I recently read an opinion piece* about Design portfolios looking increasingly similar. It so happens that I’m in the process of renewing & updating my own, so I was naturally drawn to the headline.
Well, not all projects are unique (oh surprise!). They often address common concerns. We usually initiate, plan and execute a project for a very concrete set of reasons, (with our own methodology or the project’s). In the end, its success means we solved one or more problems.
So what is a portfolio, beyond a curated collection of projects? Primarily, portfolios are not there to entertain, nor as an artistic endeavour (although there can be an element of it).
Portfolios exist to showcase a person’s or a team’s work, and that work is more often than not, determined by context, the methodology, the constraints, the participating teams, the business demands of said project and so forth.
Where are we getting at?
Wanting to stand out could not be more legitimate an effort, but the moment you add poor readability, very unusual navigation patterns, unexpected interactions or heavy visuals (leading to longer loading times) in pursue of originality, the whole thing is defeating its own purpose, isn’t it?
This is a very common obsession when we are very young: we’re so focused on being “original” we easily forget what really matters is to be good.
Not my words, but Paul Rand’s.
And what does “being good” mean?
It means knowing how to understand a brief, it means being organised, being good at communicating, managing risks, expectations, quality and timing; being able to cooperate, being open to changes, being resourceful, knowing when to pivot and so on and so forth.
All in all, a certain level of understanding of business.
It means providing value, by means of solving a business need or problem. It means asking the right questions, uncover the right answers where possible, and helping a client realise their vision. In an ideal scenario, you’ll even discover new insights along the way.
In terms of importance, all of this come way before “being original”.
- Good Design is a process to question things, and provide valuable, long-lasting solutions to business questions.
- Good design responds to people’s needs and people’s wants.
- Good Design is inclusive, and accesible and insightful.
- And don’t forget that, more often that not, you participate in a Design project to contribute to someone else’s vision, not your own (unless you are your own client).
Design is not something that you do, it is not a “craft” and Design is definitely not an expression of your inner artistic inspiration. Design is, ultimately, a way to de-risk going to market, by improving an experience. The sooner we understand this, the sooner some of this struggle and frustration will end.
This should definitely not be taken as a confrontation between beautiful vs ugly; boring vs amusing: they are not mutually exclusive.
Sure, Design (just like the portfolios showcasing it) can be original and even aesthetically pleasing; optimally, it would be. That is not, however, its number one purpose, not even number two; and if you have read this far, it is too easy to think why this is the case.
Not everyone has the opportunity to ride the wave of a market disruption that changes the world. Most projects are there to solve very concrete, mundane user and / or business problems and those concerns are shared by many users and /or businesses (therefore very relevant).
Creating a useful & practical portfolio is, in essence, no different as a project for all of us. Perhaps closer to the bone, our baby project, but a project nonetheless.
This should definitely not be taken as a confrontation between beautiful vs ugly; boring vs amusing, because they are not mutually exclusive.
If you’re just pursuing uniqueness, I suggest you read good poetry, a good novel or go see a good play / exhibition. Design is not better or worse than the Arts (which we all appreciate and enjoy), it just serves a slightly different set of goals, and it so happens that aesthetic delight & surprise factor are not formally atop its main priorities, even if they can be part of the list.
(*) So, the idea for this brief text came up after reading Dave Feldman’s good article “Is your design portfolio hurting you?”. His main assertion being that around 90% of (Design) portfolios look very similar (btw Dave, thanks for all the good advice in your piece).