As junior designers, it’s important to remember that our skills are still budding. This is especially true when it comes to the skill of receiving portfolio critique. Seeking and receiving a portfolio critique can be difficult, but it’s single-handedly the fastest way to improve your portfolio. Since our portfolios are undoubtedly more important than our resumes, and arguably more important than our work experience, there is a case to say that receiving portfolio critique is one of the most important things you can do as a designer. In this article, I’m going to talk about how and why you should seek critique from the people highest on the hiring food chain, and how to accept those critiques without spiraling into self-doubt.
You should seek a portfolio critique for the same reason why UX design as a practice exists. You are not a hiring manager and therefore your portfolio is built on hypotheses of what you think these managers and recruiters are looking for. Until you put your portfolio in front of someone that actually hires designers like you, everything in your portfolio is an educated guess. Hiring managers and recruiters are your users. It’s unwise to undervalue or avoid the benefits of testing your designs among users.
This brings me to the next point. You should try getting a portfolio critique from as high up on the hiring food chain as possible. Not to undervalue the benefits of having another junior or even a senior designer critique your portfolio, but these people don’t necessarily look at portfolios for their jobs. The truest and most accurate individuals to your “User Persona” are generally HR recruiters, design managers, principles, or even directors. I would argue that the higher up on this food chain you go, the better. The people at the top seem to give the most aspirational, long-term, and challenging critiques, but that can serve as motivational fuel for continued growth in your career.
I may be in the minority when I say this, but I rarely ask people to critique my portfolio unless they’ve already made it clear that they're open to assuming a mentor-mentee relationship. Requesting a portfolio critique is a relatively big ask in my eyes. Instead, I connect with individuals on LinkedIn who work at companies I’m interested in working at, but rarely do I ask for critique right off the bat. Instead, I connect, see if they’re open to chatting about design, get on a call, learn as much as I possibly can from them in 30 minutes, prove myself worthy of their time, send a thank you email, and study the hell out of their portfolio. If you ask engaging questions about their career and path into it, then you will learn plenty. These people did not sign up to be your mentor, so don’t look at them as if they are. They are your peers and I like to approach this relationship from a giving perspective.
The opposite is true if the person you’re reaching out to has made it clear that they’re open to a mentor-mentee relationship. You can find these people on websites like ADP list or UX Coffee Hours. These people have signed up to help junior designers like you progress in their careers and therefore it is okay to be a taker in these relationships. They’ve signed up to be the giver. I always ask these people if they are willing to critique my portfolio. These people are generally more senior, meaning they are at the top of the design field, and they have the insights and career perspective to guide you and your portfolio with regard to your career goals. Seek these people out for portfolio critique. I’ve found that the more senior the portfolio reviewer is, the more challenging the critique is, but the more insightful it is also.
So now that you’ve found someone extremely qualified to critique your portfolio, It’s time to talk about surviving the experience. I’ve had a number of people critique my portfolio, but it wasn’t until I started seeking out highly senior, extremely knowledgeable, and often top of the industry designers, did I realize I needed a toolkit for surviving these critiques. The reason is that junior-level designers are generally more cautious about hurting your feelings. Senior people at the top of their organizations see incredible portfolios all the time. They’re not going to hold back punches and you do not want them too. If you want to play in the big leagues, you have to learn to develop thick skin. There’s no crying in design.
You ≠ Your Portfolio
You have to learn to separate yourself from your work. These people are not trying to hurt your feelings. They’re simply pointing out opportunities for you to improve your work. Some people come off as jerks during critique but they might just be bad at communicating their opinion. Or they might just be a jerk. Try to find the real critique among the words you get hurt by. It’s okay if you still think they suck as a design leader who can’t critique because frankly, they might.
Until you begin usability testing with actual managers, your portfolio is built on shaky assumptions and hypotheses. They need to be validated with users. Take notes, synthesize your findings, and iterate constantly. Remember the Double Diamond approach. Our work is constant expansion and contraction of ideas. Use your portfolio conversations to determine where you are in this current cycle of portfolio product design.
If you can fundamentally shift your perspective on portfolio critique comments, you can learn to shift your perspective on any critical comments. Instead of thinking, “Wow they did not like my product designs. I must be a loser” think “YES, I’ve just gained an incredibly valuable insight on my work and now I have a specific area to build on. BIG WIN.”
Remember that you are just getting started. If you’re like me, you want to be as good and as knowledgeable as the people that are critiquing your portfolio but unfortunately, you’re not there yet. Just remember that you’re new to this and that of course, you need to work on your design skills. Good thing you have the rest of your career to do it.
You’re a toddler taking swimming lessons from Michael Phelps. Eventually, it won’t feel like you’re drowning. Take it all in, work your ass off, and if you keep it up for long enough, you’ll probably get really good.
I’m guilty of trying to fill shoes that don’t fit. Be honest about what you know, and what you want to know. But don’t try to pass yourself off as an expert in areas outside of your expertise. It’s really important to focus on building expertise in your career. There are some very good articles about how to build T-shaped skills. Your portfolio should similarly represent this T-shape.
Above all, remember that you’re just beginning. The fact that you’re seeking portfolio review and mentorship from people that are extremely good at your craft is a sign that you will continue growing and may one day be in their position. Keep going after it, learn to separate yourself from your work, and develop a thick skin for critique that comes from jerks. Be kind to yourself and remember that you have just begun this journey and the only way to go is up.
UX Coffee Hours
Beyond the Double Diamond: thinking about a better design process model by Maciej Lipiec
Embracing T-Shaped Skills by Tim Knight