6 common mistakes candidates make during portfolio presentations

Aaina
3 min readFeb 12, 2024

…and how you can avoid them

Photo by airfocus on Unsplash

Portfolio presentations are a crucial part of any design interview process, and a few key factors can make all the difference in establishing yourself as a strong contender. I’ve conducted numerous case study walkthroughs and portfolio presentations throughout my career. Below are a few of my observations on what candidates at all levels typically overlook.

Lack of a clear narrative

Storytelling > frames

Your portfolio presentation is a vehicle for you to show the hiring team that you’re more than the pixels they see on those frames. Tell a compelling story about your work. Make it engaging so the hiring team can understand your thought process and why you might have chosen to make certain decisions over others. Include interesting highlights from the projects, hurdles that you faced along the way, and discussions you had to have to get to the final state. Listening to an engaging story sure beats having to sit through a dry presentation with nothing but screenshots and words.

Not enough focus on the user problem

Show how your work adds value

Over-emphasis on visuals alone and not enough on the discovery phase of the process can leave a lot to be desired. Focus on the user problem you’re trying to solve, along with some of the business goals that you took into account. Why was this problem worth solving? What indication did you have that this was something worth investing the team’s time in? When you go deeper into the problem space, it starts to become more clear to the audience why you chose to solve the problem in the way you did when you get to that part of the presentation.

Skipping impact and key learnings

Complete the story

I see designers end their presentations at the handoff stage far too often. Give the hiring team a full picture of the level of impact your project had and what some of your key learnings were. How would you (or did you) apply these learnings to future iterations? How did you collaborate with your Product and Engineering peers on this? Being able to reflect on learnings and show the level of impact your projects have had shows the hiring manager that you’re capable of seeing the project through post-handoff. It also shows your desire to continue to improve and iterate.

Information overload

Quality over quantity

Most recruiters/hiring managers will give you guidance on how many case studies they’d like for you to present based on how much time you will have. It’s always better to err on the side of caution and present as many (or as few) case studies as you think would capture your expertise as a designer without overloading your audience with information. Try not to go overboard with the amount of information you cover. You want to pace your presentation well so you give your audience sufficient information without it being overwhelming. Tough balance, I know. It’s better to show 1–2 stellar case studies that show your process and variety of skillsets versus showing more work without landing the right message.

Not rehearsing enough

Being prepared helps with confidence

Ask a buddy to listen as you go over your presentation a couple of times. Ask them to warn you if you’re going over the allotted time and make sure you bake time in for questions. Going into the presentation prepared can help with your confidence and make the uncertainty of it a little less daunting. It rarely pays off to go in completely unrehearsed unless that just happens to be your thing.

Not being able to adapt

Adapt to your audience and the situation

There are many things that can “go wrong” during your presentation — technical issues, the team has more questions than you had anticipated, you went way over with your first case study, and so on. That’s ok, stuff happens. Improvize in the moment. If you’re asked a lot of questions, take the time to answer them thoughtfully instead of rushing through them to get to the next case study. Modify your plan to accommodate for what the situation demands in that moment. The hiring manager will appreciate your adaptability and your ability to think on your feet.

Hope these are helpful as you prepare for your next portfolio presentation. Good luck!

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Aaina

Designer of many things. Currently, leading the Core Products Design team at Grammarly. Helping Designers and Design Leaders navigate their career.