An introspective journey on portfolio building

While hunting for a new project and waiting for responses, I finally had time to put my portfolio online, showcasing designs I created during my career. This was something I postponed and wasn’t requested by recruiters until recently. But now, as I search actively, a recruiter asked for it, and I noticed many vacancies require a portfolio link.

Starting the Portfolio Journey

For UI specialists, showcasing design work is common, but it’s less so for UX researchers. I guess the differences between these roles are still not well understood. However, I still have designs to showcase from my past roles as a graphic and UI designer.

The process was more challenging than anticipated as I questioned how these designs would come across without knowing the context of discussions and decisions made during development. I could write it all down and explain, but who will read it? With 500 million daily Twitter tweets, 34 million TikTok videos, and flipping through Instagram feeds, no one seems to take the time to read, me being guilty as well. So I decided to have only the bare minimum of text.

Context and background

It has been years since I created ‘pure’ visual designs for projects. Since 2009, my focus has been on Customer Experience (CX) and User Experience (UX), mainly testing and interviewing customers. For validating concepts and features, I created wireframes or even detailed designs, but the goal was measuring interest or user-friendliness.

Navigating the NDA maze

Most companies do not allow ex-employees to disclose concepts or internal data without permission. This limited my options:

  • All my journey maps created since 2013 contained company data: product revenues, customer numbers, user traffic, etc.
  • Concepts drafted and tested with end-users but never released could be used by competitors.

In the future I might consider adding case studies without revealing sensitive details. I have considered using redacted version of the journey maps, but then it would be not insightful and similar as using fake maps. Thus, I decided to settle with designs from years ago when I was a graphic designer.

Digging through the archives

It was difficult to dig up old designs. Many think graphic designers get a copy of the final printed version. I am sorry to burst your bubble, but that’s not true. Prints are shipped directly from the print company to the customer or store. During busy weeks, I’d crank out two designs per day and send 10-20 final designs weekly to the printing company. If lucky, a mindful customer would send or hand over a copy during the next design meeting. Even so, this small percentage of designs can pile up over the years and end up collecting dust in storage.

I can hear you thinking; Can’t you use the digital files? Yes and no. Most designs were created in QuarkDesign and later InDesign, which I don’t use anymore. Final files sent to the printing press were usually large, uncompressed PDFs and stored on digital tapes and compressed to save space. For personal use, they were too large to keep all of them on my hard drive. I burnt some low-res version of them on CDs, but laptops now lack optical drives, and I never copied them to an external hard drive.

Walking down memory lane

Luckily, I found some designs on my external hard drive and kept printed copies. They brought back memories of companies, places, and people I worked with. The stories how they came to realization could fill a book: the discussions and reasoning behind them, or client’s personal objections to some colors, or specific requirements for gender, age, or race of people in photos. I found myself working long hours, often catching the last train home at midnight, just to find the right photo to meet impossible deadlines. How much has changed today, with tools like OpenAI, DALL-E, and Stable Diffusion.

I enjoyed brainstorming the most: finding solutions amid restrictions, then the thrill and anticipation of visualizing the ideas. And if it worked out as expected, then hoping the client understood and like the final result. A design teacher at my art school once told us, “If you don’t understand an artwork, the issue is with you.” At the time, I was not sure if I agreed. Now I better understand what he meant to say; the viewer’s lack of knowledge or openness to different perspectives.

What do designs tell us?

This brings me back to the start of this post; would it even matter? I doubt clients or hiring managers would read the stories behind each design, especially with 100 applicants per vacancy. Other than seeing the final artifacts, what does a portfolio say about the creator? Is it their design skills and personal style, or adaptability? Design work is a highly collaborate effort, and therefore is needed to acknowledge the input of team members and stakeholders, while navigating the dynamics of moving parts in complex project.

Design preferences are often very subjective and driven by personal taste. This often leads to arguments that not very useful. But in most cases many have trouble even articulating what they are missing or looking for. But in the end, for most projects, the bottom line is user engagement and business revenue. The emotional connection of customers with a design is hard to quantify objectively.

Final thoughts

What I do believe is that a portfolio will showcase is the designer’s career development, adaptability to different projects and branding styles. It might show the person’s eye for detail, sense of proportions, and color. In the best case, when the designer is in control of concept development, it can reveal the person’s creative thinking skills, though it’s rare a single person has full control; many are involved in the final product, often driven by HIPO (Highest Paid Opinion) persons. That’s why I included posters where I had complete control from idea to final design.

In the end, a portfolio is more than just a collection of final deliverables; a visual narrative of a designer’s journey from different stages of the career. Additionally, including testimonials and case studies can add credibility and depth. But then again, I still wonder if people (i.e. humans) will read it…