I’ve been the Creative Director for Different Perspective Ad Agency for over two years. During this time, a lot of design portfolios have crossed my desk. While some are great and some need a bit more work, the vast majority suffer from a very similar set of problems, most of which, have little to do with the work they’re trying to present. But as they say, “don’t point out a problem, unless you have a solution.” With that in mind, I present my three design portfolio pitfalls and how to fix them.

1. It’s all about the work

You’ve just finished your portfolio, finally. Weeks were spent choosing the perfect subtle pattern for the footer. You’ve poured through your favorite, arthouse type foundry – the one where all the founders have beards and smoke pipes – for the perfect font for your H3 tags. You’ve pulled some incredible CSS kung fu on the button gradients, giving them just the right amount of depth, flat design be damned. Thanks to your JavaScript, a gloriously seamless animation activates when a user clicks on the contact link, causing a form to cascade down, ease off canvas and into the center of the screen, like a descending angel, just waiting for its fields to receive input. Freakin’ beautiful.

Your portfolio is born. You rush to fill out the application form of that super trendy digital agency in the downtown area of your super hip, mini metropolis. With pride in your heart, and vigor in your fingers, you link to your smoking hot new portfolio site. That position was always yours, this is just a formality.

Except, a few weeks later you read a blog post, welcoming Derrick, the new digital designer to the agency’s team. You’re confused. You check his site. The work is decent, but where are the bells? Where are the whistles? It’s just five projects in the middle of a blank white background.

Your dreams of lighting the design world on fire have quickly and unceremoniously, fizzled.

So, what happened?

More than likely, you’ve fallen victim to a common rookie mistake, spending too much time making the site itself shine and not enough time, putting the actual work into context. There’s only so much time a hiring manager or recruiter has to filter through a mountain of portfolios. They’re  less interested in your fancy coding skills and more interested in learning what problems you solved for your clients and how. This may sound contrary to the many articles out there encouraging you to redefine what a portfolio can be. Sure, making a brochure that unfolds into a cutout of your face with social networking logos for earrings will get you noticed, but a clean site with well thought out projects, just might get you the job.

So, remember when it comes time to polish up your portfolio, it’s all about the work. Take the time to put it in context and less time making those buttons pop.

2. Less is more

The number one mistake many designers make when they’re building their first portfolio is what I like to call “project bloat.” You’ve worked for months or years to build up a stockpile of high quality designs and now you’re ready to show the world. Those flyers you designed for your mom’s bake sale are as fresh as can be. They have to have a place on the new site. That band poster you designed for your sister’s boyfriend’s friend’s band is sporting the latest and greatest in flat design, long shadows, and whatever else is the flavor of the day. Of course it has a place on the new site.  This goes on for a few days and the portfolio begins taking shape. At the end of the week, you have six, solid projects for potential employers to sample, polished to a shine and dripping with context. Everything is right with the world. You’re on your way.

But, you don’t stop there. You keep skimming your hard drive, looking for more stuff to add, telling yourself, more is better. You add that business card you made for the weird guy who lives down the street. You throw that doodle you never really fleshed out, up there, with the inkling, that it shows your process. The underside of that package design project, that’s basically solid green with a bar code, gets tossed in the mix. This goes on until your “A” portfolio is swimming in “C” material. You’re not entirely proud of EVERYTHING on the site, but there sure is a lot, and that shows you have experience, right?

Not quite.

In his book, “Insanely Simple,” Apple’s back-in-the-day marketing guru Ken Segall recalls a pitch he made to then CEO, Steve Jobs. The pitch didn’t go over very well, when, instead of presenting the one great idea everyone believed in and standing behind it wholeheartedly, they hedged and presented it alongside others they thought were good, but not great. The result was complete rejection.

When we met with Steve Jobs, I laid the work out in front of him. He pointed right to the suspect ads and said,

“Ah. So you put the B team on this one, did you?”

I was busted. The truth is, I thought those ads were “good enough,” and I’d included them with another series of ads I thought was much better. But there they sat, diminishing the quality of our show. What I had done was easier, not smarter. Now I’d have to work to gain back the credibility points I’d just lost with Steve. I’d made my life more complicated.

When it comes to your design work, less is often times more. The same can be said for your portfolio. Keep it simple and keep the “C” work on the benches.

3. Skip the responsibilities. Show me the accomplishments.

This tip works, not just for design portfolios, but resumes in general.

Think about the first thing you do when you’re filling out a resume or job application. You begin by bullet pointing all of the various responsibilities you’ve had with past employers. Maybe it was opening and closing a store, counting down registers, or maintaining bathroom cleanliness. You strain to remember every little task you were ever assigned, in an effort to fluff up your experience and make yourself look more responsible. But therein lies the problem, modern employers aren’t just looking for employees who are responsible. I’m not saying there isn’t a quiet nobility to clocking in, getting the job done and going home at night, knowing you made an honest days pay. But, in today’s ultra competitive market, potential employers are looking for more. The days of the monotonous factory job are, for the most part, over. Employers are looking for someone who’s going to effect a change. someone who will solve problems and leave the company in a better state than they found it.

The best way for a designer to attract the attention of these employers is to avoid padding their “About” section with responsibilities and start filling their portfolio with accomplishments. I’m not talking about awards either. Did you solve a tricky navigation problem? That’s an accomplishment. Did you consolidate five pages of information into a usable infographic? That’s an accomplishment. Did that redesigned donation section you made on that non-profit site double the donations from last year, because it was more visible and easier to use? You guessed it, accomplishment.

You have their attention with your slick design skills, now seal the deal by showing them there’s brains behind that beauty.

This is a post by our Creative Director, Rob Jones.