Dear Design Martyrs: Is My Portfolio Any Good?

Posted inDesign Inspiration

“Dear Design Martyrs” is PRINTmag’s latest advice column from Debbie Millman. Debbie will respond to your most burning questions about design, branding, work-life balance, and so much more.

Dear Design Martyrs,

I’ve been showing my portfolio to potential employers who seem to like it and say nice things about my work, but I’ve yet to get a job offer. I graduated in May, and I am really starting to worry. How do I know if my portfolio is any good?

—Scared in Schenectady

Dear Scared,

I often talk to my students about the three ways we “know” things. They are as follows: 

We know what we know. For example, I know I’m a woman, I’m a lefty, and I’m a Scorpio. These are things I empirically know.

We know what we don’t know. I know that I’m not a mathematician, I know that I’m not a brain surgeon, and I know that I can’t read music. There is no doubt about any of these things.

We don’t know what we don’t know.  For example, I don’t know that I don’t know if I have spinach in my teeth after lunch. That is the critical thing to know. The only way to find out is to either look in a mirror, which you might not necessarily be able to do at that moment or to have somebody tell you

You must seek out information and opinions about things you don’t know or things you don’t do well from people you trust and/or have a mastery of the discipline you want a job in.

For example, when someone is reviewing your portfolio, don’t limit your questions to what they might like and think is good, also ask this important question: “if you were me, what is the one thing in my portfolio you’d recommend I take out and why?” 

Another good question for young designers to ask interviewers: Based on what you see in this portfolio, what skills would you recommend I work hardest to improve.

These types of questions provide a pathway to understanding what we don’t know about our work. If you start hearing the same response from different people, I would recommend seriously considering what they tell you. Sometimes we fall in love with work that is unwarranted of our satisfaction. I look back now on some of my early work I was super proud of at the time and wonder what the heck I was thinking and why no one told me how horrible it was (Actually, they did: when I didn’t get jobs I wanted, that was a hint).

When putting together a portfolio or a body of work to show people, avoid including things just because you want to show someone that you can do that type of work. For example, you might have book jacket designs in your portfolio because you want people to know you can design book jackets. BUT if the book jackets aren’t any good, you will 1) not get a book jacket design job and 2) not get ANY design job because the bad work obscures what is good. 

Here’s the thing: if ANY of the work in your portfolio is inferior or sub-standard, you are going to have a hard time finding employment. It’s better to have few things in your portfolio and have every single thing be something you’re deeply proud of instead of something that’s filler or a piece that dilutes the overall impact of your body of work. And if you don’t have a portfolio you are thoroughly, joyously proud of, take the sage advice from none other than Stefan Sagmeister, who said, “If you don’t have a portfolio filled with things you love, create a new one. Make the designs you’ve always wanted to make.”

When putting together a portfolio or body of work, try to answer YES to the following questions:

  • Do I love everything in this portfolio with my whole heart?
  • Can I talk strategically about every piece of work I included in my portfolio?
  • Can I defend every choice I’ve made about what I included in this body of work?
  • When receiving constructive criticism about my work, do I consider what I heard in preparation for the very next interview or portfolio review?
  • And finally, when showing my work, do the majority of people reviewing it seem to genuinely like and appreciate it?

This last question is the hardest one, as it speaks to something nearly everyone experiences. Many years ago, I read Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. It is very much a story about the dynamics of teamwork. One concept that has stayed with me all these years is something he refers to as “artificial harmony.” 

Artificial harmony exists when you’re in a meeting, and no one wants to “rock the boat” or create tangible conflict. According to Lencioni, business executives are often reluctant to confront each other when faced with differences of opinion or strategic intent. But overall, in business or not, most people don’t like confrontation; they don’t like to be confronted, and they don’t like to confront.

It is inevitable you will find yourself in an interview talking about yourself and showing your work, and you will not get the reaction you expect. Perhaps the response will be lukewarm or indifferent. But this will not be specifically stated or even implied. You’ll sense it. There is nothing you can pinpoint to “prove” things aren’t going well. In fact, the stated response might be, “This is good. We’ll be in touch.” Then you leave the meeting and tell yourself, “That went well! They said they’ll be in touch!” You tell yourself what they told you.

When those situations occur, the odds are you will not hear from them again. Or if you do, it will go something like this: “Now that we’ve seen your portfolio, we selected a candidate we think is a better fit.” That always happens. 

Whenever you get a sense that somebody isn’t madly in love with your work, it is because they’re not madly in love with your work. People don’t hold back their excitement because they don’t want to share their zeal in front of you. It just doesn’t happen that way. 

What I now do in these situations is state the following in as non‑defensive way as possible: 

“I’m sensing that you are feeling this work as much as you were hoping you would.” 

That instantly permits someone to say, “Hmmm, you may be right” or “No, I am just thinking about what you are showing me.” Either way, you know the truth.

Humans are deeply intuitive. If you sense someone doesn’t sincerely like or understand you or your work, giving someone “permission” to dislike it or disagree with you helps encourage better, more authentic discourse.

Also, interacting in this manner develops a trust that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. If there is any interest in you or your work at all, responding in this way will allow you to develop a potential plan of the next steps together. If you leave someone’s office with artificial harmony in the air, you will never recover. It might feel better at the moment to avoid owning up to a lack of interest, but in the long run, you will always lose. The more you can face the truth of the moment in the moment, the better chances you have of developing true harmony, as opposed to anything artificial.

Good luck out there!

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