What People Like Me are Looking for in Portfolios

My team currently has two openings, a Web Developer and Junior Designer, and we just hired a Project Manager. I’ve been spending ~15% of my workdays lately sorting through portfolios, reading and sending emails, and following up with potential applicants. I think most people in Director/Principle/HR-type roles are too busy to explain why an applicant gets rejected, but I want to throw some ideas out there that I think might help you if you’re a design/developer on the job hunt.

Show Lots of Work

Actual, Honest-To-God, well-thought-out, proof-that-you-can-problem-solve WORK. There are 12 year olds with a copy of Photoshop who can set some cool type on an image. Your grandma could learn basic HTML/CSS (hyperbole, maybe—but also probably true). Where’s the proof that you can turn complex thinking into seemingly simple solutions? Proof that you can take a client’s needs and translate them into real work?

If you’re a designer, show a variety of design solutions (include sketches and failed attempts, too—process is important). If you’re a developer, show live code examples (not just “I worked on this website” statements). If you don’t have real clients yet, try your hand at unsolicited redesigns. Just get out there, find problems and solve them. Do it on your own time and show a potential employer/client that A) you can hustle and B) you’re capable of solving problems for them. 

Put It in an Easy-To-Browse Portfolio

I had a wonderful client/friend (amazing combo if you can make it happen) who once told me he typically browsed through dozens of portfolios looking for the right talent for new projects. “Don’t make me click a lot,” he’d say, “just show me big pictures of great work.” Word to the wise from a guy who hires talent for huge clients. 

Bonus points if I can look at your portfolio on my phone. I’m not a super-busy guy, but I’m also not always at my desk in front of a 30″ monitor. Mobile is the future of how we interact with the internet—if you aren’t thinking about it now, you’ve got catching up to do.

Include a Stellar Cover Letter

Make me look twice. Being a vital part of a team is about more than a skillset, so your résumé is only the price of entry. Who you are determines whether you get to stick around for coffee. Is there a person behind the portfolio? How is that person different from rest of the stack of emails I’m getting? Standouts get hired, not résumés—have a voice. Articulate why you’re different.

Sweat the Details

Proofread your damn résumé. Make sure your website works. Spell the company’s name right. The care you put into the details of presenting yourself to a potential employer/client is a good measure of the care you will put into the work you do for that employer/client. 

I once got a cover letter that led with, “My objective is to obtain a Junior Designer position at [local advertising agency’s name].” Since I received this letter and résumé for a job opening on my team, I replied, “I wish you luck in your objective to obtain a Junior Designer position at [local advertising agency’s name].” Details matter, always.

Follow the Instructions

Be as creative as you want to be, but make sure you follow the instructions in the job posting while you’re doing it. See #4.

Be Passionate

Please love what you do. If you’re not energized and excited about the job you’re pursuing, stop, reassess and pursue something else. In a typical week, you’re going to spend 35–45 hours a week with your coworkers—no one wants to work with passionless people. Find something you love to do and run after it. 

Homework: read Kevin Fanning’s Let’s All Find Awesome Jobs.