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Good Reads: You’re my Favorite Client and Advice on Portfolios

Reading Time: 5 minutes

I’m in the middle of reading You’re my Favorite Client, another great book from A Book Apart, by Mike Monteiro. And some of his advice (note that this book is, ostensibly, for clients to read) on how to evaluate a designer’s portfolio had me taking another look at what I’ve done and the advice that I give on portfolio work.

Monteiro starts off by saying that every designer should have a portfolio (See! It’s not just me!). However, he also says that clients shouldn’t expect to be able to go to a portfolio and pick an item off the shelf that will solve their problem. Instead, he likens a portfolio to a visit to a tailor.

You are making a decision about whether you’re going to let them take your measurements, but your suit hasn’t been made yet.

Mike Monteiro, You're my Favorite Client

He then goes on to suggests several criteria for evaluation.

Red Flags

Is Their Work Good?

And by this, he doesn’t mean “is it pretty?” or “do you like it?” Instead, he suggests that the designer’s portfolio and the designer themselves in an interview should be able to answer questions about a project’s effectiveness. They should be able to speak to the client’s goal for the project, how what they designed was meant to solve the problem, and finally, whether or not the project actually solved the problem.

I always try to speak to this in the professional work I’m able to share, but one of the things that’s always been a source of frustration for me is that I’ve yet to be in an organization that tracks the final effectiveness of our projects. But then, I’ve never been in an organization that serves a specific set of internal clients, either. So, I have some some issues with being able to fulfill this particular point, but I still think it’s very important to continue working towards including this kind of information in my portfolio pieces.

Is All/A Lot of the Work for the Same Client?

This is one of several red flags that Monteiro says to watch out for. His reasoning is this: if a freelancer has done all of their work for a single client, then they haven’t branched out beyond their comfort zone. They haven’t learned to communicate and problem solve in a variety of different contexts. He also warns, that it’s possible that your work (as a client) might be put on the back burner if this one big client comes calling.

Is A Lot of the Work Personal Projects/Student Work?

This one hit home! TL;DR Monteiro suggests that a portfolio full of personal projects can signal one of a few things. Firstly, it could signal that the designer is a newbie, inexperienced. This seems like a catch-22, and he recognizes that a client shouldn’t be afraid to work with a newbie, they should simply be prepared to do so with eyes wide open. Still, it’s tough for us newbie IDs. We have to do work to make a portfolio and gain experience, but we may not be able to attract clients (or an employer) because we’re a newbie. So we have to practice as best we can. Of course, you should chase down volunteer and/or internship experiences if you can. (Check out Designers for Learning for one source of real-world projects). But if those are out of reach, that means personal projects/student work. I think the bottom line is that there’s not much we can do to escape this issue.

However, Monteiro also talks about some of the other things that this can signal. For example, a lot of personal work may signal lack of confidence; the designer may feel that the work they do for themselves is stronger than the work they do for clients. (In our case, I’d add that there may be the problem of convincing clients to allow you to use the work in your portfolio; but ALWAYS ask for at least screenshots.) A lack of confidence is a red flag for Monteiro as he insists that designers should be confident in their work, having done all of the work necessary, made the arguments, and communicated effectively enough so that they can be proud of their work.

Lastly, this could signal that the designer doesn’t actually want to do client work. Instead, they’re happier experimenting. At least for now, I think I’m guilty of this one. I’ve tried freelancing while working my job and found that I really, really didn’t like how it cut into my experimentation time. For me, my portfolio projects are a way for me to try things that I can’t do in my day job.

As I said, this is a tough one for all us newbs. It can be a red flag, but in many ways, it’s the best we’ve got. However, Monteiro also offers this important tip: student work (and side projects, I suppose) should be replaced as quickly as possible with professional work.

Is A Lot of the Work Focused on “How I would have Done This”?

Several of the guests on Dear Instructional Designer have talked about gaining the skills to push back. Many have said that, in the end, if they aren’t able to convince a client, they go with what the client wants, which I think I’m right in saying Monteiro would disagree with(!!!), though he openly acknowledges that every designer has clients that they can’t convince. However, he warns about designers who have a lot of revisionist work on their portfolio as the most dangerous red flag. This, he writes, signals a designer without the communication skills to solve the problem properly while working with the client and who couldn’t let it go.

I don’t think this is something that I’ve ever recommended, but if I have, I take it back.

Similarly, he warns against portfolios that reimagine other websites (something I have recommended, as a part of the personal project work problem above). This he explains (and I understand the reasoning) is a red flag because the designer showcasing the work has no knowledge of the actual problems that the design was trying to solve and so their work is without context. It’s not real design, because it’s not a solution.

Positive Signs

It’s not all doom and gloom. He also points out several good signs that should encourage the client to reach out for a conversation.

Is the Work an Eclectic Mix?

One of the things Monteiro states explicitly (which I think is also a problem we have in the ID space) is that a client should not shy away from designers who haven’t worked in their industry. In fact, people who don’t know “how it’s always been done” can be a breath of fresh air for a design problem, able to synthesize their experience from other industries into how they work in this new space. We still have a long way to go in convincing employers and clients of this (that’s who this book is for!), and Monteiro writes that a designer who can show the work they’ve done in a variety of industries and contexts is someone who shows that they have curiosity and the ability to apply their skills to problems across domains. This is a good thing.

Does Every Piece Have a Story?

This is probably something I was a little light on in my ebook, but it’s something that I do in practice. I’ve seen portfolios that are just a bunch of images or have short blurbs. I think that each portfolio piece you represent should present the context.

To properly evaluate whether this person is the right designer for you, you need to know the context for their work. What problem did they solve? What was their timeline? Which audiences did they address?

Mike Monteiro, You're My Favorite Client

Good work does not speak for itself.

Does Their Work Make Sense and Do you Want to Use It?

Particularly in the space of elearning design or system design, the things we make and present on our portfolios should be intuitive. They should have UIs that make sense, are accessible and easy to navigate. Our creations should make it very clear what people are supposed to be able to do with them. And they should be designed in should a way that people want to try them out, are curious to learn more, to touch, to experience. That speaks to good design.

Wrap Up

Mike offers up a dose of tough love for designers here by speaking to the client on the types of things they should be looking for. These aren’t always easy suggestions to implement, but I think they’re all good and valid and worth working towards as your portfolio evolves over time.

What do you think? Do any of these pieces of portfolio evaluation advice rub you the wrong way?

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