Fix Your Portfolio in 5 Steps

By Gabrielle Whelan

Twenty-twenty-one is finally upon us. Though the pandemic presses on, the vaccine is in sight, along with the hope things will return to normal soon. For industrial design students who spent 2020 perfecting their portfolios, that hope translates into turning those projects into a career. There are countless portfolio do’s and don’ts out there, but those kernels of advice don’t compare to watching a professional conduct a live review. 

Whipsaw’s Director of Industrial Design Cole Derby recently held a student portfolio evaluation for the College for Creative Studies (CCS). The students took this opportunity to showcase their ingenuity while presenting a range of design solutions for Derby’s critique. Their projects included home storage solutions, consumer wearables, consumer electronics, sustainable MedTech, and cutting-edge communication devices. 

These are Derby’s top five portfolio takeaways.

Start at the End then Work Backwards

Students often lay out projects in their professional portfolios in the exact manner they did for class projects. This is a textbook mistake. “When you’re crafting a project in school,” explained Derby, “it’s a linear problem. That works well for a case study, it won’t grab a professional’s attention.”

In other words, don’t waste precious portfolio space on a detailed log. Instead, think about the way your portfolio would convert into a website or digital portfolio. We’re all visual people, so assume your reviewer won’t read through your opportunity and problem statement. “Always start your portfolio with the image of your final project,” said Derby. 

Give people something to react to immediately in your portfolio.

He then asked the students to imagine they were purchasing produce at the grocery store. “Do you pause to read all the details on the label, or do you pick up the juiciest, freshest-looking produce?” That same logic applies to portfolio reviewers who derive 90% of your project’s story from the images. “Give people something to react to immediately in your portfolio. Put your final project on the first page and then reverse your way out of it.”Give people something to react to immediately in your portfolio.

Make an Emotional Connection to the Problem

Each portfolio in this review contained innovative projects that were visually pleasing, well thought out, and solved a unique problem. Still, Derby observed a missing puzzle piece among them: a lack of an emotional connection to the problem at hand.

“Rather than stating the problem and objective and then moving into the final forms,” said Derby, “remember to always circle back to emotions.” He then urged the students to find online communities of their target end-users to unearth the emotional connections to the problem.

Remember to always circle back to emotions.

“There are tons of blogs and Facebook groups, for example, where you can research your intended users and ask them questions directly. That way, you’re out there connecting with real people instead of designing for yourself based on your assumptions about a problem.”

Ask Yourself: Am I Answering Questions or Raising Them?

When someone reviews your work, they expect you to have both uncovered and solved a unique problem. Therefore, if they’re asking themselves questions at the end of the review, that’s a bad sign. “They’ll feel ripped off if they’re brainstorming additional solutions themselves,” cautioned Derby.

It’s essential to only include projects in your portfolio that have been examined from every possible angle. “When in doubt, do some self analysis,” Derby recommended. “Be extremely critical of your own work.”

You must answer all the whys of a project yourself.

Lastly, Derby encouraged students to think of all hypothetical use cases for their projects, along with the story behind them. “Inspect all the moving parts and think through the real world problems that might arise with your design,” Derby summarized. “You must answer all the whys of a project yourself.”

Seek Inspiration from Within 

Many new graduates fall into the trap of adding inspiration images to their portfolios that are more aesthetically pleasing than their own designs. “Avoid featuring beautiful images, or worse, designs that are already on the market, as your inspiration images,” said Derby. “Doing that instantly sets a high bar for your work, and the person looking at those images will be let down when they see your final design.” 

Similarly, stay away from design trend blogs. Those will simply pull you away from your ideas and into the blogger’s perspective. “This holds true even after you’ve been hired,” said Derby. “In the early weeks of a project, for example, everyone posts the same inspiration images because we’re all looking at the exact same blogs.”

Styling is easy. It’s solving a problem that’s really hard.

Instead, Derby suggested to get specific about the problem at hand and focus on solving for the end user. “Don’t get too caught up in trends. You can always make something functional look good. Styling is easy. It’s solving a problem that’s really hard.”

The best way to get inspired is to remember what personally inspires you. “I always say, be inspired by life. There are so many things out there you can pull inspiration from, like nature, music and emotion.” Those nuggets of personal inspiration will shine through more clearly in your final product.

Cole Derby at the Whipsaw Studio

Think of Aesthetics as Icing on the Cake

It’s easy to get caught up in making your project as visually stunning as possible, but Derby warned that might distract you from the actual pain point you’re attempting to solve. “The industry looks straight through that,” he noted. “You also want to ensure you don’t accidentally lock yourself into a design aesthetic.” In other words, solve problems first, not aesthetics. 

“If you do have a project in your portfolio that is more CMF focused, however, call it out in advance. For example, you could say, Rather than aiming to solve a problem, this project revolves around brand and design language. That way, you’ve set the stage up front to eliminate questions at the end.”

Don’t accidentally lock yourself into a design aesthetic.

Unfortunately, many students form such a strong attachment to CMF that it often becomes the core of their projects. “Try to think about CMF as just the icing on the cake,” said Derby, “If your cake is dry and crumbles, no one cares what the icing looks like.” 

Derby concluded his review by urging students to go through their portfolios to ensure they contain an equal balance of conceptual and functional projects. He reminded them that now is the time to develop projects with a narrative and emotional connection, and to hone that process. “When you’re in school, you have the ultimate freedom to create and express yourself. Once you’re in the industry though, so many variables, like deadlines, budgets, and client expectations, can dilute your intent. Push yourselves now.”