How to Create a Design Portfolio That Employers Will Love

If you’ve been dreaming of leaving your job and launching a career in the creative industry, there’s never been a better time than right now. The market for design jobs is growing, and to attract talent, employers are paying more and giving their employees more freedom.

But, on the other hand, as the number of jobs has increased, there’s been an explosion in the number of junior designers entering the market, making the industry more competitive than ever before. And considering that hiring managers only look at an application for about 2 minutes before making a decision, having a unique and comprehensive portfolio’s pretty crucial if you want to stand out.

Here’s how to ensure that yours is doing enough to grab attention.


Focus on Solving Real Problems


Before deciding what projects to work on, it’s important to understand what traits employers are looking for in successful portfolios.

First and foremost, companies want to see projects that solve real world problems. If you’ve visited sites like Dribbble before, you’ve probably been impressed by the never-ending stream of beautiful designs. Interestingly, employers have told me time and time again that they don’t care about beautiful visuals on their own if those designs aren’t actually applicable to life.



To come up with ideas for projects, think about problems that exist in your target industry and think about how you could use design to solve those problems. If you’re designing an e-commerce site, for example, think about the problems that users encounter on other online stores and how you can make the experience easier and more enjoyable.


Follow the Right Design Process


After identifying a real problem, it’s crucial to show that you’re able to follow a proper design process informed by research and user testing. As a new designer, it can be tempting to jump straight into technical programs like Sketch and Illustrator right from the start, but to really stand out, you should go through the process that you’d be following on the job.

For every design project, start with research. Research the industry, the competitors, and the end users. How have other companies solved this problem, and what can you learn about their successes and failures?



For UX or UI, outline user personas and identify how and why those users will be interacting with the product you’re creating. For visual design, spend time mood-boarding and ideating to outline the look and feel you want to capture with your designs. At every stage of the process, test your designs with peers or mentors to get their feedback and see how they interact with the product.


Launch a Side Project


Employers love to see designers apply their skills in the every day, as it shows that your passion for solving problems with design extends beyond your 9-to-5 job. Having a living project’s an incredible way to make an impression, especially since most of your peers will have portfolios full of fictional projects. Additionally, it’s an incredible learning experience that’ll teach you how to launch something and then improve upon it based on actual metrics and user feedback.

Choose your side project based on the type of role and industry you’re interested in. For example, if you want to get a job at a branding agency, you could create your own freelancing website, including a full brand identity and digital marketing campaign. And if you want to land a UX job, try designing an e-commerce website where you sell prints of your work to show employers you can design for KPI’s and conversion metrics.


Work With Clients


Employers love to see client work in portfolios because it demonstrates that you can work under various constraints and as part of a team.

First, try reaching out to nonprofits. They generally have shoestring design budgets, so offering to help with a marketing campaign, rebrand, or website redesign is a philanthropic way to put real work in your portfolio. And, they’ll be thrilled for the support.

Startups and local businesses are also great candidates. It’s as easy as contacting a local business and asking if they need any design help. Alternately, browse sites like Product Hunt to find new startups in your target industry and reach out to the founders.

In your intro email, you should briefly explain who you are, what your design specialties are, and how you could provide value to them. It might look something like this:

Hi [Name of Founder or Contact],

My name’s Alec, and I stumbled on your company earlier this week. I think the concept behind your business is amazing, and so I wanted to reach out to say hi and introduce myself.

I’m a visual designer specializing in branding and web design for startups. I’m currently in the process of building up my portfolio and would love to lend my support to any design projects your team needs help with, completely pro bono. Let me know if there are any projects on your roadmap that you haven’t had time to work on. Would love to hop on a call to tell you a bit more about myself and discuss how I could help!

Keep up the great work, and hope to hear from you soon.


Now that you know the types of projects employers want to see, start building your portfolio! If you need help coming up with projects, check out the work of designers you admire or use other tools to create a unique design portfolio.




By Brooke Nakagawa
Brooke Nakagawa