This article was co-written with Angela Nguyen
You passed the initial phone interview and now comes the final test to show potential employers what you are capable of: the portfolio presentation.
Portfolio presentations are the norm for any design position. It shows employers your thought process through design problems and how well you communicate to others. It’s the perfect opportunity to prove that you are the most qualified designer for the job.
If you never gave a portfolio presentation before, it might feel pretty intimidating (I know because I have been in that position) but don’t worry! I have given a fair amount of portfolio presentations and I still get nervous before each one. You can’t avoid portfolio presentations, or any presentation for that matter (especially working in the design industry), but you can definitely get better and conquer your fear of presenting.
Here are steps and tips which have come from my experience of interviewing at different tech companies as well as my friends/mentors who work at some of the biggest companies in tech. As a student, I have interviewed with Microsoft, Amazon, Intuit, Google and more, enhancing my understanding of the interview process as well as my presentation skills. I have one more year of school left with an internship lined up for the summer. I am writing this article with the help of my good friend and co-author, Angela. Angela currently works at Amazon and has had the opportunity to interview with tech giants, receiving multiple offers after graduating. For the integrity of the companies and the people working there, we will not be specifying what each of these companies are looking for, but will provide tips on how you can execute a kick-ass presentation of your work.
1. Before the portfolio presentation:
Prepare the slide deck
When I am given the task to prepare a portfolio review, I ask if there are any requirements in regards to the structure of how my presentation should look or what information my potential audience would want to know most about. Some companies want you to emphasize your design process while other companies will provide resources to help you prepare your presentation based on specific guidelines. Regardless of what is expected, I first create a basic framework for my presentation. Based on which company I’m presenting to, I’d later make changes accordingly.
Here is the basic frame work we typically start with when designing for any portfolio presentation:
- Title Slide
- Overview of projects
- Outcome (the what and why of your project aka elevator pitch)
- Brief (problem)
- Outline (approach)
- Process (struggles and success)
- Next steps (what would you do differently if given the chance? Remember, a project never ends after the due date)
The Title Slide
Here’s a slide before beginning your presentation. It helps when people are settling down or still coming into the room. You can use it as a breather too!
Never jump into your presentation without introducing yourself. Interviewers want to know who you are! Typically, your interviewers are meeting you for the first time so this is an opportunity to make a good impression, just as though you were meeting a new friend. I like to give my design statement in my introduction. I also bring up past places I’ve worked, to give a context of the types of projects or environments I’ve experienced.
Overview of Presentation
Your design work should cover a wide range of problems and approaches, as well as describing the what, why and how of each project and your contributions. Every company puts emphasis on different things, whether it’s on teamwork or a more user-centric process, so the kinds of projects you show should change depending on who you are presenting to. Before diving deep into a particular project, I give an overview of my presentation to give the audience a heads up on what I will be showing. The overview assures employers that you’re going to cover a range of things, as to not keep them in suspense on whether or not you’re going to talk about something they had in mind. It is okay to be picky about the projects you present. Portfolio presentations are a great opportunity to tell your audience about a project you really enjoyed vs not so much. Sometimes we learn more from the project that wasn’t so great and employers want to know how you handled that situation.
Projects (Address the Big Picture)
Start by showing the final outcome while giving the elevator pitch; not going into details but showing a surface level of what the project is and why. Emphasize your design statement or high level takeaway on your projects. This way the audience can keep in the back of their mind what you’re talking about, just not to leave them hanging when you’re going through the millions of hours and efforts in the process portion. Interviewers know how designers invest their time into every project. It’s about sharing how the idea evolved over time.
Here is helpful resource that has 10 rules to instantly improve your presentation.
Things to think about when curating your presentation
Questions to keep in mind
Your presentation has a purpose. Every slide and every word that comes out of mouth should provide insight and meaning to how you think. Here are questions I use when I create a framework for my presentations in order to have a better sense of what I will be presenting to the audience.
- What is your project about?
- In team projects, how did you contribute?
- Who are you designing for?
- What is the main problem you were trying to solve?
- How did you execute your project?
- Why is this part of the process important and how does it help you in understanding the problem?
- How does your solution connect to the problem?
- What are the key things you want your audience to learn?
Regarding the design of your presentation, you do not want to incorporate too much text into it. You probably have heard the saying in that if you add a huge amount of text into a presentation, people will divert their attention from you to reading the slide itself. You do not want to take people’s attention away from you because the point of a presentation is to have people listen to you. If you have less text and more pictures, it allows people to wonder and focus. pictures are the teaser while you are the one giving meaning to those pictures. Now that is what people came for.
“More show in slides. Tell in person.”
Don’t show all of your process if it doesn’t add to your story. You only want to highlight the aspects that were especially fundamental to understanding the problem and creating the solution.
You only have a limited amount of time to present so you need to get to the point. You want to intentionally explain how each part of your process helped you in getting to your solution, solving the problem, and understanding your user.
“Don’t stumble and get to the point.”
What is the point of showing a picture of a system flow or insights from your research? You want to intentionally explain how each part of your process helped you.
Stories are powerful
Tell a story about your design process, explaining the WHY instead of WHAT behind your decisions. We have a tendency to state what we did, but we do not always connect it to our users who should be our main focus surrounding the design. You also want to frame your story as though you overcame great obstacles because people love hearing stories with high stakes and fulfilling, meaningful endings.
At the end of every project (especially towards the end of the presentation), have a strong ending, present the solution, summarize findings, and have a message whether it is emphasizing your design ethos and/or how your skills can help the company. This is your chance to not leave people confused or hanging. You want to be able to address any lingering questions during the presentation so after the presentation can be more emphasized on the interviewers getting to know you.
“Be honest and upfront. Not every project went smoothly and it’s okay to call that out in your process. Employers wants to know how you handle problems and how you would fit in their design team. They care more about how you execute the content versus what the content is.”
Remember the most important thing is that you are presenting the work YOU did. If you cannot explain YOUR work, then how can other people understand it? This is a guarantee to leave a bad impression and not job.
The speaking part of the presentation
Practice, and if you aren’t great at public speaking, practice A LOT. Practice presenting your portfolio to other people in order to build confidence and develop a flow on how you will be storytelling. In the context of presenting anything important, repetition is key. Always go through your presentation with someone to pin point where you lack to emphasize key points; the person you practice with might even have helpful tips for you!
Be VERY flexible. A senior designer from Microsoft taught me the importance of being very intentional about what you say under constraints. This will allow you to present your ideas and process more efficiently and effectively. If you had 5 minutes or even 1 minute to pitch your design to someone, say a product designer or even the CEO of said company, how would you explain your work to them? Tailor the presentation based on the time you have, such as creating a hierarchy and outline. What are the three most important things about a project? Are they the pros of a project, next steps, learnings, etc. By time boxing your presentation as well as framing the way you present your information based on importance (what is lvl 1 stuff to talk about, lvl 2, lvl 3), it allows you to find the core of your project and the key points that will most likely draw attention.
2. During the portfolio presentation:
Always enter and leave with a good impression. Show your appreciation and enthusiasm for being invited to present. Provide your audience with your resume or an outline of your agenda so your interviewers can easily follow along your presentation.
Breathe and show good body posture. When nervous, we tend to do worse on performance because we can’t focus. My teacher wrote an article that talks about the importance of moving while speaking and how that can contribute to a great presentation. It helps you ease your nervousness while engaging to the audience.
Break your information down
Prime your interviewers to make sure they know what to expect before diving head on into your projects. Your interviewers are probably looking at your work for the first time or if they have looked at your work, they most likely have not looked at it in depth. Don’t expect them to remember every project without telling them directly.
Before you go into presenting your projects, it’s okay to state the obvious such as “Hey this my work and I want to walk you through it.” It’s also beneficial to give an overview of what you are going to talk about to and give a scope of how long and what will be in your presentation. An example of this is breaking down your projects to show diversity or your skill set (Project 1: UI, Project 2: UX Project 3: UX Research, etc.) It is better to tell them what they will be seeing BEFORE so they have an easier time to process everything, especially during a short time period. The interviewers have to understand everything about you in less than one hour.
When speaking in general between slides or ideas, leave breathing time for not only yourself but for the audience to ask questions. A presentation is best when it becomes a discussion. And you don’t want to rush through talking anyway because it doesn’t allow the audience to digest what you are saying, causing them to zone out and not follow you. The purpose of a portfolio presentation is to have people follow YOU.
“Don’t give a speech, put on a show.”
By showing excitement, you give an impression that shows how much you want the job. Even beyond that, showing excitement is what makes other people excited. It can also influence your performance in a positive way. People want to work with someone who is passionate and isn’t afraid of tackling challenges, such as presentations!
Open the floor for questions
It is important to present under the time given so you can have more time for Q and A. Be careful when asking questions in between projects; it can risk your presentation from shifting completely into a Q and A session.
Be prepared to answer questions and always have questions for the interviewers. They want to know what you are curious about and if you have any questions that spark interesting discussions about the company or what they do.
3. After the portfolio presentation:
Ask for feedback
Most big companies will not provide feedback when they share your results, but during the interview, it is perfectly reasonable to ask for feedback on a project if the opportunity presents itself. Sometimes after describing a project, the interviewer will provide their feedback because it’s almost instinct for designers to help other designers. If the company doesn’t explain their policy about feedback after the interview, it never hurts to ask.
Keep in touch
Always follow up with an email to everyone in the room, within a week, to say thank you. It also helps remind them to follow through on your interview process. You can even hand out business cards at the end of your presentation. It is like a nudge that indicates “Hey, let’s keep in touch.”
In the portfolio presentation, you get assessed based on your skills (background in design, experience, design thinking), personality (is this person someone who can take feedback, work with the team) and your ability to present (can this person explain things clearly, tell compelling story about their work, communicate).
“These days, skills alone aren’t enough to get the job.”
Just like choosing the best candidate, a portfolio presentation is a multi faceted experience to show employers the whole package of who you are and the potential of what you can bring to the table. Designers who can make great work AND communicate are better than those who do one or the other.
We hope this little guide to creating an amazing portfolio presentation and what to do before, during, and after will help you in your design interviews. Good luck!
For a detailed view on interviewing for design jobs, read Andrew’s article:
If you want to master the top interview questions in every design interview, read my article:
If you want to improve your portfolio, read my article as well as Christina’s
To help you get started on owning your design career, here are some amazing tools from Rookieup, a site I used to get mentorship from senior designers:
- Build a portfolio with help from an experienced designer
- Essential tools to strengthen and build your portfolio
- Take control of your time and career by becoming a freelancer
- Tips and tricks to get an amazing design job
Links to some other cool reads:
- Prepping for Design Interviews (My Microsoft Onsite Experience)
- Most UX portfolios suck
- What I learned as a designer in the past 2–3 years
- The Types of Design Research every Designer should know NOW
- When did Design become so Easy?
This article was originally published on Tiffany’s Medium page.