There are heaps of ways to learn UX design in 2019 — including self-teaching, online courses, and intensive mentor-led programs. But a common concern amongst students is how to build a distinctive portfolio that doesn’t have the “identikit” look that can result from even the best online courses.
Based on our experience supporting students at Designlab, we’re sharing 12 tips on steps you can take — both during your course and beyond it — to give your portfolio that extra something. We hope you find them helpful!
1. Ask to work on a personal brief
Many design courses have students choose from a set of provided project briefs. This is great for structured learning, but it can mean that portfolios of course graduates look a bit samey.
Where possible, you can make your work more distinctive by simply customizing the brief. Even just coming up with a different app name, brand concept, or backstory can make enough of a difference.
Even better, lots of courses will allow you to work on your own brief for one or more of your projects, though you might have to ask or negotiate with your tutor.
The key here is to make sure that it’s not too ambitious. Take a look at other project briefs provided on your course, and try to make sure that yours matches in scope and format, so that you still have the creative constraints you need.
Check out the work of UX Academy graduate Max Rosero, who worked on custom briefs for all his final projects.
2. Don’t sacrifice the details
On a schedule? So are hiring managers. Attention to detail is one of the first things many recruiters and employers look for in junior designers, so ensuring that everything in your portfolio is as polished as it can be could make all the difference.
Be especially careful about:
- low-quality mockup templates — it’s worth paying for good ones
- low-resolution images — re-export them at the right resolution
- typos in mockups and project narratives — get a friend or colleague to proofread
- inconsistencies between screen layouts within a project — ask another designer to check through
- presentation of wireframes and prototypes — go back and clean these up
- clunky placeholder text — replace it with something meaningful
3. Avoid generic solutions
There are many “right” ways to solve any given design problem, particularly when it comes to branding, illustrations, color schemes, and other graphics like photography.
Even if you’re working on the same project brief as lots of your coursemates, you can differentiate yours by going down a distinctive path with the visuals. For example, I opted for this anti-design aesthetic for a sunglasses packaging design brief during my Shillington graphic design course:
Similarly, this Designlab graduate’s sleek and minimal approach to the UI design of a pomodoro timer app gives it a distinct visual edge over similar projects:
4. Be careful with stock photography
Stock photography has its place, but it needs to be chosen carefully. One of the big challenges can be ensuring that the images you use within a project are consistent with one another.
A useful hack here is to invest a decent amount of time in choosing an image that really works well with the aesthetic, purpose, and tone of your project. Having identified that image, then try to use other work by the same photographer. This makes it more likely that you’ll end up with a harmonious set of images, united by shooting style.
Nevertheless, the problem with stock photography will always be that it looks like stock photography. Even sites like Unsplash, while a fantastic resource, end up having a samey aesthetic that can make your work stand out less rather than more.
If you’re handy with a camera or know someone who is, consider creating or art-directing your own images for projects you’re working on. Learning how to art-direct a photographer is a great design skill in its own right!
Another place to find less generic-looking photography is Flickr, where you can filter for images that are licensed for “Creative Commons” use. This means you can safely use them in non-commercial projects.
Yet another approach is to avoid photography altogether. 2019’s UI design trends are very much about simple, flat interfaces, and you can still build a stunning portfolio without any photographic content. David Luong’s is a great example of how to do this well:
5. Consider alternatives to ubiquitous fonts
Here’s a list of fonts you’ll see all over the design projects in graduate portfolios. We’ve suggested alternatives to consider using in each case.
- Avenir/Avenir Next ➡ Nunito
- Arial ➡ Open Sans, IBM Plex Sans
- Helvetica/Helvetica Neue ➡ Open Sans, IBM Plex Sans
- Playfair Display ➡ Bodoni
- DIN ➡ Roboto
- Futura ➡ Didact Gothic
- Gill Sans ➡ Cabin
- Montserrat ➡ Metropolis
- Raleway ➡ Metropolis
If you can’t avoid them, aim to use them in a novel way. Alternatively, create a more interesting effect by pairing them with another, less ubiquitous typeface.
6. Stand out with storytelling
One way you can boost projects in your portfolio is by excellent documentation and framing of the design problem you were solving, and superb storytelling about both the process you followed, and the solution you ended up at.
Images showing process and ideation add depth and weight to your work, and reassure potential clients and employers of the steps you work through to solve design problems. Check out Michael Evensen’s fantastic in-depth write-up of his work on Soundcloud for a first-rate example. Simon Pan’s story of redesigning the Uber pickup experience is also fantastic.
7. Use a simple, distinctive portfolio layout
Remember what the core purpose of a UX design portfolio is: to present your work in the best possible light to potential clients and employers. This means ensuring that your website’s design doesn’t overshadow the work you’re presenting, either by being too flashy, or by being too low-grade.
When it comes to portfolio templates, less is very definitely more, so choose your template carefully. There are some overused looks which will make your portfolio feel very run-of-the-mill, and these are best avoided.
If you’re struggling to tell the difference between good and bad when it comes to a portfolio layout, the safest option is to go for something extremely simple and minimal. This will ensure that the reader’s attention is firmly on your work, allowing it to shine.
Crystal Wang’s portfolio is a great example of how effective simplicity can be:
The same applies to Aleksei Zhurankou’s site!
8. Avoid these gimmicks
When it comes to UX design portfolios, content is king. Therefore, avoid including anything which might become noise that distracts from the substance of your work. If in doubt, leave it out!
Here are some examples of content to avoid:
- Vapid full-width hero images, especially open roads or immaculate desks
- Meaningless process images, like photos of sticky notes that aren’t actually readable
- Clichéd introductory hero text — never be a “full-stack UX ninja unicorn keyboard wizard”. Instead, be humble, straightforward, and use plain language
- Skills charts or infographics about your personality type
- Excessively large, dramatic, or emotive pictures of yourself
For example, don’t do this (and don’t worry, Johny Legend is just a template placeholder):
Instead, either avoid including a photo of yourself at all (particularly if you’re actively applying for roles, since many hiring managers in organizations with fair recruitment policies will want to avoid seeing photos of candidates), or include a tasteful, professional shot on your About page. Alex Cornell does this perfectly:
9. Leverage your other work and experience
None of us is “just” a designer, so use your previous work and other life experiences to create a more substantial and rounded portfolio. This can come in through how you present yourself on your “About” page, but it can also mean you present other kinds of projects within your portfolio.
For example, if you’ve previously done lots of writing or photography, or managed major projects, including some of this material can boost people’s interest in you as a candidate and cause them to look more closely at your design work.
And if you’ve previously worked as a developer, bringing those skills to a UX design role can be a major bonus for employers, not least because it is likely to improve your ability to collaborate with other developers.
10. Take on freelance and pro bono projects
Working for free is rightly frowned upon in the design industry: if you do it systematically, it devalues your skills and those of other designers. However, there is a time and a place for it. For example, graphic designer Aaron Draplin gives over some of his free time to complete design work for friends and good causes.
If you’re fresh out of your course and not currently employed, you could consider taking on 1 or 2 small, time-limited pro bono projects to create more depth in your portfolio and resume. You can also look into freelance and contract roles to help you move your portfolio beyond just student work.
It can be hard to find these opportunities in the open market, so try to use your existing network of friends and professional contacts to see if there’s anyone who needs your help. It could be that someone you know is setting up a new online store, or needs a landing page for a charity project. You could also look into whether any local small businesses are lacking a website, and offer your services.
11. Include personal projects
It’s not good to have a portfolio full of self-started work, but it’s fine to include 1 or 2 personal projects so long as they’re of portfolio quality.
Check out Instagram for any hashtags that could give you accountability for a personal project. For example, #36daysoftype recently inspired many designers to design a complete set of letters and numbers from scratch. Here are some of the featured posts from 2019:
To get more ideas and opportunities for personal projects, look up local UX meetups and see if you can find any design hackathons like Startup Weekend. There are also great online tools to magic up a practice brief for you to work on. Try Sharpen.design, Designercize, and DailyUI!
12. Use Instagram
On which note, Instagram is a great place to create a professional account and be sharing work in progress, photos of design reference points you’ve found, past projects, sketches, and abandoned drafts. Link through to it prominently from your portfolio, and people will have the opportunity to keep discovering more about you and your work beyond your site. They might also follow you and keep you in mind for future work and collaborations.
Here are some designers who are fantastic at using Instagram to build their professional profile:
Thanks for reading!
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