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

Every few year, it’s the time. Time to look at your work done 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 today, let’s try another approach: portfolio as a self-assessment exercise!

Back to basics

We all know the basics and we generally all started the same way:
– We searched online and found some generic copy-pasted “10 amazing tips to build your portfolio”.
– We had our teachers telling us “Show the process!”.
– And we made this logo… with our initials ;).

And that’s what most of the advices will tell you: “how to shape a portfolio?”, “how to make your UX portfolio website?” or “how to get hired as a designer?”. They will give you few tips to improve your content, your layout, what you should or should not say but they often forget the most important, what you should truly learn: “how to build your identity?”

Of course it’s a difficult exercise for me to give advices to such a wide range of designers with different levels but I’m sure that the tips 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 portfolio, at least not today. But building your identity will improve your portfolio.

Building an identity: Why?

It’s important to build an identity:
– To know about yourself: what you did, where you stand, and what you want to do in the future.
– To show that you’re aware of your environment: the design diversity, the job market and where you stand.
– To know how other people sees 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 stand”: as a designer on the job market; and “where you want to go”. This is going to calibrate your overall identity and help you to take decisions.

Quick example:
– You’re a graphic designer and have worked on 3Ds rendering 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 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.

It’s not black and white. There are skills you have to showcase because they are expected for your profession. But I’m sure you can get rid of some distracting details here and there. As soon as you’re aware about your posture, you will be able to decide which projects and skills you want to show or discard.

You will also be able to say “this is a skill in progress and not a skill I master but I’m showing it because that’s what I want to do in the future”. Of course you have to first prioritize the skills you master so let say if you want to showcase 3 projects in your portfolio:
– 2 projects: to emphasize the master skill, show that you are confident with it, and can use it with different clients.
– 1 project with a skill that you “discovered by doing” where you can emphasize what you learnt out of it.

Identity: where do you stand on the job market?

I’m sure that you have a posture as a designer, but do you have a posture about your career? Do you have a clear understanding about where you want to be in 5 or in 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 work.

If you don’t know then you should have a look online at “design levels framework”, it shows the career’s 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 core skills that designers absolutely want to present on their portfolio is only one row out of a 10 rows table.
– 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.
– Now you know what is expected from you but also what is not expected from you. Do not lie to yourself by using level 5 skills on a junior’s portfolio because other experienced designers and recruiters will see the lie.
– You can see that the metrics are not about the work you produced but about how you’re integrated within the company.
– The rows are metrics. Metrics is probably the most important but less taught information for designers. Measuring the impact of your work is the only way to show the value of it and let aesthetics on the side. Eg: “after rebuilding the website, we had 15% increase of visits and 5% increase of sales” is much more convincing than a laptop’s template with a screenshot of your design. Decisions makers and clients can criticize the colour you chose… unless you tell them it had positive impact and increased profit (the actual companies metrics).

To come back to the posture, the level framework provides a clear understanding about “what you need to show that you master” and “what you need to show that you’re learning”.
To keep the example of a 3 projects portfolio and imagining that you have 2 years of experience (level 2):
– 2 projects to show that you master level 2: talking about your confidence on how to “solve specific product capabilities” and how to do “Presentations”.
– 1 project to show that you are learning from level 3: talking about the given opportunity you had to “drive meetings” and “develop process for tackling challenges”, how you overcame the challenge and what you learnt out of it (personal emotions, soft skills, team work, …).

When you’re not aware about your identity, you can easily make the mistake to show doubts on a skill that you actually master or to show over-confidence on a skill that is not controlled. By being self-aware you’re making your identity more clear and coherent to others.

Conclusion: one medium only?

This article had to be longer but I don’t want to overdo it. I think you understood that by refining the topic from “a portfolio” to “an identity”, I am simply trying to get the bigger picture. Your portfolio is part of a large range of tools to communicate about your single identity.
While a portfolio is important for 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 where the recruiter will get the confirmation that you’re one true designer that can work in team within the company will get you hired.

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

While I would have a lot of things to say about each one of them I want first to insist on the fact that your identity is not only for the recruiter. Your identity is for all your network. The network is really important to understand where you stand, to connect with people, and to find opportunities. Therefore you must consider the different tools that you have available, how to best use them to showcase your identity and how each tool can add value to each others? Which ones are generic for your network, and which ones can be specially crafted to one job application?

In conclusion, the posture is a tool for self-awareness that will impact the work you are doing, the communication you are having but also the decisions you are making!

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