Student Portfolio Review

I get asked to review a lot of student or recent graduate portfolios, and I see a lot more come through our online career board. Many people, regardless of experience, often overlook some of the basics every portfolio should have.

Think about a portfolio—what is it’s purpose? It’s not a time capsule or a year book, merely capturing how you spent your time. It’s purpose it to show me the type of work you love doing, and the type of work you want to keep doing.

Tell me about the process

In almost every job interview, the interviewer will say ‘Now, let’s take a look at your portfolio...’. Your portfolio should tell a story. It can be how you’ve matured as a designer. Or how multi-faceted you are. Or how your unique process or point of view separates you from the rest. Whatever that story is, know it. When building your portfolio, plan the narrative of how you will walk people through it.

I want to know how you did all this great work, and that you can do it again for my team. So tell me. Tell me how you came to the refined problem, and how you came to the final solution.

Notice I say how you came to the solution, rather than what the solution is. In most cases, I don’t care about the final product concept. And as you get further in your career, non disclosure agreements might prevent you from telling me what the solution is. Rather, I want to know how you got there. What was the process? What methods did you use? What challenges did you have to overcome? What did you learn from a process and self-improvement perspective?

As you explain your process, I can get a clear glimpse of how you’d contribute on my team.

Tell me what you did

College is full of group projects—they’re invaluable at teaching you real-world lessons, both about your topic of study and people. When showing work in your portfolio, tell me what role you played in each part. Sometimes you’re responsible for the big, sexy showpiece. Other times you’re more of a supporting actor, running the project management side of things, or digitizing copious amounts notes. That translates to the real world—we need team players that can do both, and strive to fill gaps and make the team better. This shows flexibility and teamwork. This is important.

Tell me why I need you

This one can be a little bit tricky. I don’t want you to sell me on you—that’s part of the interview. But I want to see how you would be able to fit on my team. What gap are you filling? How will you contribute?

I often tell younger designers and recent grads to think about implementation. Often times you’re designing work for a fictional company or nonprofit, which means the design work never go beyond the design. But tell me about what implementation would look like.

What documentation would you provide for the engineering team—these could be specs, red-lines, link to documentation, etc. How would it scale? How will other designers build on your work? Abstract-out the design language into a system. Show best practices on how to use existing design elements, and the rules for which to extend the design language. This will help mature your design work itself, and shows you’re able to fit in a larger design pipeline.

Tell me about you

Now that we got the hard part out of the way, tell me about you. I don’t mean tell me about your favorite vacation spot, or favorite band. But rather, what part of the design process is your favorite? What type of problems do you like to solve? What type of teams do you like working on? What role in the team do you thrive in?

Colleges focus on giving you a lot of different skills and experiences in hope one or two really click. Tell me what clicked for you, and what you want to continue doing.


Lastly, relax. A portfolio isn’t a legal document. It doesn’t have to be stuffy or dry. Let some of your personality seep through the words to give me an idea of who you are. Remember you audience, however; I wouldn’t go overboard. But it’s okay to have a little fun show through. That’s why we want to hire you, anyway.

How I Run One-on-Ones

One-on-one meetings with your staff are key to maintaining clear lines of communication and an healthy team culture.

Early-on when building my team, I wasn’t doing one-on-ones. I was busy and the team was small. But soon it became clear these sessions needed to happen—balls getting dropped and miscommunication.

To get started, I booked the first meeting for a full hour. I explain the purpose of the meetings—dedicated time for us to talk about progress, problems, and goals. I quickly went over yearly business goals and team goals then we got down to business at hand. After this first session, we went to 30 minutes and everyone knew what to expect.

Ground Rules

Don’t Cancel the Meeting

This is the number one rule of one-on-ones. This time is sacred. It’s protected. Your team needs to know that even if they didn’t get time to raise a concern earlier, or if the morning standup wasn’t the right place, that they still have this 30 minutes to talk about anything they want.

Maybe nothing happened since the last meeting. Maybe you blow through all your touch-point questions in 5 minutes. That’s fine. Just chat. Your both humans, with similar interests. Build a strong bond with the time remaining.

Just Chat

You don’t have to be all-business, all the time. Be sure to catch up on their life, their sport’s team achievements, adjustment to the city, etc. This means you don’t end early. Fill the time with smiles and building the relationship.

No Computers

I break this rule, but only because I’m making notes or to-do items. Otherwise, my attention is fully fixed on them. This is a small thing, but it makes a huge impact on trust and communication.

Follow Up

Did you assign yourself a task last meeting? Well, did you do it? Did they do theirs? These conversations are to help improve each other and the team. And that means holding each other accountable and doing the things we said we were going to do. Good, sustaining culture doesn’t happen by accident.

Questions To Get Things Started

How’s it going?

General status check, but I don’t accept ‘fine’ as an answer. Dig a bit to make sure you’re getting a real status check. Could be personal or project.

What should change? What should stay the same? What do you want more of?

It’s important you keep a pulse on culture and team satisfaction. Questions like these can start to uncover changes that make impacts.

What's one thing we can change for you to be more effective?

We all strive to be more effective. But as their manager, you can actually make this happen. Listen to your team, remove blockers, watch them flourish.

What 10% thing do you want to work on?

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Let teams solve new problems in their own ways. These small projects can lead to new initiatives, products, and better processes. I only ask my team to limit these projects to one at a time, and it results in something useful for the business.