The minimum viable product design portfolio

Main illustration: Geoff Kim

Over the past few months, I’ve reviewed dozens of product design portfolios, so many that I’ve been thinking deeply about what a good product designer’s portfolio should look like.

Before I begin, let me say that we appreciate every portfolio we receive, from the most junior designers to the most senior. Please keep sending us your portfolios, and if you would like to get really good at creating them, follow these tips.

The true nature of design work is often difficult to convey. Let’s say you’re a product designer working in a large product team, and the only visible results of your work are a few buttons added to an already overloaded UI. Or you’re a designer that’s so busy at work that you simply don’t have time to work on an in-depth portfolio. What’s the best way to present your work? The answer may not be a text-heavy website or PDF that takes 30 minutes to read through.

Most product design portfolios tend to fall into two camps:

1. The polished Dribbble portfolio

First is the Dribbble portfolio, with bright beautiful pictures and isometric mockups of iPhone screens. This can be a great option for those who position themselves as a UI or visual designer. But as we know, product design is about more than aesthetics; it’s about how things work at a fundamental level. It’s about what problems are being solved and why, about the system architecture, about the organisation and interaction of each section, about the language used, about the UI patterns. Dribbble doesn’t help you communicate that. It values strong visual presentation, nice colors, icons and typography, but usually ignores the real business problem behind the design.

2. The detailed case-study

The other is the product design portfolio with overly detailed and long winded stories that go deep into the process of working on the product. The author might mention a few of the latest product design buzzwords, and illustrate each project with fancy behind the scenes photos of Post-its and sketches. Rather than convey any actual information, these are simply included as a nod to the fact that design is a complex, iterative process that is difficult to communicate, so here’s a photo of some Post-its to prove it. This is the product design portfolio equivalent of how a drunk uses a lamp post: more for support than illumination.

Instead, the best product design portfolios I have seen are simply a list of links to products the designer has worked on, along with screenshots and short, relevant descriptions.

They briefly cover:

  • What the product is, what problem it is solving and why.
  • If it was a team effort, what role the designer played.
  • What is particularly interesting about the problem, process, or solution.

Having links to real-life, working products is often far better than static portfolios.

  • A product speaks for itself. Anyone can check the product’s site or app, or at least a video to have a sense of how it looks, feels and works.
  • At a product-focused startup, what really matters is what’s been shipped, not what is designed.
  • The exact design process can be discussed in more detail later on. At the beginning, the results are more important.

For example, below are a few of my favorite portfolios. They don’t try to be overly impressive with just the visual layer. They just show enough information to get a taste of what products a designer was working on, without a ton of hard to follow details.

Brandon Walkin
Erin Nolan
Gabriel Valdivia
Bobby Giangeruso
Sergey Surganov

The plain text email portfolio

A portfolio is, of course, much better with pictures or videos but an extreme version of a portfolio can even be as simple as some plain text with links.

When I applied for a Design Lead position at Intercom, my portfolio was terribly outdated and I was too busy at work to update it. I decided to apply the 80/20 rule and asked if I could simply send links to my most recent work, and luckily the recruiting team agreed.

I ended up sending this plain text email:

product design portfolio email application

Of course, I eventually went into much more detail with the Product Design team at Intercom, but just this simple email was enough to start the conversation, the whole point of a product design portfolio.

Even if you haven’t had the opportunity to work on well-known products, this type of product design portfolio can work for you. Start with a few links to your products in the wild, along with a short description. Make sure those links are short and concise. Using a tool like Rebrandly to shorten links makes it easy. Go a bit further and include a few words about the problem you were solving, how you tackled it, and what’s noteworthy about your solution. That alone can convey so much more of what the real product is about than fancy screenshots or prolonged articles about the process.

So if you’re interested in sending us a simple portfolio with links to your works, please do so. We’re hiring.