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It seems like all my designer friends are focusing on their portfolios too much. They tell me, "my portfolio is the most important factor in getting hired, as it demonstrates my skill". So, they seem to spend a lot of effort in enhancing their portfolios.

As a software developer, it seems very strange to me. It's as if I considered demonstrations of my code quality or my algorithmic thinking in my CV as the deciding factor for employer. But it's rarely true. I'd say it matters only if you don't have any work experience, to ensure your potential employer that you must be good for the job. But as long as you have work experience, demonstrations of your abilities are secondary in CV. The employer can deduce your skills from your real world achievements.

Same must go for design realm. Not everyone can easily judge your excellency from your portfolio, but if you show examples of work that got into production (which can mean photographs of produced objects), they will know that your work is valued by clients, even if it's not the best of your work. OTOH when you just show a bunch of images, it doesn't say anything about whether you will fit with the team, miss deadlines, and similar organizational matters.

So I'm wondering how most of employers or clients evaluate candidates: do they focus primarily on excellency (judging by portfolio), or they would prefer a candidate with a less elaborate portfolio but better work record?

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    I've always considered it a flaw that so much software development hiring is done without a portfolio! People whine about how they don't have code samples because their work is owned by someone else. Rubbish. – david van brink Aug 30 '15 at 3:49
  • I'd prefer this question to be a community wiki, but I didn't have such an option. It's hard to pick the best answer: though the question is asked in an objective way, each answer obviously depends on the author's own experience. – modular Aug 30 '15 at 8:49
  • As a software developer, I don't think a portfolio makes any sense for my profession, because what matters in software development is the long-term readability, maintainability, stability, etc. of the overall codebase, not the beauty of any particular snippet of code. And in my experience, the most beautiful code is often the most useless in practice. Whereas in design, the result of all your design work is often a set of images you can easily show to others, and those images being beautiful actually means something. – Ixrec Aug 30 '15 at 9:11
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    @Ixrec code style matters a lot, but I agree that proper measure is not beauty but clarity. The different kind of beauty is elegance of architecture (which can also be visualized). But it's impossible for someone to appreciate your architectural solutions unless you also provide a description of the problem they solve. – modular Aug 30 '15 at 12:23
  • @Ixrec -- you've just described very nicely some good things to look for in a software portfolio. (long-term stuff, not necessarily so much beauty snippets.) – david van brink Aug 30 '15 at 19:33
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It really depends on what job you're looking for.

In some places, portfolios and having green hairs are worth more than work experience (e.g. some firms.) In other places, they want designers who got some "mental toughness" because of how stressful the job is (e.g. print shops.) And personality is important everywhere.

One thing I can say about portfolios being overrated; sometimes yes they are:

If you go work for a place of production, like a printer, they care less about how nicely you added your stylish Helvetica Neue Extra-Light @12pts in the middle of a white poster; first, 99.9% of their clients will hate that non-practical style and second, they don't want to hire people who took 3 weeks to create 1 single poster. The major part of their target market wants BIG BOLD BIGGER HUGE MY-LOGO-IS-TOO-SMALL and all kind of "pizza" layouts as I call them.

The printers also usually look for designers who won't go cry in the bathroom every 30 minutes because of the stress or because they can't take criticisms from the press operators, the clients, the guy at the binding, the salesmen, etc. They want people who learn quickly, anticipate problems and have a good memory for details. So yes, portfolio there is secondary; if they hire someone who isn't too quick or good at design, they know that person will have time and the opportunities to improve their skills, and they'll give the design projects to seniors or the designer the client wants to work with.

On a personal note, I can tell you portfolios and CV with ribbons are laughed at and then put on the pile of "funny stuff" in big printer shop. When we hired people, we looked way more at the CV and the potential creativity to fix issues than the design style. In fact, CV and portfolio that were too "clownish" or too artsy were the first ones dismissed; first reason is because these people would actually show they didn't know the standards (e.g. like sending a packaging box type of cv, you better do it right or not at all...) and second because the designer showed he/she doesn't understand the scope of the job. Times New Roman CV with a clean layout were often the winners to get to the interview, and then the rest depends on the personality more than the portfolio. Being a good designer there isn't about how fancy your designs are but more about how perfect, fast, flexible and nice you can create it... (in that order.)

But for a job in design in a firm or creative studio, they might enjoy seeing nice portfolios, CV that come in a DIY box and they do have more time for brainstorming and Helvetica 12pts layouts. They usually look at the potential for creativity more than experience for new designers; do they "have it" or not. Some people really don't and they're a lot of work to raise to a certain level. They also want someone who fits well with their team's personality and might even prefer designers who are more laid back and very creative. Working in a team when creating design isn't only about how good you technically are but also how much you help in the brainstorming sessions; nice layouts are often the work of a team of many designers. So again, portfolio is not what will get you hired but it helps a lot still. If you have a crappy type of individualistic personality, a big ego and you're not very flexible with your style, your portfolio can be the best they've seen, you probably won't get hired anyway.

My personal experience on this, having worked in both print and design studio is: the design studio often ask printers for technical stuff and get a lot of their technical training there; and just "do the best they can" as long it "looks good" and as it should. So "real" technical skills there are secondary but a nice bonus if you have them.

If a designer works with a group of dev or a website design firm, then they might also prefer someone with a practical design style and who is aware that their design needs to be easy or efficient when integrated into apps or websites. If the portfolio is mainly containing print designs, that might not impress them much and in fact I wouldn't be surprised they even get shivers down their spines just thinking of the horrible layers of Photoshop.

In both cases, I think employers look more at the potential rather than what was really accomplished.

But online, portfolios are very important:

If you're a freelancer, you need to have a solid portfolio unless you're a very good salesperson. You don't always have the opportunity to make contact with the potential clients before they see how you work and you'll be dismissed just because your portfolio doesn't look good.

You could talk about your exploits in design, clients might not care at all and it's possible it means nothing to them. But for some reasons, I think "badges" of winning contests and that kind of stuff impress some clients who don't have any experience in hiring freelancers; more than a good CV actually. That's why you'll see painters doing graphic design layouts even though they have no clue about InDesign and Illustrator or even fonts.

There's clients who even think you can't do a business card or a logo because your portfolio "only" contains books, billboards, packaging, etc. Portfolio with a lot of different samples of your work will help alot when the client is "shopping" for a designer.

Curriculum Vitae

Again, not something that will get you hired even if you have a very big experience. In some domains, if you have experience but again a bad personality to fit the team or to LEARN, they'll prefer to hire a beginner who is more "malleable" and hope to keep working with that person for a long time.

Online, CV can help but frankly, I think people judge more the portfolio than the accomplishments. It does help though with clients who are themselves very experienced in hiring designers and coders, or had previously bad experiences hiring beginners (or liars.)

Over time, clients learn what to ask for and to not get blinded by a nice portfolio. I see a lot of fake portfolios online that are impossible to print or would be too expensive to produce; I already know I wouldn't hire these designers because of this.

It's very expensive for employers to hire new people, and there's usually a lot of candidates with similar experience. The employer is betting his/her money on the one that will be the best investment on long term. It's a bit the same with clients who hire freelancers for their own serious projects or firm.

For coders and web developers:

Well, I supposed efficient and beautiful code is appreciated if you get hire in a company.

And for freelance, I'm sure it's very difficult for them since they don't always have any control on the design part but that's still what a lot of clients look for; clients can't always appreciate how good your coding skills are, but beauty of layout is something anyone can judge easily!

The thing with jobs that are more technical is that if you were hired and work for a long time in places that already have a solid reputation of quality, this will be used to judge your skills. A lot of experience in very small places or bad ones doesn't always inspire employers. And it's even worse if you had tons of small jobs every 6-12 months.


As for anything, balance is the safe zone! Average/good portfolio and average/good experience, or great salesperson qualities work fine.

  • Marking this answer the best, since it considers different cases, especially pipeline work compared to more creative design. – modular Sep 2 '15 at 7:51
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You are kind of comparing apples to oranges. Development is not design.

A portfolio is almost always more important for a design position.

Employers are interested in a designer's aesthetics, their style, their creativity. None of that can be deduced from a resume/CV. Even a designer with zero creativity or a horrible aesthetic sense can be employed.

A record of employment only means they were employed. The portfolio shows potential employers how the designer solved problems. Then secondary is how long they've worked, where they've worked, etc. So in terms of design the portfolio is #1, the resume/CV is number 2 in many cases.

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    @Scott this is a good beginning. But you may want to point out that the designers individual taste comes to play. So the portfolio serves a different purpose. Its not about can he do this job, but rather does he fit our vision. Even a great porrfolio may be a bad fit because he does colorful color plays on images and employer needs black and white vector art. So it tells the client what kind of designs you do. – joojaa Aug 29 '15 at 5:18
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    Isn't that kind of encompassed in "aesthetics, style, and creativity"? – Scott Aug 29 '15 at 5:45
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    I'd rather say that development is very much like design in that portfolios are very useful in evaluating developers (giving much more relevant information than a CV); but the key differences are (a) in many industries it is very hard to get a portfolio (IP restrictions, hard to strip out "your" pieces from work developed by a large team) and (b) it takes more time to evaluate such a portfolio; you get a significant impression from the first glance on an art portfolio but for code you often have to go deep in it to understand if it's great or just crazy. – Peteris Aug 29 '15 at 10:38
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    That's not to say there isn't art in well coded programming, there is. But it certainly is not visual the way design is visual. – Scott Aug 30 '15 at 1:47
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    To summarize design vs development portfolios, it's much easier for an expert to evaluate the former (yes, because it's visual). – modular Aug 30 '15 at 8:40
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Portfolios demonstrate the following:

  1. Creative thinking
  2. Design theory
  3. Design craft
  4. Knowledge and use of design tools

Portfolios are an important tool in getting design jobs - it is the evidence of a designer's knowledge and skills - a bit like a programmer's GitHub account. So to get back to your question - organizations hiring a designer are looking for creative thinkers with a design theory and craft, and knowledge of design tools, all which are demonstrated via a portfolio. But this is not all - they are also looking into "how will this person work with our organization?" Meaning "how do they personally connect with us? Are they a good fit?" A portfolio won't do much there. That is more of a cultural fit question between the parties involved and no portfolio can really answer that.

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Businesses are looking for people that can do what they need (and contribute in addition to what is needed) and who will work well with their current team. That does not mean that they can already do what they need them to do. Smart, hardworking, friendly people will always perform better than someone who knows every rule in the rule book but isn't fun to work with or change.

As such, among the various factors that good companies look for are the following:

  • Ability to learn/pick up new things and adapt to the situation at hand.
  • Ability to work in a team including the ability to communicate clearly.
  • Determination to solve problems. Creativity is paired with this.
  • Technical knowledge in the related subject.
  • Matching work ethic/culture.
  • Passion for whatever it is the company creates (assurance that they want to create a good product and not just get money or leave soon after being hired).

The simple fact is that the majority of these things cannot be conveyed in a CV or portfolio. They can really only show how much work experience one has done and something about the technical/creative skill respectively.

But there is not really a better way to get this information through the medium of text. It takes meeting in person, interviews, and sometimes even working with the person prior to hiring them to find out the majority of these factors.

However, businesses obviously can't interview or work with all of their applicants. It takes a round or two of portfolio or CV review to get rid of the (most likely) less apt applicants. As such, applicants need to make sure that this first impression shown through their CV or portfolio is good.


Now we get to the answer to your real question: Are portfolios more valuable than CVs for designers?

As Scott covers pretty well, the answer to that is yes because of the reasons listed in the start of my answer. A portfolio better shows a designer's technical knowledge, creativity, and style better than a CV does. Businesses can then judge to make sure their style fits with what they're looking for, better determine the quality of the work that the designer does, and perhaps also their ability to learn and pick up new things by analyzing how the work improved (or the lack there of) over time.

For upper division programming jobs, it's quite the same. While low level ones are often based on grunt, "we just need someone to program Java and do this work we assign him" work (design has these types of jobs as well but with things like Photoshop instead), upper level programming jobs take into account people's ability to think about the problem at hand, come up with a general approach of handling the issues (creative thinking), divide the team into parts to work efficiently, and lead the team in tackling the core issues at hand. They have to work with people well, not just code. But most importantly they have to be good at adapting, doing what is needed to get the job done and to help others do the same.

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A portfolio is always a great way to show a future employer what you're capable of, or what were you manage to produce alongside the previous teams you've worked with or on your own.

But in my opinion, neither the portfolio nor your CV is what determines/should determine you belong in that company.

From my own experience and those of friends of mine, I assure you the best way (and I believe more and more companies will do this as time goes by) is to simply get the work candidate to come over, and have each member of the team sit down with him/her and ask questions regarding their own field or position in the company. See what the candidate knows about how the company works, and even do a little UX/software/UI design exercise with him.

I found this to be the most integrating experience ever and what made me and my following colleagues feel part of a tight team when we entered the company.

I believe this is the biggest achievement a company can get. Even more than a skilled designer, they'll be getting a committed, aspiring new member of the team.

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    Excellent points. However, this is kind of addressing the interview processes more than the resume/portfolio stage. You may never actually get to the interview if your portfolio isn't intriguing. – Scott Aug 29 '15 at 0:24
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You can stretch the truth in a CV, but unless you out-and-out steal you can't fake creative solutions. It takes me a couple seconds of looking at a portfolio to tell someone "thanks for coming in, BYE" or "That looks interesting tell me how you arrived at that solution". If I am hiring, I want to see work that makes me think, "I wish I had thought of that." Give me someone with a great portfolio that does not play well on a team and I will make him or her head of the team.

  • I disagree with the majority of the suggestions here – Zach Saucier Aug 29 '15 at 6:39
  • I agree with you Roger. But that works for the last part if you're the boss and set the mindset of your team! Someone who doesn't do the teamwork stuff might be sabotaged or rejected by the rest of the team if the boss doesn't set the tone first. Some (big) places care more about "let's be friends" than "let's make money and get things done." I also personally prefer to hire smart stoic people with wit than the friend-to-all type; friend to all, friend to none, including the boss! I'm all about meritocracy and it works well with a team who thinks the same and doesn't expect free candies. – go-junta Aug 29 '15 at 15:54
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I think work experience is over-rated; that is to say a list of companies that you've worked for really says very little. I think the software industry is full of timeservers: people who occupy a chair but really do very little of value. If someone has a selection of work that they can show you then you know what they can actually do, plus it says a lot about a person that they can spend time putting together a portfolio.

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