The truth is, I do have a book—a portfolio. It’s a pretty heavy binder actually, and I don’t like carrying it around. And the last time I had used it was almost two years prior when I was applying for my last full-time job. When interviewing for all the freelance work I had been doing since then, I had never needed to show it, and I hadn’t kept it updated.
A week later, I went back to meet with the creative director, with my portfolio in my arms, and walked him through my deliverables, one by one. I had work that dated all the way back to 2005—my first projects out of college. But he didn’t see anything that appeared similar to the project I was interviewing for—so, as a result, I didn’t end up getting the job.
At the time, I was pretty confused. Does a portfolio really encapsulate all that I am as a designer? Why didn’t I know better than to go in unprepared? Why hadn’t I sold the work well enough for him to see how valuable I would be to his team?
The Process Is You
Now, almost a year later, I have done more than 50 pitches to potential clients. Seventeen of them became paying clients. And I didn’t win a single one of these gigs because of the caliber of my portfolio.
I win clients over with my process. Or to put it another way, I demonstrate that I am conscious of process to win them over.
Now, when I have a meeting with a prospective client, I don’t show my resumé and go through the whole chronology of my previous work. A lot of my projects are showcased in my online portfolio, so if they’re curious to see what I’ve done before, they can have a gander. Instead, I focus the discussion on a single project—one that involved a problem that is similar to the one they are facing—and I walk through the process I used to help discover the best solution.
I’ve gotten pretty comfortable doing this spiel. I start off by setting the stage: This is who my previous client was. When we started, these were their goals; their challenges. Then, while I go through each deliverable for the project, I recount the evolution of how I analyzed the problem space, identified the areas of opportunity, and facilitated the planning of a holistic design solution. As I describe how the techniques I used sparked insights that influenced the design, I can see their eyes light up.
Instead of prospective clients’ looking at a wireframe in a portfolio and saying, That’s what I want our site to look like, they start wondering what their process might look like. Convincing clients that they are unique snowflakes who deserve a unique approach is ultimately what will land you the gigs.
I asked some fellow independents whether they have had similar experiences. Robert Gorell concurs, “The fact that I’ve had a steady string of work for the past eight months with only a zombie blog and two finished sites—not including my own—is testament to the validity of your thesis.”
It’s like the old adage that the cobbler’s children have no shoes. Some of the best in the business don’t put their energy into perfecting their portfolios, because they’re busy working on other people’s stuff—or they simply don’t see the benefit of it.
Rather than just showing their work, many UX professionals find it’s the way they do things that is the most important to communicate. Matt Nish-Lapidus, formerly self-employed and now a UX consultant at nForm, told me, “When pitching a project, I spend a lot of time talking about how I work—the tools in my toolbox, research methods, deliverables—and how I can work with the prospective client to help them understand and solve their own problems.”
That has always been my personal approach, but there are times when clients expect to see a portfolio, particularly if they are very used to using them as a litmus test—such as with the creative director I mentioned earlier. But should a portfolio have so much weight when deciding to hire a UX professional?
“At some point—and I don’t know when—it became standard operating procedure for [UX designers] to have to show portfolios of their work at interviews,” said independent consultant Gabby Hon. “But all that tells an interviewer is that you know how to use Visio or OmniGraffle or InDesign and that you do typical things like show page states or how you annotate.”
But Will Evans, both as an independent consultant and director of experience design at Twin Technologies, sees the value of a portfolio as something deeper than demonstrating mastery of deliverables. “As a director of user experience, I won’t even consider a UX [professional] without a portfolio,” he said. “I don’t care about their process, because I will give them one. I want to see a complete walkthrough from problem setting through final design, with an ability to talk through every aspect of how they arrived at a final solution. The final solution matters, but only in the context of how they arrived there.”
Evans stresses that it is, in fact, the how not the what that is of greatest importance to him, but not as an indication of future behavior. Instead, it is a UX professional’s deep understanding of design thinking that helps separate the wheat from the chaff—and the portfolio is Evans’s favored prop for that discussion.
Still, some people find a focus on the end product, the final solution, a bit troublesome. “Once consultants overly commodify their work—the idiosyncratic end results of their process,” said Gorell, “the conversation changes to whether you’re the right vendor for them to purchase from the proverbial vending machine.”
Being the right person for the job shouldn’t hinge on what you have done before, but rather on how you would approach a problem now. A great designer learns from what she has done before, so brings a new set of tools to each new project she faces.