Build your design portfolio around one awesome story

1. Pick one project. JUST ONE!

What’s the coolest thing you’ve worked on? Doesn’t matter if it wasn’t really that cool (the coolest project in my first portfolio was the portfolio itself). I define “cool” as “interesting”. Not the prettiest. Not the famous-est. What was the most interesting thing you’ve worked on? Which project do you understand best from start to finish?

2. Squeeze out the best possible story

Now figure out how to tell the best possible story about that project. I’m not just saying put images of your process and some obligatory text. I mean tell a damn story. I want a hero’s journey with five acts. I’m not even joking—I want you to build some mystery and suspense.

3. Find images to support the points in your story

This is obvious because it’s a design portfolio, duh, of course you’ll have images. There’s one thing though—above all else, collect images to tell the story. Sure, make it look good, make it look like you’re a good designer, yada yada. But if some of the images suck and the story is great, that’s better than a nondescript good-looking design portfolio. Tell the story! As you look for images, you may be reminded of different twists and turns in the plot, and if they’re good, add them to your notes.

4. Practice telling the story out loud

Nope, not time to build the portfolio yet. Just put them in Keynote or Powerpoint. Flip through the images and tell the story. Ideally, you should present it — to your boss or colleague or team at work, at a meet up, at a conference if you can, but whatever. Find a place to present it and do it. The stress of presenting will make you practice and master the story better.

5. Tell the same story over and over and over again

Practice at work. Practice with your friends. Practice with a significant other. Telling a story to a person who just heard it yesterday is harder than telling it to a stranger. It’s high altitude training.

6. Lastly, make your portfolio

Once you’ve got the story simplified and crisp and great, turn it into a web page or a blog post so people can view it even if you aren’t there. How should you do it? I dunno, and I don’t really care, but you better do your homework and do a good job. It seems to matter.

7. Make it pretty

Haha! That headline is partly here just to make all you designers mad. But it’s also true: “Make it pretty” should be the last thing you do. Your portfolio should look good. It should demonstrate that you care about craftsmanship and detail and you’ve got the skills to deliver quality. But for god’s sake, don’t start there.

That’s all I got

If you do these things, you’ll have totally mastered one story and figured out the “why” and “how” behind your key project. You’ll understand the business side, the product side, and the people side. You’ll have crafted a product, in fact, out of the story itself. You’ll be better prepared as an interviewee, and you’ll have a portfolio piece that (hopefully) stands out from the rest.

This is my portfolio from 2006, which I used to get a job at Google. I know it’s laughable nowadays (I built it in Flash, if you can imagine!) but the key thing that still holds up is the idea of stepping through a story with short, clear headlines and text explaining each point. It’s like a slide deck on a web page. And yeah, I know there are other projects in the left nav, but they were thin—it was all about Encarta, baby!

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Jake Knapp

Jake Knapp

Writer, designer, person. Author of SPRINT and MAKE TIME. Co-founder of character.vc. More at jakeknapp.com.