Do web designers need a portfolio to apply for a new job?

I was recently asked whether an online portfolio is a must-have for web designers and front-end developers applying for work. I thought it was an interesting question, and deserving of further examination.

One of my responsibilities at is hiring new design talent, and inevitably part of that involves reviewing applicant CVs. The job description for our currently open Web Designer position states, among various other requirements, that applicants must provide a portfolio of work. But with so many experienced designers working in-house for corporations that may be unwilling to allow their internal workings to be exposed in public, is it fair to expect every applicant to be able to display their previous work?

As a hiring manager, I am looking for a designer or developer with relevant experience, and the right mixture and level of skills for the job; that means HTML and CSS at what I judge to be a decent quality, and (for designers) evidence of a basic grasp of the fundamentals of good web design. Of course, once they pass the initial CV review stage then other factors come into play: personality, communication style, and how they react to questions relating to the unique environment in which we work. But in the beginning, that 1-3 page summary of their professional life is all I have to go on. And that means that a good portfolio can really influence any decision.

Naturally this situation unfairly benefits those coming from an agency background, churning out designs and templates for hundreds of clients in an environment where publicising your previous work is actively encouraged. You can see this kind of designer represented every day on design galleries and “50 of the best designer portfolios” list sites; if your own site has a 60pt welcome message stating the obvious (“I design websites”) you’re probably one of them too.

And those applicants are easy to assess. I can flick through their portfolio and quickly form a picture of their design chops; are they comfortable working in different styles, do they have a decent grasp of layout, typography, colour theory, UX? For non-designers, I can View Source and rate their code quality; bonus points for using modern techniques, black marks if I see an MM_swapImage() function in there.

So what are in-house designers/developers to do? They might have 10+ years of solid experience – but if it’s all working on the same website, which in any case they’re not allowed to publicise, how do they prove they have the right skills for the job?

Some might say this is where personal projects separate the men (and women) from the boys (and girls). It’s certainly true that a well-written technical blog and some interesting GitHub projects can help to build a picture of a front-end developer’s area(s) of expertise, but it’s rare to find someone from the more graphical design end of the spectrum with much more than a simple Twitter account. Speculative work is a possibility, of course – but lorem ipsum filled homepages, no matter how beautiful, don’t give potential employers any idea of your ability to interpret business requirements or balance real-life client priorities.

In the end, I think much of the opportunity for these in-housers is tied up in their CV. A well-written summary of their skills and how they have been applied, their major achievements and projects, and evidence of increasing levels of responsibility or upward movement in their role should be enough to at least secure a first interview. Setting technical challenges or spec design tasks as part of the interview process would be another option, although personally I’m not in favour of that approach; I tend to feel that it doesn’t accurately reflect the work environment the applicant will need to work within, and also places an undue demand on their (unpaid) time.

So, is it an unfair situation or not? If you’re hiring designers, or you’re an in-house designer struggling to apply for jobs that require a portfolio of work, I’d love to know what you think.

7 thoughts on “Do web designers need a portfolio to apply for a new job?

  1. A very fair assessment, sums up pretty neatly the problems most people in our industry have when looking for a new job.

    I suspect that it’s a very small percentage of people who can pull together a portfolio of stuff that reflects their current quality of work; I know I’ve always struggled with it, which is why as a designer I think you have to get creative with what you’re including in your portfolio, stray away from just giving homepage mockups, show process stuff – wireframes, sketching, progression through the design & implementation processes.

    I reason that in hiring someone you’re trying to assess their ability to produce great work, but being an excellent designer isn’t going to do that for you unless you’re in an environment where that work is able to be produced. So by showing how you make your decisions at least shows that you’re thinking about the right things, even if the end result is tainted by the presence of over-bearing project managers, mis-managed clients, etc, etc.

  2. It depends on what you want a “web designer” to do. (And I’ve made a point of never using the words “web designer” without qualification — Are you a visual designer, working with color, typography, and layout? Are you a coder who implements PhotoShop mockups created by a visual designer, with your mad HTML/CSS/JS skills? Are you a UX designer or an information architect? Are you some combination? All these people have been known to call themselves, or be referred to, as “web designers”. BUT I DIGRESS.)

    If you want someone who can work on the same web site for 10+ years, you would do well to consider someone even if she comes without a vast portfolio, if she’s got the technical chops.

    But if you want someone who not only handles visual design work, but actually comes up with creative new designs on a regular basis, well, how can you not insist on a portfolio?

    One’s a long-haul runner, and one’s a sprinter. In my opinion, they’re two very different employees. I won’t hire the agency creatives who churn out new design after new design, because I want someone who’ll stick around for 10 years, and who can work within the confines of an established brand (and not be consistently frustrated when she’s not allowed to change it).

    Do you give prospectives a test…make them create a mockup for you? That might help, as well.

  3. Kerri: I’m not really in favour of giving tests, it kind of smacks of spec work, and in that sort of setting it’s hard to make sure they have all the information they need to do anything more than just make pretty pictures.

  4. Great post. Regarding tests in job interviews: I’m a front-end developer and I’m not against it, but I don’t think I’d shine there. I tend to work slowly, often spending two hours analyzing a visual design and thinking of the best strategy for semantic structure and CSS layout. I think it’s an approach that’s valuable for all websites that will evolve over time and that have to be maintained (i.e. everything except one-off communication sites). In an interview test I’d have to start coding quickly, there would be no time to refactor, etc. I guess the same issues apply to visual design, for slightly different reasons: the “design” part takes time (duh), you need information on the client and project, etc.

    But there might be better ways to test skills in interviews than mock assignments.

  5. Agree with matthew. a one test cannot reveal the whole talent and many developer work well with their system where they have all tools, files, snippets.

    @matthew – Hope I will meet you at Amsterdam?

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