Reimaging the Design Portfolio

Traditionally, a design portfolio is an artifact filled with other artifacts. Until recently, it was a physical manifestation of the designer’s best work. It was to be presented, in person, to a potential employer at an interview. Within the past several years this artifact has taken on different digital permutations from websites, pdfs, or stand-alone apps presenting work via a tablet. Throughout these different mutations, the fact remains it was always about the visual presentation of communication artifacts. With this as an introduction, how might we envision the state of a design “portfolio” to widen the field of candidates to include a more equitable opportunity for all?

To answer this, let’s step back a moment and address some important discussion points…

Design defined
A good place to begin is to clearly define “Design”. It is quite appropriate, in my mind, that there be several, slightly nuanced, versions depending on the specific sub-disciple that share the same core elements within each. Starting with a meta view, Herbert Simon stated: “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. Design, so constructed, is the course of all professional training…”(1) If we are to take this statement and turn it into skills assessment, we would see that many working professionals possess skills that could address this position: persistence, leadership, past successes, critical thinking, etc.

In the oft-quoted document, Wicked Problems in Design Thinking, Richard Buchanan presented his four areas (later termed orders) of design – 1) symbolic and visual communication, 2) material objects, 3) activities and organized services, and 4) complex systems or environments for living, working, playing, and learning.(2) He stated that these are not to be viewed as disciples practiced in isolation, but instead, are meant to be practiced holistically. Using the creation of a brand system as an example, we could, potentially, be partaking in all four orders mentioned here. The skills and experience required to participate in any one of these orders are vast, therefore opening the hiring pool beyond those who we might have traditionally considered for design positions.

A slightly more micro view might be stated as such: Design, simply stated, is ideas made visible. The outcomes of design can range from a poster, a building, or an organization. If done correctly, it responds to the context in which it will live and represents the content in a unique way. We would define “correct” in terms of the culture in which the design outcome is going to live in and the people for who it is meant. This definition takes into consideration Buchanan’s position and adds an anthropological twist to it. Here, we can see the need for the introduction of design research and its complementary disciplines, UX/UI, or simply user-centered design.

The reimagined portfolio
So, where does this leave us regarding the need for design candidates to present a portfolio? Given the above definitions and how much of what the definitions lead to is beyond just craft, how might we address the multiplicity of skills necessary to become a proficient design professional? What would this “portfolio” look like? How might we guide young creatives in developing such a reimagined presentation of applicable skills?

In the first chapter of his book, How to be a graphic designer, without losing your soul, Adrian Shaughnessy begins with the attributes needed to be a designer. They are cultural awareness, communication [skills], and integrity. In the same chapter, he alludes to other key elements such as curiosity and the “T-shaped” designer.(3) While most other books written on the subject jump right into the crafting of an artifact, Shaughnessy begins with the soft skills necessary to be successful in the discipline! What makes this challenging for hiring managers and recruiters alike, is that these necessary skills are extremely hard to measure and take time to evaluate. What are the ways that we can tease out these KEY human traits when writing job requisitions or at any other point during the hiring process?

If we agree that a vehicle for presenting one’s skills is necessary for the acquisition of a position within the design discipline, then we must define the contents that would be appropriate for a candidate to present. For young professionals hoping to enter the field, this “book” was typically filled with school or freelance assignments that would best represent the final outcomes of the assignments undertaken. They usually showed the singular product put forth by the candidate and rarely, if ever, represented the professional working environmental challenges of the work-a-day design practitioner. For those with the potential and interest in transitioning to the discipline, the traditional means of putting a portfolio together may be a challenge. One way to overcome this is to suggest that candidates produce design outcomes based on their personal observation of opportunities for change in their everyday existence, à la the Herbert Simon quote, and present these in a form that best represents their critical thinking as well as technical skills. Another idea is to advise potential candidates to review the experiences that they have had outside the sphere of the design discipline and contextualize it in a way that shows the work’s value to the practice of Design. An example of this may be taking a paper written for a psychology class and explain how the understanding of the human psyche is applied regularly in Design. Another example could be taking a non-design work experience and showcase how it could be integral to a practicing designer. (Ex. having a job in retail allows one to develop empathy which is a key component to working in a user-centered environment.)

Given the current state of the discipline, the form that a portfolio could take is as varied as is the candidates that would represent the potential pool of hires. As mentioned previously, past manifestations were physical, which, in many instances, can still be more than adequate. The candidate would need to take their experiences that they felt are representative of their applicable skills and showcase them in narrative form. Based on the fact that Design is no longer just about artifact creation, this would allow for the “portfolio” to evolve similarly. The candidate would need to show those skills that address the current needs of the market: intelligence, empathy, communication skills, and some level of craft relating to the job that they are applying for. The form could be a video, one’s Instagram feed, a website, a book, or any easily sharable form.

At this point, I would like to propose a nomenclature shift – rather than refer to what hiring managers are looking for as a “portfolio”, might we just refer to it as a “body of work”? This, more general term, could be a way for potential candidates to see the possibilities for themselves and for the industry to begin to move away from outdated models, and barriers, when seeking new talent. While not eliminating those candidates who have a portfolio, it allows for other means and media types, to showcase talented individuals in the way that many of them already do.

A note about social media: one thing that we must continue to be aware of is the notion of social schema’s and how they are preserved within [a] culture. In this case, I am thinking of two specific narratives – 1) the notion of aesthetic rightness that has perpetuated around the European Avant-Garde, and 2) that much of what is presented comes devoid of the hard work, failure, and perseverance that went into making the work. The first point is deserving of a volume unto its own! There have been so many visual narratives that have been vastly overlooked by those in power. Only recently has the disciple begun to open its eyes to understand the important contributions that were made by so many underrepresented individuals. (It is not within the scope of this writing to right this wrong, so I’ll leave it to someone else to dig at this element.) The second point should be obvious to most professionals, but most likely not so to students and early career professionals — the result that is posted never represents the entire story of its making. How many concepts were explored? How many sketches were made? How many sleepless nights did the person endure? (I think you get the point…) This lack of context might lead many to believe that what they are looking at was easily achieved and therefore unattainable. By not painting a complete picture, some may feel that the discipline is not for them or that they lack the skills necessary to succeed when just the opposite is true. So, while I think it is a useful tool, social media presents a false narrative.

In January 2021, a group of design thinkers at IBM, led by Will Scott, Ph.D., began to seek the guidance of the IBM Design community regarding the qualities that constitute a competent designer and hence, an employable design candidate. A review of the data shows a reiteration of the qualities mentioned by Adrian Shaughnessy and many of the technical and craft-oriented skills that one would assume, (some examples include: the ability to create personas, proficiency in Adobe CC, understanding information hierarchy, etc.) as well as an abundance of “soft skills” (good communication and presentation skills, empathy, etc.). Some insights revealed by the data are: 1) the need for a growth mindset which has been defined by things such and curiosity and nimbleness, 2) leadership, as represented by such traits as being able to think independently, showing a strong work ethic, and presenting a high level of commitment, 3) receptivity to feedback, how does one respond to criticism of one’s work, does the candidate learn from their mistakes and showcase the ability to grow and learn from them, 4) passion, another human trait that cannot be taught, and 5) humility. When this information is compared to IBM’s “What to look for in a candidate” it is clear that there are some gaps in what designers communicate as “need to have” vs. what HR practitioners are looking for initially. It seems to me that too much of the focus is on technicality and less on the innately human qualities of the candidate. In my mind, candidates that possess the multitude of “soft-skills” mentioned so far are eminently more teachable and may have a higher growth ceiling than those candidates that have been taught to focus primarily on final design outcomes.

Let’s widen our search
To increase the equitable nature of the discipline we must first consider widening the scope of our talent search. Most design firms look to the same small pool of design talent, most of which comes from higher-end, private, design schools. Many of these institutes are out of the financial reach of many. With that in mind, how many talented designers are we missing out on? Conversely, how many talented individuals never even consider a career in design? If we were to widen our search parameters, how might the cultural landscape of the discipline change?

A few places that the equitable search for talent might begin are within the HBCU and HIS systems. These institutes include: and Would it benefit IBM to expand its connections to these institutes? Of course, but with so many relationships to build, where would the process begin? It might be a good idea to foster these relationships beginning with those on our team who are alumni of these institutions. The knowledge of the programs and their rigor would help to determine whether the graduates of the institute in question would deliver the sort of top-notch talent that IBM is looking for.

Another undervalued resource resides within the Junior college ranks. Research would need to be done regarding those institutes that consistently produce strong critical/creative thinkers.

There comes a day where this conversation does not have to happen, where committees on racial equity do not need to be formed, where organizations no longer need to make a stand for people of color, and where we can engage with humankind without thinking “other”. These days are in the future, to be truthful, but they are possible with persistence, empathy, transparency, truth, and caring. The opportunities and inclusion that have been afforded to many of us, will soon be available to all if we keep putting in the work. We cannot forget the past, but instead, we must learn from it!

This is, by no means, a finished thought, but a jumping-off point. Let’s continue to keep our hearts and eyes open to the possibilities we have before us and continue to work together for a more equitable discipline!

PS. Please visit the IBM Racial and Equity in Design site to see what we have been up to:

1. Herbert A. Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996), 111.
2. Richard Buchanan, “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking”, Design Issues, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Spring 1991): 9-10.
3. Adrian Shaughnessy, How to be a graphic designer, without losing your soul, (New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010), 17-26.

Buchanan, Richard. “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking”. Design Issues, Vol. 8, No. 2, Spring 1991.
Gomez-Palacio, Bryony, and Vit, Armin. Flaunt: Designing effective, compelling and memorable portfolios for creative work. UnderConsideration, LLC, Austin, TX. 2010.
Shaughnessy, Adrian. How to be a graphic designer, without losing your soul. Princeton Architectural Press, New York, NY. 2010.
Simon, Herbert A.. The Sciences of the Artificial. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. 1996.

Joe DiGioia is a Design Lead at IBM based in Austin, Texas. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies, or opinions.