Telling Your Story: The Portfolio Review

Interviewing for a design job can be an intense, lengthy process. Once you get through the phone interviews and end up in an onsite interview loop, many of them start with a portfolio review. These are typically an hour-long session with all your interviewers where you can show some of your work before the one-on-one interviews begin.

These portfolio reviews can make people nervous, but they’re the perfect opportunity for you to tell your story.

During a portfolio review, you drive the narrative!

You can make sure the hiring team understands you, your work, and the impact you’ve had during your career.

As a former narrative designer and UX designer at Microsoft, I’ve thought a lot about strategic storytelling: the art of telling a story to accomplish a strategic objective.

Many of the principles of strategic storytelling are relevant to crafting an effective portfolio review presentation, so here’s my perspective on the process.

Step 1: Tell Them Who You Are

First and foremost, be authentic in a portfolio review. In my mind, this is the most important thing. If you’re misrepresenting who you are and what you believe in, you’re doing yourself (and the organization you’re interviewing with) a disservice.

You don’t want to end up in a job that’s not actually a good fit for you — so be upfront about what you’re looking for, how you want to grow, and what you value.

I like to start each portfolio review with a brief introduction that covers:

  • Background: My background and how I got to my current role. Think carefully about what would resonate with the hiring team and highlight relevant experience if applicable. Show them what makes you uniquely suited for this role.
  • Values: My values as a designer. These are different for everyone, but I find it’s helpful to have them articulated clearly on a slide. This slide allows you to frame conversations about the things that matter to you in a role/team/organization. It gives the hiring team a sense of who you are at your core. And if their values don’t align with yours, it will be good to know sooner rather than later.
  • What I’ll Show: This is where I summarize what’s to come so they know what to expect from the presentation — that I’ll show them three projects focusing on [insert skills here]. I’ll also lay the groundwork for the key takeaway here, sometimes even saying it out loud: I’m hoping you leave this presentation with an understanding of [insert key takeaway here].

Step 2: Define Your Key Takeaway

When creating a deck for a portfolio review, my first step is to develop my key takeaway for the audience.

Inspired by the guidance of one of my mentors, I start out by deciding the one thing I want someone to think, feel, say, or do after this portfolio review.

Choosing just one thing is important because it provides clarity and focuses the entire presentation.

Everything you share in the portfolio review should ultimately align with this key takeaway — so by the end of your presentation, it’s a foregone conclusion.

I apply the same principle at different altitudes of the presentation.

The presentation as a whole should have one key takeaway, but you can also have sub-takeaways at the individual slide and/or project level that accrue up to the overall key takeaway.

It can be helpful to put these sub-takeaways in the notes section of each slide to help focus your talking points. If something you’re saying during the presentation isn’t accruing up to your takeaway, you should refocus your talking points.

Step 3: Choose Your Projects

When crafting narratives, having a crisp story structure is important. Nobody likes to feel like they’re stuck in a meandering presentation.

I like using a three-project structure for portfolio reviews. Three-act structures are common in storytelling, so this framework is predictable and easy for the audience to follow along.

Three projects also allow you to showcase both depth and breadth of content.

Plus, three projects are usually a good number of projects to show in an hour, including time for intros and questions at the end (or throughout).

But which three projects should you show? In addition to showcasing the work you feel most proud of, I have found it helpful to first identify the top three skills or attributes that I think are most critical for the job I’m interviewing for.

Then, I pick a project that best demonstrates each of those skills. Throughout the presentation, I show how that project demonstrates my abilities in that particular area.

This lens helps me focus my story on the essentials. The narrative of each individual project becomes: You need someone who can do [insert skill here]. I can do that. Let me show you how I’ve done it in the past.

Keep in mind that the “three project” rule of thumb can be adapted to meet your needs. In the past when I didn’t feel like I had three projects that were good enough to show, I took one project and broke it apart into three sections that each demonstrated a different key skill set for the job (in my case, it was: research, design, and strategy)

For chronology, you might want to consider putting your most recent work first and going backward. If you end up running short on time, you’ve at least had a chance to showcase your latest and greatest.

Or, you could order your projects based on an inherent narrative structure. If you’re trying to showcase three skills that have a natural progression (ex. user research, ideation, prototyping), you can use that chronology to order your projects.

Step 4: Articulate Your Process

When sharing design work, it’s important to go beyond just showing deliverables. Articulate your creative process —and not just the choices you made, but why you made those choices. It’s important for a hiring team to understand how you think about and approach problem-solving.

For each project I showcase, I try to answer the following questions in my presentation:

  • Context / Goals: What is this project? Who is it for, and why does it matter to them? What was your role in this project, and what type of collaboration with others was involved?
  • Pain Point: What problem were you trying to solve? Why was that problem important?
  • Process: What process did you use to solve the problem? Why was that process the right choice given the constraints of the project?
  • Solution: What was the solution you developed? How did you get there?
  • Impact: What was the impact as a result of this solution? Are there things you would do differently in the future? What did you/your team/your organization learn from this process?

Step 5: Tell Great Stories

Great storytelling is about setting stakes and provoking an emotional response. If everything feels like a constant, uninterrupted success… it can be boring. Talking about the highs and lows of a project helps add energy to the presentation, raises the stakes, and gives the audience something to root for.

So talk about the constraints, the challenges, the surprising learnings, the incorrect assumptions, the mistakes — and how you overcame all of those. Those are important elements for a hiring team to understand. Take them on a journey with you.

As you develop a narrative for each of the projects you’re showcasing, build a roller coaster — not a ladder.

Step 6: Finish Strong

I always like to end portfolio presentations with a strong conclusion — it’s important to make sure that the audience leaves with your one key takeaway. Use a minute or two to make sure that they couldn’t possibly reach any other conclusion — and then take questions.

To summarize everything above, here’s my go-to story structure for a portfolio review. You should adapt it in a way that’s authentic to you!

Now go get that job!

Senior UX Designer