If you want to build a portfolio, start to build your identity first

Every few years, it’s the time. Time to look at your past projects and update your portfolio. We learn at school that a portfolio is useful for job applications or as a freelance to get new clients. But really, what portfolios brought me the most is a self-assessment exercise. And years after years, I realised how this exercise was important to build an identity and communicate better. I was even able to reflect on my experiences which helped me to make important choices for my career.

Back to basics

When we first built our portfolio, we have all been through the same path:

  • We searched for articles online and found some generic copy-pasted “10 amazing tips to build your portfolio”.
  • We had our teachers telling us to “show the process and not just the result”.
  • And we made this logo for ourself… with our initials ;).

Look what I found on my old hard drive.

And that’s what most of the advice will tell you: “how to shape a portfolio?”, “how to make your UX portfolio website?” or “how to get hired?”. They will give you a few tips to improve your content, your layout, but they will often forget the most important, what you should truly learn: “how to build your identity?”

It’s a difficult exercise to give you these keys because you, readers, are all different. You have different levels, different specialisations, you are from different countries, … but I’m sure that the keys I am going to share will also help you to make sense of what advice is or is not for you.

So yes, I lied a little bit: we won’t see how to make a portfolio but building your identity will, for sure, improve your portfolio.

Building an identity: Why?

It’s important to build an identity:

  • To know about yourself: what you did in the past, where you are standing in the present, and what you want to do in the future.
  • To show that you are aware of your environment: the design disciplines, your level, and the job market.
  • To know how other people see you.
  • To show a meaningful and self-aware identity.

Identity: it’s all about your posture!

One of the best insight I can give is to have a posture. Having a posture is to take a personal position about where you are standing as a designer on the job market, and where you want to go with your career in the future. This is going to calibrate your overall identity and help you to make decisions.

Why is this drawing important? For two reasons.

1.Now, you can categorise which skills you are mastering and which skills you are discovering.

This allows you to have a more coherent portfolio. Indeed, when your teacher is asking you to show the process and explain your thinking on the portfolio, you won’t make the mistake again:

  • This is a skill I am mastering: I show several projects with different clients. I show confidence and quality.
  • This is a skill I am discovering: I show a bit of it, to show my personality and what motivates me. I can show a “learning by doing” mindset, explain the challenges I faced and how I overcame them.

Too often, we see students selling over-confidence on projects they had never done before, which sounds off, or showing doubts on projects they should normally master which sounds not reassuring.

2. You will be able to get rid off some of your projects and get back on the career track you really want inside of you.

Indeed, if you are aware of where you are standing on the job market but also where you want to go, then you can communicate better on your portfolio by showcasing the right projects. For example:

  • You’re a graphic designer and have worked on beautiful 3D renderings at school. You’re proudly exhibiting them on your portfolio but you actually hate working on 3D software. Then delete it from your portfolio! Because working on 3D software is not where you want to go and is not part of your identity.
  • On the other side you really want to do more screen printing and you like working with brushes on paper. But you have only a few prints made at home. Well, find a way to show that! Improve the ones that you have or make new ones. But find a way to include what you want to become.

Too often, we see freelancers complaining that they are receiving offers only to do work they are not interested in. But are those offers actually similar than the ones you are showcasing on your portfolio? Maybe you’re not realizing that it’s your communication that is bringing them to you.

It’s not black and white. Of course your profession requires some skills: some are must-have and some are considered as added-value. Once you defined which one is what, I am sure that you will be able to get rid of some distracting details here and there. As soon as you’re aware of your posture, you will be able to decide which projects and skills you want to show or discard.

Identity: where do you stand on the job market?

I’m sure that you can easily define your posture as a designer, but do you have a posture about your career? Do you have a clear understanding of where you want to be in 5 or 10 years? And what do you really need to do to achieve this? What is the path?
It’s funny how designers are claiming loud that “they should be at the decision’s table of every company because design isn’t only about aesthetics” but at the same time, have zero understanding about how to achieve it and how a company even works.

If you don’t know, and to focus on design only, you should have a look online at “design levels framework”. It shows the career path for a specific job within a specific company:

design level frameworkYou can also have a look at Progression.fyi: have a look at Zendesk, Basecamp, Gov.uk, Clearleft, Intercom, Snagajob Design, …

A few insights based on this table:

  • The creative skills that designers absolutely want to present on their portfolio is only one row. Teamwork, integration, soft skills, leadership skills, process, meetings are all important metrics that you must consider on your identity.
  • The rows are measurable indicators. Metrics are probably the most important but less taught information to designers. Measuring the impact of your work is the only way to show the value of it, i.e. saying “after rebuilding the website, we had a 15% increase of visits and a 5% increase of sales” is much more convincing than a laptop template with a screenshot of your design. Decisions makers and clients can criticize the colours and shapes you chose… unless you tell them that your choices had a positive impact and increased the profit of your client (the actual metric used by companies).
  • If you’re right out of school you are only “killer in 0, strong in 1, capable in 2 others”. That’s good for self-awareness and ego

To come back to the previous idea of the posture, this table can also be really useful. Indeed, if you know which level you are, you can now say “I am level 2, and I am going to level 3″. This should be translated in you portfolio as

  • I am confident on “solving specific product capabilities” and doing “presentations”. (level 2)
  • I was given the opportunity to “drive meetings” and “develop processes for tackling challenges”. I have faced challenges but managed to overcome them by doing this, and I learnt that. (level 3)
  • And it would be irrelevant to emphasize how you “established a mindset for how the team approaches its work” (level 5) because it would sound off once again. If you are just right out of school, seniors will directly spot what is true or not.

Again, by being self-aware you’re making your identity more clear and coherent to others.

Conclusion: one medium only?

In conclusion, doing a portfolio is a great exercise to gain insights about yourself.
For example, I am working on the humanitarian sector and my old portfolio was about my design skills. I realised that nobody would hire me because design does not exist in the humanitarian sector. So I changed my communication and said: “I am a communication specialist and my added value for your company is that I also know about design”. I changed the projects I was showcasing and I changed the way of describing my projects.
Not only I changed my portfolio, I completely changed my communication on LinkedIn or the way I was introducing myself to people.
This came as an evidence when I first reviewed my old portfolio.

This article had to be longer but I don’t want to overdo because I think the idea of the posture is really important to focus on. I think you understood that by refining the topic from “a portfolio” to “an identity”, I am simply trying to get to the bigger picture: your portfolio is only a part of a large range of tools to communicate about your one identity.

Emojis are showing “how easy it is to customize the medium for every job application?”.

Indeed, while a portfolio is important for the recruiter to see some of your work, the recruiter is also trying to understand your identity through the portfolio. No matter how good is your portfolio, at the end, only the face-to-face interview will get you hired. Because, it’s where the recruiter will get the confirmation that you are one true designer, that you can work in a team and fit within the company. So you need to communicate about your identity through the different mediums that are made available, with maybe different approaches.

In conclusion, a portfolio helps to define better your posture (self-awareness) which positively impact the work you are doing, the communication you are having but also the decisions you are making.

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