Fill Your Portfolio With Stories

by Jared Spool

On the trail of exploring our next career move, it’s likely we’ll need to show the path we’ve been on. As part of a design team, that usually means displaying our work.

However, if we didn’t make proper arrangements before we took the job, it’s very likely we can’t show much of our work to anyone. Consultants, contractors, and full-time employees are usually covered (in the US at least, but most other places as well) by a “work for hire” agreement, which means that the people we work for own all the work product we produce.

Wireframes, sketches, and other deliverables are not ours to show. If the final design isn’t publicly visible, such as internal application, there might not be any evidence of what we’ve done.

This puts us in an uncomfortable position when it comes time to show our work to a prospective employer. How do we show what we’re capable of when we don’t have access to our work?

Some have advised that you can put your company’s work files into a “for your eyes only” confidential portfolio, asking the hiring manager to keep what they see a secret. While it’s unlikely you’ll get caught doing this, does it send the message you want to someone thinking about hiring you? After all, it could be interpreted that you don’t take company policies, like confidentiality, seriously and that may not be a great first impression.

Fortunately, a smart hiring manager should understand this dilemma well. They’ve seen others with it and probably have faced it themselves when they interviewed at the company. Those smart hiring managers will look for other evidence of your talents and skills.

What can you put into your portfolio when your work is all locked up?

The simple answer: Fill your portfolio with stories.

When we’ve talked to the hiring managers behind some of the best design teams, we’ve seen that they are less interested in the final products and more interested in how the candidate got to those products. They’re interested in the story behind each design more than the designs themselves.

A good hiring manager wants to hear what the project goals were. They want to hear what you were given to start with. They want to hear the major challenges you faced, and how you overcame them. They’re interested in who else was on the project and how well you worked together. They want to hear about that guy who was always in the way and what you did to work around his objections and obstacles.

A great design portfolio tells the story about your designs, even if it can’t really say much about the design’s specifics.

To prove you know what the work products are, you can fake those. You can create wireframes, sketches, and other deliverables for side projects. In addition, you can mockup what your work would’ve looked like, without giving away the details that your employer wants to keep secret.

But the best designers talk about their journey. And the ones with the best stories are the ones that get hired. Especially when the new job is filled with exciting adventures.