Tips on how to give an amazing portfolio presentation

I’ve seen a lot of portfolio presentations lately and wanted to give everyone a couple tips on what separates, in my mind, a good portfolio review from a great one.

  1. Know what you want to achieve. You have an hour with a room full of creative people. What do you want them to learn about you in that hour? It sounds simple, but you would be amazed at the number of people I see who apparently never asked themselves this question before walking into a room. If you already have a portfolio presentation crafted, find it, look through the materials, run through your talking points in your head, and ask yourself this question: What are the three to five things someone should learn about you after listening to your presentation? If they aren’t clear to you, they certainly will not be clear to your reviewers.
  2. Modify your presentation to fit your audience. Each company or firm will have a different take on needs from a designer. International companies may want to see design work that is tailored towards a global audience. Innovation firms might be looking for designers who can concept quickly. Know (or guess) your audience needs and sell to them.
  3. It’s more about your process than the finished result. This might be more for the senior folks out there, but even new designers should learn this. The point of a portfolio review is to give the people in the room a sense of yourself from a philosophy, craft, and passions perspective. Craft is most important and what you will be spending the most time on. People want to get a sense of how you work and the operation of your mind when you do work. Showing only finished pieces and talking vaguely about the process doesn’t give anyone a sense of how you do your job. Show pieces in progress, moments of clarity and breakthrough, and walk people through the creation process.
  4. Make sure you convey what you personally did. So much of creative is based in teamwork. It’s important to acknowledge the team’s accomplishments and have humility about your contribution. Typically when talking to clients at frog, we use the term “we” when referring to work. “We thought about your problem and came up with three variants we would like to walk you through.” Portfolio presentations are about you, so make sure to clarify what you specifically did. “We were building a new mobile interface and I owned the creation and testing of the interaction design framework.”
  5. Know your special sauce. A solid design firm might be looking at dozens of people for an open position, all qualified and able to do the work. Your objective is to talk about what is unique about your approach and why it makes you an ideal designer for the organization. For example, I saw a great portfolio presentation where the designer was passionate about creating stuffed toys. She took that passion and leveraged it effectively in design research with children around a new product, creating a stuffed version of the product and testing durability. It’s been four years since her portfolio presentation and I still think about it. That’s lasting power.
  6. Don’t play the volume game. What I typically see in bad portfolio reviews is a need to show a great volume of different pieces of work to demonstrate versatility no matter how far off the pieces are from an appropriate quality bar. One particularly disastrous portfolio review had someone show brand and identity work for an interaction designer position. I love the idea that an interaction designer was into brand, but the brand work shown lacked a serious amount of polish and ended up detracting from the other awesome parts of his presentation.
  7. Rehearse and stay within your allotted time. Nothing pains me more than to tell someone mid-review they have 30 minutes left and they have only shown two pieces and have 20 left to go. You need to treat this like any other presentation: stay on point, foster a dialogue, but keep your eye on the clock.
  8. Bring some energy to the room. I’m not sure how people got this into their head, but executing a portfolio review sitting down and talking to your computer screen is not an ideal way to get people fired up about you. Get up, move about the room, and get people paying attention to you instead of their computer screens or mobile devices. It’s your job to get them excited about you. Sitting at a conference room table with your shoulders slumped over your computer while presenting isn’t going to cut it.
And some of the silly little things I shouldn’t have to say but I’m surprised still get screwed up.
  • Show up ahead of time and get everything prepared before the meeting.
  • Remember to bring your power cable and video to projector converters if you are driving a presentation from your laptop.
  • Make sure your laptop doesn’t go to sleep during the presentation. A great little app called Caffeine for OS X can help with this.

Any other ideas on perfecting the portfolio presentation? Let me know.

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