Erik Spiekermann once told me, “Portfolios don’t matter. You hire the person, not the portfolio.” Like Erik, the statement’s bold. But he’s got a point.
Your portfolio demonstrates what you already know, not your potential for learning, adapting, and growing.
Sure, a portfolio shows competency. At the minimum, you should know how to read, write, lay out a page, work with typography, and make things look nice and pretty. These basic skills are great for jobs with well-defined problems and tasks. For example: designing a logo, a brochure, poster, or a widget. Design firms needing help with these projects can get away with hiring you based mostly on your portfolio.
But what about the harder, messier problems? The ones that aren’t well defined, the ones that are wicked hard. For example: designing a service, an application, an end to the American health crisis. You know, the interesting problems. For these problems, what matters is not what you’ve done, it’s how you think.
So how do you show-off your thinking skills? When interviewing designers, I look for these key traits:
- enthusiasm (do you want to learn?)
- skepticism (do you think critically?)
- eloquence (can you speak and write well?)
- attitude (will you get along with others?)
Notice that “talent” ain’t on the list.
Genuine enthusiasm goes a long way. For the excited and passionate designer, designing is not just a job. It’s play, it enriches your life. Ok, I’m starting to sound like Oprah, but yes, it makes you see the world differently. If you have insanely zealous, you not only want to learn, you enjoy learning.
Hugh Dubberly (my boss) says the –”desire to learn is huge. Might trump everything… enthusiasm is the key to getting hired for anything.–
To gauge your enthusiasm, I might ask:
- What have you designed for fun?
- Do you have design-related hobbies?
- What design communities are you part of?
- What electives did you take or are taking in school?
- What do you read?
An apathetic designer won’t have much to report back.
As a designer, you must be able to imagine possibilities. To see viable alternatives, you must question what options already exists. You must scrutinize. You must discern. You must think critically.
- What was your most challenging design project? Why? What did you learn?
- Did you consider other solutions to the problem? If so, why did you choose this one for your portfolio?
- What don’t you like about your work? What would you improve?
A designer who doesn’t question or think critically, cannot imagine possibilities–and isn’t worth hiring.
Designing is story-telling. How you speak and write shows how well you can restructure and weave messy ideas into a coherent narrative.
- Explain your work to me. What was the rationale? What objections did you face? How did you overcome them?
- What kind of writing have you done for school, for work, for fun? Can you show me?
Hmm… maybe I should require design applicants to submit writing samples?
One person can’t solve a wicked problem. There are just too many variables. Taming a wicked design problem requires conversation, debate, and collaboration. This means you can’t be a recluse sitting in the corner by yourself listening to Morrissey. (I’m quite the hermit, so this one’s hard for me.) To get along with others, you must have a good attitude. It requires charm, humor, and openness.
- What group projects have you worked on? How’d it go? What was your role?
- Have you ever taught a class or mentored anyone?
Wicked problems have no room for divas or rock stars.
Okay, so that’s my curmudgeony rant for the day. The next time you pour your blood, sweat, tears, and money into a portfolio, remember what Hugh told me: basic design is a lot easier to teach than thinking.
I’ve outlined four qualities that matter more than your portfolio. Did I miss any? What traits do you think are important for designers to hone and develop?
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