What projects should you include in your ID portfolio?

Your portfolio shouldn’t be proof that you’ve been doing something for the past few years. Instead, your portfolio should be a showcase of your best work. It should give a glimpse into how you do your best work and what you’re passionate about. This means that the projects you decide to include in your portfolio tell a lot about you as a designer — if you want or not.

Which projects you should or should not include in your portfolio is something I’ve been struggling with myself and struggle with to this day, so I thought I’d take this opportunity and share my thoughts about it.

Let’s talk about the types of projects first. The type of projects you put in your portfolio should reflect what designer you are or you want to be. They should reflect what values you hold and how you position yourself as a designer. For example, if you position yourself as an Industrial Designer with a huge interest in medical products but you shuffle graphic design work and your latest music project in there as well, you send mixed signals about what designer you are. Your audience doesn’t know the context of your work. They don’t know that you are a Industrial Designer and seasoned DJ. All they see at first glance are your ID projects surrounded by a lot of noise.

Having a side gig or passion projects that aren’t directly related to your design discipline are great and you shouldn’t exclude them from your folio. Instead, think about how you could utilize visual hierarchy or the information architecture of your portfolio to make your side projects distinguishable from your main work. You could move them down to a separate ‘side projects’ section, or put them on a separate ‘playground’ page. Make it obvious to your audience how they should read your portfolio and the projects in it.

Now that we have the types of projects out of the way, let’s get down to brass tracks and talk about specific projects. Again, your portfolio is not proof of work. It’s not a checklist that shows that you’ve indeed done work over the past years. And for that reason, you should not include every project you’ve worked on in the past. Instead, treat your portfolio like you would curate an exhibition.

Treat your portfolio like you would curate an exhibition.

Every exhibition has a theme or narrative that runs through the entire show. What is your portfolio’s theme? Do you want to showcase your versatility as a designer? Show a breadth of projects with a different focus on each project. Do you want to highlight your passion for consumer electronics instead? Let your selection of projects gravitate around that. After you’ve decided on a theme and framed your portfolio, it’s time to curate your work. Curating an exhibition means carefully selecting the works that will ultimately end up in the curation. Similarly, your portfolio should be a careful selection of your best work. And I’m being deliberately vague here. Your best work is highly individual. There is no golden rule. You should base this decision on your gut, the reception of your work, the impact your work created and how much substance your work has (as in: how much process you can show).

Making a selection of your work means inevitably letting go of some of your projects. Chances are that you have this one project. It’s probably a few years old at this point but it still lives in your portfolio. At this point, you’ve revisited it a couple of times. You re-rendered the hero shots and you re-took some of the process shots, all in an effort to keep it relevant in your current portfolio. But it’s about time that you cut ties and move on. There is a camp of designers arguing that it’s important to see growth and progress in a portfolio and therefore you should include old projects in your folio. I on the other hand think that a portfolio should highlight your recent work. Instead of highlighting your growth and progress over the past years by including old projects, highlight your growth over the past months by adding reflections about recent projects.

Instead of highlighting your growth and progress over the past years by including old projects, highlight your growth over the past months by adding reflections about recent projects.

Cutting ties with a project doesn’t necessarily mean that you should erase your past. It means more that you should retire these projects from the main stage and move them to a separate playground or archive page so that they can still be viewed and cherished.

There is a category of projects that should never board your portfolio to begin with: curricular assignments and homework. The handle form study you did in the workshop last semester? Get rid of it. The surface modeling assignment from your 2nd year CAD course? Nope! These types of projects don’t really add value to your portfolio. Sure, they show that you’ve mastered a tool to some degree, but more than often they’re just noise. Your project work usually already shows which tool you are more or less proficient with. After all, it is much more interesting how you transfer the tools into a real process instead of working in the vacuum of a school assignment.

I hope I could inspire or provoke you a little bit to think about the selection of portfolio projects. I‘d love to hear your thoughts and about your selection process as well, so don’t hesitate to shoot me a message.

MFA Interaction Design @ Umeå Institute of Design

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