Here at Spotify Design, something has become very clear to us: you’re hungry for our community’s advice on portfolios! We rounded up your thoughtful questions on this topic and put them to four of our designers — the people who know a thing or two about hiring design talent. From the must-includes to the biggest pitfalls, via the art of case study storytelling, read on for their expert tips, accompanied by illustrated portraits by designer Andreia Loureiro.
How do you tell engaging product design and process stories in a case study?
The way to tell an engaging product design process story is to explain it like you’re telling a story to a good friend. The tendency is to walk through step by step and explain what was done at each point but when sharing in a public forum, it can get repetitive and tedious, both for the audience and the speaker.
Structurally, always open up with the basics:
The name of the project
How long it took
What your role was
What the team structure was
Then imagine you’re sitting down at lunch with your friend and they ask you “what happened?”. Keep in mind that your friend is not a product designer and has no idea about the processes. Avoid acronyms and jargon, and use layman's terms.
Why did the business decide to tackle this problem?
How were decisions made?
How did you collaborate and with who?
Remember to not only talk about the steps but the experience itself and what happened in between each step which led to the next.
Finish off your story with a reflection. Product design is a never-ending, iterative process, so it’s nice to see how someone is not only thinking about feedback and iterations, but also the process itself. It’s also great to share the missteps and how you’d like to improve on them in the future.
The lessons you learned
The skills you built upon
What the next steps were or would be
What you would change for next time
The way to be engaging is to be honest. There are highs and lows to every project, and you should share them. Talk about: when you had to take on a new skill because you didn’t have a resource; how you found resolution with your project partners, and when stakeholders rejected your work halfway through the timeline. Those may seem like things you don’t want to share but those are the most valuable things. They show how you apply the product design process in your own way and how you navigate the ups and downs that come with the work naturally.
As product designers, we know that the process is rarely perfect. There are mistakes, sometimes steps get skipped, and there are always obstacles. The way you tell the story should reflect the adaptability of the process, rather than follow the process to a T.
— Ashley Moody, Product Designer II
What’s the ideal portfolio structure?
The format: online portfolio or PDF?
The primary consideration when choosing between an online or PDF portfolio is what format you feel most comfortable and confident presenting with. Which one serves you best in presenting yourself and your work? You may want to consider both — for example, an online portfolio showcasing all of your work and a presentation you can tailor for an interview with a select few projects.
If you opt for an online portfolio, prioritize digestibility for both recruiters and hiring managers. Think about things like:
Hierarchy – what information do you want your audience to see first? What information is most important?
Scannability – how can you use clear project thumbnail images to entice the viewer to dive in? What visuals will best convey your design process and ways of thinking? Are readers able to quickly ingest and then digest your content?
Ease of use – is it easy to navigate and to dig into your work?
Site/PDF architecture – how can you demonstrate your creative abilities and your organizational and communication skills via how you structure and present your work?
If you opt for a PDF presentation, take advantage of the fact that you will have complete control over the order in which the audience will see your work. Think through the narrative arc: what projects do you start and end with?
In both cases, think about how you can thoughtfully craft a walkthrough and guide the audience.
The ideal structure
While there’s no one structure to rule them all, there are some general best practices that could help guide you in the creation process. Ultimately, you want your audience to feel something, so determining what you want them to feel at the outset will help you build the right structure to support your story.
Make sure to tailor your portfolio to its audience – what do they want to see? What skills are important to showcase for the role you are applying for? For example, if you’re applying for a role as a product designer, demonstrate impactful and innovative work, and ways you’ve worked with non-design disciplines to create something amazing. Hiring managers love to see how you’ve tackled a problem from start to finish. Entertain us with the ups and downs of the journey and share as much as you can about the process as the end deliverable itself.
Set the stage: showcase your background and experience, share your purpose and what drives you. Think about how you want to position yourself. What kind of designer are you? What are you good at? What sort of things do you want to work on? Where do you want to grow? What could you bring to the team?
Think about the first impression someone will get from the work from the opening project slide or thumbnail on your website. Entice them in with a single sentence about the project.
Provide relevant information that helps contextualize the project. Ask yourself: what is absolutely critical for my audience to know about the project in order to understand my decisions and output? Consider things like business needs, your role in the project, the phase you were in (was this a discovery project, a vision piece or were you improving something that already exists?), as well as the market and your team's mission.
What was the task at hand? What were you asked to deliver? Were there any requirements or constraints? What did you define as success? Are there relevant metrics that are important to share?
Who was the intended audience? What were their needs and behaviors? What did you know or not know about them?
Your design process
This is the chunkiest part of the case study and your opportunity to articulate your process and the different steps you took from beginning to end. Hiring managers want to understand your thinking, insights, and design approach.
Approach: explain your plan of attack
What activities were you responsible for? What steps did you take? For example, did you conduct any audits, review existing data and research? What methods did you use to come up with ideas? What inputs helped to create your point of view?
Insights: divulge your research findings
How did you interpret information from research sessions or A/B test results? How did you make sense of the information to form strong hypotheses? How did you derive insight and make design decisions based on these findings?
Design explorations: share the journey
What concepts did you explore?How can you curate the most relevant explorations to share? What design iterations did you make and what was your rationale behind your design choices?
Solution: show off what you shipped!
What is the refined design direction that was chosen? Were there any collaborations that took place to get to the final article (e.g. with UX Writing, Legal etc)?
Shipping your solution
What did this part of the process look like? How did you collaborate with engineering to ship your deliverable? Did you work with anyone else in this phase (e.g. Marketing or Editorial)?
What was the impact? Are there any results or learnings you can share, either quantitative or qualitative?
The outro (after your case studies)
Remember to end on a memorable high — this is an opportunity to share a final pitch and demonstrate the value you can bring to the company you are dreaming of working for! You can provide any feedback or testimonials here to show how others have felt working with you. Make sure to provide contact information to make it easy for the hiring manager or recruiter to follow up and get in contact with you (email, phone number, social links).
Consider the actual design of the portfolio (typography, hierarchy, guides/grids)
Apply design principles to shape the look and feel – it is in itself a design exercise.
Consistency of structure across projects
Create a structure that can work throughout – it helps to create a cohesive narrative that is easy to follow.
Be aware of the balance of text
How can text support the visuals? How might you concisely annotate the work and leverage picture language to not make the presentation feel overly text-heavy?
Consider a diverse range of projects
This can help to showcase your flexibility to adapt to different problems.
Make something you love
Most importantly, when creating a portfolio, make sure it’s something that you love and feel excited about sharing!
— Rosie Ferris, Product Design Manager
How do I keep the balance of creativity and professionalism in my work?
Good news! Being a product designer means part of your job is to be creative. I believe that the more you can use creativity intentionally, in this case in service of showing off your own design competencies, the better.
First identify what your depth is as a designer. Different from your breadth of skills, your depth is the type of work you find yourself gravitating towards naturally. What projects excite you the most? Are they on the illustration and visual design end, or motion and animation projects? Do you enjoy technical challenges and prototyping in code?
After you identify your depth, you can use it in a meaningful way to show off your portfolio projects. Not only will this help you differentiate your portfolio in a sea of submissions but it will also help recruiters and designers see what type of work you most enjoy, despite the specific projects you may have worked on.
For example, if you’ve got amazing visual design chops, I would hope to see this reflected in the layout, styling, and personal branding on your site. If you excel in motion design, you could experiment with adding little animated flourishes throughout your portfolio.
Vicki's animated portfolio site
The goal of your portfolio is to help others understand if your experience and skillset would be a good match for their team and company, but it’s also to understand where you naturally excel and where you might want to grow towards.
— Vicki Tan, Associate Principal Product Designer
What are the biggest pitfalls to avoid when submitting a portfolio?
The portfolio only works in one screen resolution
This seems like an obvious one but if your portfolio is only optimized for big screens, anyone with a smaller screen resolution will have a hard time trying to navigate and read your portfolio. Test your portfolio on different screens before hitting the send button!
Sending a portfolio with broken links
This is a genuine mistake that most of us make at some point. Check that all the internal links are working and if you have password-protected case studies, make sure to include the password alongside your application.
Having a portfolio with a lot of case studies
Think about your portfolio like a shop window. Stores don't put all the inventory in the window; they just add the selected pieces they want to highlight that season. Your portfolio should be similar: choose 3-4 case studies that best represent who you are as a designer.
Having too much (or not enough) information in the case studies
Your portfolio should be easy to scan and read, but it should also communicate your process and impact on the project. Finding the balance of providing enough context without getting too much into the details is hard to achieve. If you aren't entirely sure, put yourself in the shoes of the recruiter or hiring manager reviewing the portfolio. Is this information necessary? Would it still communicate the main challenge if I removed it? Is it clear what my contribution to this project was?
Having only final mocks in the case studies
Final designs are essential but they're not everything. A case study should show your process, from initial sketches and wireframes to iterations on the final UI. Don't be afraid of adding things that aren't polished or didn't make the cut.