How to Build a Killer Portfolio as a Junior Designer


fter spending the last four weeks pouring through well over 200 portfolios and applications for our latest opening at New Lion, I came across some really great portfolios — as well as some not so great.

If this process has taught me anything, it’s that many designers are falling into the same pot holes, some of which can be incredibly easy to avoid. If you’re currently searching for your first position, I’d recommend giving this post a read.

1) Case studies are important.

With any work you’re presenting in your portfolio, it’s important for you togive context around the project and discuss it at a high level. Was it a personal development piece? Is this product live and something that I can try out? Who was the client? Were you the sole designer, or one of 50?

These are all questions that I want to know the answers to when viewing a project, and will definitely have a big impact on how your work is viewed. The biggest thing, is that it shows you’re able to talk about and discuss your work — as well as that you understand the value behind this. Design isn’t all about pretty front page dribbble shots, it’s about understanding and justification. Providing case studies on your portfolio are the best way to show this.

This can definitely be pretty daunting for a lot of people — especially those (like me) who really struggle with writing. Just know, that even if the person viewing your portfolio has to stumble through a page of rambling, it’s going to be better than no context at all.

But what about dribbble portfolios?

Dribbble is an awesome platform for sharing your work, getting your face out there, and even finding clients — but the truth is, as a junior designer fresh out of college (or maybe with limited experience) a dribbble portfolio alone probably isn’t going to cut it. As a platform it doesn’t lend itself to showcasing entire projects very well, nor does it allow for showing your process nor a great deal of thinking.

I’m not saying don’t use dribbble — in fact quite the opposite. Maintaining a dribbble portfolio can be an awesome way to share visuals, and demonstrates to hiring managers that you’re really engaged with your craft. But: it should be the cherry on top, not the whole sundae.

Conference Branding: DDC Homepage design (Case study)

Here's a quick case study about the process behind the design of our DDC conference website. Sometimes the best parts…

2) Quality, not quantity.

There are, I’m sure, a lot of differing opinions around this. And one question I get asked a lot is “how many projects should I include in my portfolio?” and there really is no one right answer. There seems to be varying opinions between 8–10, but personally I would rather see 3 incredible case studies than 20 low-effort projects.

The best piece of advice here I could give is to take an absolute minimum of three of your best projects, and really build them out into extensive case studies. Tell me the story of this project, show of it’s best parts, and impress me so much with the care and attention to detail that I forget you’ve only got three projects on your site.

But what do I include in the case study?

Think of a case study as the story of your work — start with an introductionexplaining the project and giving a brief overview of the client, the scenario, and the outcome (this is always good to include for those who aren’t able to read through the entire project, and also serves as a nice introduction to the case study).

As a junior designer with limited experience, I would love to know everything. I want to hear about your initial approach, your research, why you decided to lay it out in that way, why you chose that font, that color, everything. The reason for this is that you might know why you chose that color, and I can hazard a pretty good guess at it — but what really matters (far more than what color it is) is that you can talk about and justify your decision.

More often than not when hiring for a junior role, companies are looking for potential rather than current skill. You’re inexperienced, your visuals may be sloppy, and you might have no real projects in your portfolio — but if youdemonstrate to me that you have a great potential to grow and learn, I’m going to be calling you in for the interview over the person that submitted his dribbble profile.

3) Design for the role you want, not the role you have.

There are two points to number three —

“Fake it ‘til you make it?”

You could be a college student approaching your final exams — but you don’t have to make it obvious. There’s nothing wrong with being a college student of course, but one thing you can do to put yourself above of the competition is presenting your work as if it were for a real company.

As an example, your introduction could read “This was a project set by my professor last year for a Bike shop in Seattle.”, or it could read “I designed this app for a bike shop in Seattle. They were looking for a digital product to help their customers experience…”

Which one begins to draw and engage you as the reader more? Now I’m not saying lie of course, and if it comes up you should absolutely offer up that these were hypothetical college course projects — but building a back story around them not only helps to engage your audience, but allows you to show justification in your case studies.

“Don’t try to be the jack of all trades…”

If you’re applying for a UI design position, make sure your portfolio is geared toward that role. I’ve clicked on so many portfolios that start with “My name is John, I’m a branding designer, ui designer, ad designer…” — having more than one string to your bow is always good, but I’d advise targeting one specific field over advertising yourself as a generalist. Let your other talents sit as appetizers rather than the main course of your title.

Let’s look at it this way: You’re taking a ferrari to get the leather re-upholstered, do you take it to the specialist ferrari re-upholsterer, or the garage that does MOT’s, engine tuning, tire changes, and re-upholstering?

4) Don’t hide your work.

As I mentioned above, I was sifting through well over 200 portfolios — as a 15 employee startup, we had that many applicants. Now imagine how many applicants Google get, or AirBNB, or agencies like Ueno. If you want to stand a chance of getting through the crowds, the best thing you can do is not make the hiring manager have to search for your work.

If I’m able to get to your content in 2 clicks or less, that’s great — the fewer the better, while balancing it against presentation of course. Some portfolios I encountered took me down a rabbit hole of clicks — by the fourth page and no work, I just gave up.

5) Make it personal.

Seeing passion for your craft in your portfolio is really important. Nothing catches my eye more than a bunch of side projects (live or not) exploring design and showing that you have a real passion and interest for what you do.

Some of the best ones that caught my eye over the last week:

  • A website journal posting color schemes they ran into day-to-day, and wanted to save & share.
  • Starting a discord community of designers to collaborate and offer feedback.
  • A concept app based on helping those with mental health issues.

The above are just examples, it could be absolutely anything! The main thing for me is seeing that you really love what you do, and that you love to explore in your field.

6) Make sure it’s well made.

If you’re not a web designer, or you can’t code, or you can’t afford to hire a developer to build your designs — that’s totally okay. I would recommend one of two things: Squarespace, or a wordpress template. If you’re looking for something great with the least amount of technical knowledge, I’d absolutely point you towards Squarespace — they have an awesome selection of templates that look clean and professional.

If you’re a web designer, I’d check out Semplice — it’s one of the best website builders I’ve ever had the pleasure to use, and they’ve just dropped their latest version. It’s absolutely worth checking out.

Those are the six key things I came across over the last few weeks that can be improved upon with relatively little effort, and should help you begin to stand out from the crowd when looking for your first position.