufacture things thoughtfully and think systematically. So industrial designers could show work that illustrates the thought that they put into their decisions to create a compelling story, to help them transition from one type of design to another.
Alyssa: Using buzzwords from the job description or similar job descriptions on your resume or LinkedIn profile so that recruiters and companies come across your profile is completely harmless. But as a candidate, your design work should mirror those statements. Using the right terminology shows you understand the role you are applying for.
Denise: Think of it as the dress code of the office—I tailor how I dress to where I'm going to work, and I present work differently based on the audience. If it's a consumer brand, show work that's most relevant to them. If it's enterprise, showcase how you worked with multiple stakeholders, pushed beyond tables and dashboards, and crafted better ways to work. Show me you understand the business needs at hand.
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