Bookmark Beat: EP 11

The highs and lows of portfolios

Happy Friday! It's 11/11/22 and no matter what date format you prefer (DD/MM/YY for the win), it's a very cool date to be alive (11+11=22 🀯). This beat, I'll be sharing my thoughts on what makes a good portfolio and why I think it's silly we use them as screening tools.

Is this your first time reading the beat? Then check out the archive and, if you haven't already, subscribe on Substack

An intro: Building intimacy and asking the right questions

So I just finished reading Plays Wells With Others, a tongue-in-cheek book about the sociology, psychology and the weird human stuff we do to make, keep and destroy relationships. I really liked it, despite not really liking the ilk of Gladwell, Carnegie and Covey. What I especially enjoyed was Barker's practical tips for how to push back on shallow small talk and into the stuff that can really bring folks closer together (or, at the very least, help you realize you do not want to be friends with someone).

One of these methods was asking Arthur Aron’s Intimacy-Building Questions which include bangers like:

How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?


Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?

There's also some classics like:

Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?

but what I find most interesting about these questions is that they open up avenues for other questions. I love asking “why?” to figure out what beliefs, values and assumptions are hiding beneath gut reactions to things. In a conversation with these questions to draw upon, I can imagine how much more interesting the answers to those “whys” might be…

I'm looking forward to trying these out at Thanksgiving in a few weeks πŸ˜‰


Let's talk about portfolios

If you've ever asked me “how do I get a job in design?” you've probably heard me rant about portfolios. I really don't like portfolios. I think they're a hold over from one of the many origins of product/ux/web/app/service/org/user-centered design - the field of graphic design. When I'm hiring or partnering with a graphic designer, an illustrator or artist, I find portfolios to be an invaluable step in figuring out if there's a “fit” between their preferred/practiced style and my project's needs…

But when I'm looking to hire, work with, or learn more about a product designer, a portfolio does the opposite. Rather than helping me identify skills that could signal a “fit”, I find that I'm more likely to notice disqualifiers:

  • They skipped a research step there
  • They totally didn't need to make a sitemap to solve this problem
  • The UI doesn't follow generally-accepted layout principles / the guidelines for that platform
  • etc.

Unlike the graphic design portfolio, a review of a design, research or product portfolio is more likely to distance me from a candidate than make me feel like their skills align with my project/team/company's needs.

And I know I'm not the only one.

On LinkedIn, Twitter and the dozen or so Slack groups I'm in, I constantly witness design hiring managers lament about the “lack of quality” they see in portfolios. They pick nits and say that there's thousands of candidates to screen so applicants have to have a good portfolio to “stand out above the crowd.”

Yet, early or career-transition designers have only class/personal projects to show - so even if their website is gorgeous they'll get dinged on having work that “doesn't match our process” or “is amateurish”. Mid-to-late career designers are busy building great products at work! To ask them to do additional unpaid labor to prove that they are, in fact, good at the thing they spend all day doing (and getting paid to do) feels a bit silly.

Yet, when we apply for a job, we need to do it. And not just to make it in the door. Designers also have to do portfolio presentations, take-home assignments and a bunch of interviews. I don't think we should do it this way… but I've already covered that.

Let's talk about “getting in the door”

Applying for a design job by Jess Rosenberg (Director @ Webflow) covers all the “right things” to do in an industry where we still rely on visuals, recommendations and pedigree to decide who should join or team. At the moment, it's my favorite resource to point forks to when they are preparing to apply to a new position.

From formatting your resume correctly to making sure that your portfolio “tells a story”, these steps enable design candidates to not only signal “I'm qualified to do this work” but also “I didn't make any of the faux pas that will make you feel better about kicking me out of your overflowing candidate pool.”

I've done this too. I've cleaned up my resume and remade my ugly, but easy-to-follow, Google Slide deck in Figma. I pushed past my discomfort of sending along these highly-visual artifacts without any of talk track or necessary context to go with them. I've built my brand as a “first designer”, mentor and consultant so that I could bridge the chasm between submitting an application and the first time I managed to get a call with a hiring manager. Because, it turns out, that's where “the fit” happens.

No matter how much screening we do up-front, the only place you can really tell that product designer is a “fit” is when you talk to them.

I always ask, “Tell me about a project you most enjoyed working on. Walk me through what you did and your favorite parts of the process?” There's no “right answer” to the question. There's no formatting errors I can kick them out for not following. There's just one human telling another human what they most enjoy about their work. Sure, there's follow-up questions about dealing with conflict, deciding on methodologies and all the other criteria that goes into “skills evaluation” but it's also two-sided. There's give and take.

Getting off my soapbox

I don't know how we're going to deal with the overwhelming number of applicants to every design opening. But I strongly believe that the answer does not lie in spending time on a non-human interface (a portfolio) to scale the evaluation of humans in a human-centered field.

I hope that, in the future, portfolios either don't exist or they do as much for candidates as they currently do for hiring managers. In my portfolio, I do my best to share my identity, beliefs and stories within it. My portfolio attempts to simulate the conversation I'd otherwise have in a hiring conversation. It rejects the company, if needed.

I know there haven't been a lot of bookmarks in this post, so far. So I'd like to end this section with a video from deep in my bookmarks: a presentation by Susan Kare, the Iconographer behind Apple's classic icons, about her career in technology. It's a great reminder that your work doesn't have to tell one cohesive story and that it's OK to take a job that, to quote Susan, “sound[s] much better than the job [you have]… [despite not] really know anything about computers or anything.”

Coda: Why doesn't NYTimes actually cover video games?

Video games have played a huge part in my life. They've changed the way I see the world and told stories I would have otherwise never heard. Yet, despite being a $200 billion industry, they are still viewed as a niche sub-culture. Clive Thompson, writer at NYTimes and Wired, has some explanation for that in his recent Medium article, Why Games Criticism Never Went Mainstream.

I find it interesting that, despite writing for two of the biggest tech columns in the world, Clive still had to post this reflection on his personal blog. Games are art. But they're also different than other mediums - since they require significantly more participation than paintings, movies or theater.

It's certainly something that deserves more discussion… perhaps another time πŸ˜‰

There will be no tweet of the week this week. I'm taking a break from consuming Twitter (perhaps indefinitely), given the amount of drama on the platform.

Do you agree with my opinion on portfolios? Or am I totally off-base? Let me know! Reply to this newsletter, subscribe or share it with a friend!

Either way, see ya next beat πŸ₯πŸ˜ŽπŸ₯