Illustration by Caroline Rock.

This story is part of a collaboration between Eye on Design and the students at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Design & Creative Technologies. Keep an eye out for the upcoming zine What They Don’t Teach You in Design School. For more portfolio tips, be sure to register for the AIGA Portfolio Festival, which you can catch from July 14-18. 

The portfolio: an amalgamation of our best work. An embodiment of our college career. The magical, this-is-it, all-or-nothing, singular document that could land us a job and alter the course of our entire lives. As design students, we spend semesters laboring over it. We hear that in design, your portfolio is more important than your GPA, or even your résumé. But even if you’re the best designer in your class, if you can’t present your work effectively, your portfolio might not get you anywhere.

You could try Googling, “How to nail a design interview,” and find results pages filled with advice. Wading through endless bullet points and “Top 10 Tips,” you might wonder if it’s even worth following these laundry lists of practical information, or if it’s better to toss out the rule book and do it your own way. While there’s no proven method of presenting your portfolio, we can help you remove some of the guesswork while still staying true to yourself. 

We asked Nick Hahn, InVision’s director of design system consulting, and Meg Lewis, designer, career coach, and entertainer, to help students do exactly that.

Spread from “What They Don’t Teach You in Design School: A Survival Guide to Life After Graduation” a zine collaboration between UT Austin design students and Eye on Design
  • Sell yourself only on what you really love to do

Students often brand themselves as jacks-of-all-trades. We use our portfolios to prove we can do everything so that we at least get hired for something. If you really are a Renaissance person who can set type, use CAD, animate seamless motion graphics, juggle with your eyes closed, and handle front-end code—great. More likely, most of us are pretty good at a couple of things, and employers would rather see those take center stage. 

“I look for individuality and personality throughout the portfolio experience”—Meg Lewis

  • Tell them where you can add extra value

Don’t let the job description limit what you bring to the table. “Chances are you’re capable of so many more skills than those bullet points,” Lewis says. “Can you animate as well as design? Are you great at making GIFs? Tell them that! Give additional specific ideas for ways you can expand the role that are unique to your skillset.”

  • Be transparent about your strengths and pitfalls

Tell the hiring manager what your strengths are and where you’d like to grow. “Help me know where you’re at in your career,” Hahn says. “Are you super organized and someone who loves execution, or are you a creative ideas person who may struggle with the details? All that is great to be clear about.”

“Are you super organized and someone who loves execution, or are you a creative ideas person who may struggle with the details?”—Nick Hahn

  • Celebrate process, not just output

It’s tempting to use a portfolio to showcase a grid of pixel-perfect final artifacts. Influenced by the over-saturation of these types of images from sites like Dribbble and Behance, we get the idea that the end product is the most important thing. “I don’t really care what the end product looks like,” says Hahn. “What actually ships is usually way out of the control of most designers.” Instead, use the opportunity to show how you understood the problem, broke it down, and added value. The ugly, behind-the-scenes work is just as (or even more) important than rows of candy-colored app screens.

  • Your best self is your authentic self

Finally (and don’t roll your eyes!), be yourself. No, really. If you walk into an interview without letting the panel really get to know you, they won’t know what they’re missing out on. “It’s natural human instinct to assume you have to fall into the persona of a professional person who takes everything very seriously and is the exact candidate that can do everything the interviewer is looking for,” Lewis says. Presenting a watered-down version of yourself isn’t fair to you, either. 

You deserve to work somewhere you can be your authentic self, which will help you do your best work. “I look for individuality and personality throughout the portfolio experience,” Lewis adds, “whether that’s the copywriting in your ‘about’ section or the Easter eggs you have hidden throughout your website.”