I’m Chanpory, and this is my site on how to live and work better as a designer.

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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:

  1. enthusiasm (do you want to learn?)
  2. skepticism (do you think critically?)
  3. eloquence (can you speak and write well?)
  4. attitude (will you get along with others?)

Notice that “talent” ain’t on the list.

Enthusiasm

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.

Skepticism

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.

Key questions:

  • 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.

Eloquence

Designing is story-telling. How you speak and write shows how well you can restructure and weave messy ideas into a coherent narrative.

Key questions:

  • 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?

Attitude

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.

Key questions:

  • 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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9 Comments

  • E.T.Cook

    gravatarNov 29, 2007
    6:45 am

    I think you are missing one item that encompasses all the others that is vital.

    Potential.

    Let’s be pragmatic. Not everyone has what it takes…and even possessing the above attributes does not a good employee make. I’ve known many that could articulate themselves well, they got along with others, had an analytical mind, and were passionate…however, they just didn’t possess the framework to be successful for whatever reason.

  • pmc27

    gravatarNov 29, 2007
    2:48 pm

    Excellent post!! And it comes very handy to me, because I´m hiring designers for the agency I´m working at.

    I think potential is very important too, what can you do with the things you learn. You can learn a lot of things, but can you apply it to work? Can you solve problems in real time? When you do a portfolio, specially with design-for-fun works you take all the time in the world to do it, but in real life times are others…

  • Chanpory

    gravatarNov 30, 2007
    11:02 am

    E.T, I totally agree with you on potential encompassing all of those attributes. You’re also right that there’s no guarantee that someone you hire will be great. My point is that hiring decisions should not be based on portfolios alone, it some cases you might not want to look at them at all.

    Designers, too, should not hinge their self-worth on how beautiful their portfolio looks. They should invest in honing the skills and traits that show off their smarts–in addition to what they can produce.

  • Alex

    gravatarNov 30, 2007
    11:29 am

    This is one the best posts I’ve read here. I completely agree. It took me a lot of interviews to figure this out. People hire people they want to work with, and there’s a lot more factors that go into it than a portfolio.

    The place I’m working now didn’t even look through my whole portfolio. I thought that was a bad sign, but I got a great feeling form the interview. We just talked for quite a while. Our personalities just clicked.

  • Pepe

    gravatarDec 1, 2007
    6:52 am

    Great post, Chanpory. That is exactly the way it should work. In my opinion there is no better way to find out whether the cemistry between the boss (et al.) and someone who applies for a job is as it should be.

    And, an interview that focuses on this points should be part of the application procedure at the art academies as well.

  • Cesar

    gravatarDec 1, 2007
    11:44 am

    I totally agree with the four traits in the article and the fifth in the comments.

    In great interviews, we just talked, sometimes about stuff that wasn’t even related to the job, then we looked at my portfolio, as if they forgot they were interviewing me. It should feel like an afterthought; a formality almost (obviously here’s where things like competence and potential kick in).

    In bad interviews, since there’s no chemistry or common ground, there’s too much awkward silence and there’s nothing to do BUT go through a portfolio.

    Really good articles coming out of here now. I’m loving the higher frequency of content. Keep it up!

  • exurban001

    gravatarDec 3, 2007
    6:58 pm

    None of the design jobs I’ve interviewed for have really asked anything about activities, hobbies, or mentoring anyone. This must be in the really high end of design jobs. Most of the one’s I’ve interviewed for haven’t cared nearly as much about your potential as much as how close you dovetail into the job position. Thats been the entirety of my experience. For example not that you’re a creative problem solver and learned to do xyz, but do you have large format experience, yes or no.

    The average person conducting an interview is always going to care more about what you’ve done. A major function of human resources is risk management. If you’re throwing it as “I’ve never done it, but I can easily learn because I learned (other thing)” you still constitute a risk.

  • Puharteago

    gravatarNov 24, 2008
    12:47 am

    Late post here but designing is NOT story-telling. I dont know where you got that from. Its simply organizing visually and making something interesting and adaptive to its environment. Its improvement graphics.

    That bugs me just as when designers are referred to as artists, or design is art. Its not. Its got elements and sensibilities but its not. Its instant guides, not something you stare at and ogle over.

    And Spiekermann’s “they hire the person” is a bit off too. I look at a portfolio and its immediate that the work will show all those qualities you list out. It should make me want to close it up after three pieces and take a deep breath with excitement because you’ve simply rocked me.

    The questions I will ask are to simply verify what I can see are the solutions in the design work. I’ll weed out those hipster designers who’ve borrowed the portfolio.

    Other than that I’m hiring whomever rocks me WITH their design work. Not just the person. Thats just not fully accurate.

  • Mike

    gravatarMay 8, 2009
    4:22 am

    I totally agree with you, but this is wishful thinking. We live in a world where a human is assessed only after his economic applicability. You need good relations in order to be perceived. If everybody do the same, the requirements grow at the same time. At the end nobody wins. Always just the same. ;-)

    Therefore it needs a little knowledge of human nature.

    What is a good or a killer portfolio? Is it worthless because you had no chance to work with well-known clients? Bad luck? Are portfolios basically nothing else than an »old hat«?