A designer without a portfolio?!

My old design portfolio This was my first portfolio. It is a beautiful leather-bound A2 size folder with a number of glossy leaves inside. Each leaf has a mounted presentation of a project, painstakingly printed, cropped and mounted by my own fair hands. This example even has hand-crafted embossing!

It was not an easy item to produce, but of course at the time (1999) I was a student looking for my first tentative steps into the design world. My objective was to express my fascination with all things visual and hopefully impress potential employers with my fresh unobstructed (ok, perhaps naive) view of the world.

...and of course it worked. In fact, before my graduation, I had landed my first job as a web designer for the Daily Telegraph..however, from that point onwards my portfolio gradually became a stress point rather than a labour of love.

Why? You might ask.

Throughout my career, I have chosen to work in-house for large corporations. I love business as much as art. When I was a student I loved watching the BBCs 'Working Lunch' and these days I never miss the Bottom Line on Radio 4 or Newsnight on BBC2. My fascination with business (in my view) makes me a stronger strategic designer because I can quickly appreciate the business models or return on investment of a given project. Plus, I love sticking around to see if my designs actually improved the situation of a business...and if they don't, learning about that scenario so that I can correct it and avoid the same mistakes in future projects.

I feel strongly that UxD/IxD is a business tool, yet there is an inherent danger with visual communication that we aesthetically please companies rather than change them for the better. Designers, more than anyone else in a business have the power to propose and influence the direction of a company by simply anticipating an interactive experience which responds to a stated mandate.

Of course, if you are a junior designer or with a visual branding bias, this becomes an important aspect of your work. But here's the problem: projects fail. Not only that, projects fail often. It leaves anyone who worked on them feeling unconfident, under appreciated and under utilised. Anyone who has ever designed for a business in-house knows that interactive projects never follow a strict path from conception to reality. There are other forces at play, such as technical constraints, project budgets, in-house skills, competitors, marketing and yes, stakeholder support.

So as an in-house designer we can react to this in two different ways:

  1. Create a set of visual designs which inspire a 'I want it' answer from a high up stakeholder and risk producing a project which fails.
  2. Or, change the way we operate.

This change is what Don Norman coins as being a 'generalist'.

What use is a 'beautiful' user experience to a company that can't deliver it? Real designs are about influencing change in real scenarios, with real constraints. Businesses need designers who are effective communicators able to work collaboratively with multiple disciplines. Not just purely creative types who objectively beautify a given user scenario.

My experience of 'purely creative' designers is that they rarely last any length of time in a given organisation. They become either frustrated by their desire for creativity or the business finds that they add little value as they are not in sync with the project team.

So, coming back to my portfolio. If I was to show my current work in a curated portfolio it would fail on my desire to show projects which are aesthetically pleasing and may only demonstrate the vulnerabilities of the current business. For example, on a recent project I proposed using 'relative' times for users (i.e. this happened 5 minutes ago) - which is obviously the correct thing to do in terms of user experience because you significantly reduce the 'don't make me think' mental overhead (thank you Steve Krug). BUT, during the project we established that we could only update this time attribute every hour due to limitations of how often we can retrieve this data. This is a really important assertion, because I can now revise the 'relative' time to a straight forward time stamp - which is a more realistic business solution and more likely to win support in the development team. I am continuing the ambition for business change rather than increasing the potential of another project failure.

In summary, in-house design has to embrace the realities within a given business which means you have to make a number of considered concessions to the user experience in order to ensure the project does not fail.

Explaining this story in a visual design portfolio is (in my view) unrepresentative of the work and considerations I have put in to the project. As an experienced interaction designer, I never want to be judged on the final design alone, I want to be judged on the considerations I have made and the impact of the change on the business.

One final point to consider. Companies looking for an IxD or UxD are deluded if they believe candidates will create a bespoke portfolio specifically aimed at their business. Recruiters control the flow of potential candidates and that means that candidates will have next to no time to pull together a relevant portfolio. Indeed, I don't believe that most in-house designers going for interviews are actually interested in getting a new job. At best, most will be tentatively understanding what else is out there in order to establish 'best fit'. In short: it's a two-way street so get the 'who are you' conversations out-of-the-way and then set them a realistic project task. You'll soon find out if they are serious.