Switching Careers Part 2 – Preparing Your Portfolio

Preparing your graphic design portfolio for a product design job.

This is a multi-part series around a designers leap from being a visual designer to a product designer. Click here to read the first part of the series.

As a graphic designer, preparing your portfolio for another graphic design job can be a big undertaking. However, preparing your portfolio for a design job in a totally different field (say, product) can be an even greater challenge. So how do you prepare your very visual portfolio for a position that focuses more on the things you can’t always see with your eyes? Fortunately, I’ve been through this experience and have some tips from when I left my graphic design role and broke into a UX design position.

Here are 3 things to keep in mind when preparing your portfolio for a product design job:

  1. Always be adding to your portfolio.

This goes for any designer looking for any position, but it came in handy that up until I decided to apply for a UX designer position, I had already kept my online portfolio beefed up. Not only did I add to it, but for some projects I explained my processes in detail and the reasoning behind what myself and the team had created.

I see so many designers wait to beef up their portfolio until the day they need to start looking for a new job. There’s always a mad scramble and some sleepless nights involved – the frantic gathering of assets from past projects, and when you finally find them you can’t remember all the reasons and processes behind the creative.

late night computer work
Don’t wait until last minute to update your work.

Why do we do this!?

For years I’ve always stayed on top of updating my portfolio – not because I plan on leaving my job anytime soon, but because I’m proud of the work we’re doing. The fortunate side-effect is that when it is time to leave, the only thing you need to do is update the dates on your resume.

When you’re going after a product design role for the first time, you no longer have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to your work if you’ve been updating your portfolio on the regular. In fact, the only things I really had to do was to gather the journey maps, wire-frames, and presentations of some campaigns in my portfolio. Not everything can go online of course, but I had some extra logic with me during the in-person interviews.

Life wasn’t a mad scramble when the opportunity presented itself to make my breakthrough. Take my advice – keep your portfolio updated constantly and it’ll make your life way easier.

  1. Presentation is key.

You shouldn’t be presenting flat pdf’s of artwork for a graphic design job, so why the hell would you do that when you’re trying to get a product design job? When I was ready to gather the logic, wire-frames, and in-depth knowledge of some of my biggest design projects – I took whatever I found and did what I knew how to do best: design the shit out of it.

I’m a firm believer in the “presentation is key” philosophy (is that a philosophy… well, it is now). A quick PSD mockup of a printed banner inside a hyper-realistic environment goes a long way, and so does a mobile site within a minimalist iPhone rendering. I’ve been using PSD mockups to sell design ideas in presentations for years, and when it came to applying for a UX job, those mad presentation mockups helped.

book mockup
Take advantage of real-world mockups likes this to show off your work.

On top of that, I took things like my old PowerPoint decks, and designed them out in a stunning PDF slideshow where the type was pixel perfect and journey maps were meticulously drawn out. You can utilize your amazing visual design skills to help showcase your work and passion for this new field you want to get into.

Just remember: the presentation can look great, but your work better have meaning and be well thought out. These are product designers and very analytical people you’ll be interviewing with. They’ll see right through any empty campaigns or wire-frames.

  1. Find the similarities.

Putting together the work in a presentation is half the battle. Now, you need to figure out how this work you’ve been doing relates to product design. You’ll need to connect how your past experience will help you in this new position, and hopefully you’ve done that before applying for the job.

For me it took about 2 years of figuring out how my past work could be tied to UX design, and much to my surprise there was a lot of similarities. For instance; nearly every marketing campaign I worked on started with research on the audience, mapping out the journey though print and digital channels, then after the campaign was over – reviewing the results to see what performed best and where to make improvements for the next release. Yes, it’s a little different than the UX process, but it still had the same fundamentals.

When it comes to nearly everything we design, there’s always some sort of psychology behind the visuals. The colors you picked to invoke a certain feeling, the images were meant to inspire, the words were meant to drive an action. It all has an effect on the viewer (or at least, it should or you’re doing it wrong).

You’ll need to document all of these past experiences and be prepared to talk about them in your interviews. If you don’t think you have enough, then don’t try to sell snake oil – be honest, and still go for that interview to hear first-hand what a company is expecting from a product designer applicant.

ux mapping
Figure out the similarities of your visual design process vs. product design process.

If you keep these three things top of mind, it should help you in preparing your creative work for this big and exciting transition to product design. As I spend more and more time in my UX designer role, I’m discovering other things that are increasingly important; like understanding front-end development in greater detail, or the impact of spending time with your customer (something we don’t always do as graphic designers). When it came to really going for the gold though, keeping my portfolio updated, making a clear presentation of my logic, and finding those similarities have all helped tremendously.

One last thing: when you are presenting the logic and processes of past projects, keep in mind some of the stuff that you’ve worked on can’t be shown outside of your previous employer. You might have to redact some of the information or re-word it to keep company secrets – this is even true during the in-person interviews. Always respect your past employers confidentiality, it’ll show you as a respectful and trustworthy prospect to your new employer.

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