25 Feb 2020

What should a design manager do with their portfolio?

Even in design school, I spent many nights and weekends slaving over my portfolio in the seldom-visited corners of the the university library (where I frequently went to work undisturbed). I remember spending hours researching on Stack Overflow how to achieve the exact masonry-tiled aesthetic I desired for my portfolio before the new CSS flex box and grid standards made that easy.

My portfolio grew and evolved over time, initially taking the shape of branding and packaging mockups that are so popular in graphic design. As I leaned into digital design, business card and letter heads were replaced by photorealistic renderings of laptops, tablets, and phones. Fully immersed in the world of UX, that portfolio was taken over by user research and case studies.

As I’ve managed designers, my actual design output has steadily been decreasing until it is now almost nonexistent. It’s harder and harder to tie my involvement to one specific project or outcome, which can be a tricky shift for someone who has defined their career by making things. I’ve found myself identifying more and more with Jerrod’s thoughts here:

UX managers cannot point to a design or research report and say, “I created that!” Instead, they must define their personal accomplishment through the success of the team and organization at large.
Jerrod Larson

Which raises the question: if I’m no longer producing designs, do I still need a portfolio? Or am I still producing designs, just at a larger scale? To answer this question, I think it’s worth taking a look at the purpose of design portfolios in general.

What should a designer’s portfolio showcase?

A portfolio is like a travel log. It describes where a designer has been and what they did there. The designer can and should tell a story of why they chose to travel where they did, what they encountered there, and what they did about it. It may contain stories of dead ends, perilous mistakes, and uncharted territories. The designer brings these lessons with them to their future opportunities and continues to blaze new trails.

As I’ve mentioned before portfolios need to encapsulate a breadth of required skills (depending on the role and the organization). For example:

  • How well can this person conduct research?
  • How does this person work with others in the design process?
  • How well can this person iterate and produce a broad range of ideas?
  • How does this person like to validate their ideas?
  • How well can this person design interfaces?
  • How does this person measure the success of their work?
  • How does this person work with other team members from other disciplines?
  • Etc.

When I look at design portfolios, I’m trying to imagine that person being on my team. These and other questions are rooted out at different points in an interview, but can largely be showcased up front in a well-designed portfolio.

What does a design manager need to showcase?

Some design managers focus solely on enabling and aiding designers on their team. Others may take on a more strategic and vision-setting role (strategic vs tactical). If they’re not conducting direct-consumer research and producing interfaces and solutions, what can they showcase?

In your head, you may be thinking, “Nothing. That’s what a resume is for.” And you may be right! But as I’ve interviewed fellow design managers looking to join my team, I’ve found myself asking questions like these:

  • What new perspectives and ideas can this person bring to my team?
  • How well can this person teach design?
  • How does this person handle conflict?
  • What gaps exist on my team this person can help fill?
  • In which methods and practices is this person an expert?
  • Etc.

You may notice it doesn’t sound all that different from the question I ask when looking at a design portfolio, except that it’s more about how an individual supports and leads others rather than how they complete a project themselves. The primary difference is that it is simply less visual.

How do you showcase that?

If a design portfolio showcases concrete design skills, what should a manager’s portfolio showcase? How does a manager capture leadership, inspiration, and conflict resolution in a tangible format?

My goal is try and create a portfolio for myself that showcases those things. It may be less visual than a traditional design portfolio. Ideas will replace images. Decisions will replace designs. But at its core, it will carry forward what my original portfolio did: a showcase of my experiences over time.

I’d like to collect a series of thoughts and ideas here that surround building teams, teaching design, handling conflict, and more. I’ll share ideas, frameworks, and methodologies along the way. It will probably contain some what-not-to-do stories as well. Either way, I hope it serves as a reminder to me of what I’ve learned and as a showcase to readers of where I’ve been and where I’m going.

In other words, your portfolio is a blog?

Yeah, it’s basically a blog.