Originally published on Medium.
When I meet design students studying UX and UI in organisations like General Assembly and Iron Hack, I often get asked the same question: if I only have 2–3 student projects in my portfolio, how could I be a competitive hire?
Here are a few things we’ve discussed that I’d like to share for the benefit of anyone else out there who’s in the same situation:
You have skills and value beyond your design experience
Organisations like General Assembly and Iron Hack largely attract students who are studying design as a career change. In our most recent trip to meet graduates at Iron Hack Barcelona, we met ex-marketing managers, business owners, creative directors, teachers, HR professionals, project managers and the list goes on.
When you change careers into a new field, you may be a junior in that field but you bring with you a wealth of experience that is an asset to the company that ends up hiring you.
Teaching someone how to design a navigation structure for an iOS app is far easier and less risky than attempting to teach someone teamwork, communication, listening skills, professionalism, patience and the ability to deal with ambiguity.
You can bring your value to life by:
- When interviewing, highlighting skills and experience you bring that make you an asset to a team and remember that your worth is measured beyond your immediate technical design skills.
- Asking questions about the business, the team, and the needs of your future manager and offering your input on how you’d benefit them
- Researching their values and ways of working and being prepared with examples from your work experiences outside of design that align with them
You can supplement beginner portfolios with other parts of your life
Aka “If I am also a photographer, should I include my photography portfolio?”
The answer is yes. Bring the fields in which you have significant expertise or passion (hopefully both!) into your portfolio. If they are strongly linked to the position you are seeking, consider leaving those previous projects in your design portfolio and highlighting how your skills and thinking are informed by this experience (furniture designers, creative directors, print/advertising and other designers — I’m looking at you!).
If your passions are less directly relevant, include additional sections in your portfolio that showcase your journalism, jewellery design, cooking, photography, or whatever else it is that makes you a well-rounded and passionate creative. This will set you apart from other designers, show work ethic and commitment, and give you plenty to discuss in your interview.
You don’t need experience to have a valuable opinion
When I applied for my first full-time UX job, I had one client project and one made up passion project under my belt. But I had plenty of knowledge and ideas that informed the way I approached my work in the first year of being a junior designer.
The trick is to get what’s in your head clear and visible to hiring managers to expose them to the nuance and complexity that your portfolio doesn’t yet showcase. Here are a few ideas, in order of effort:
- Add a link to your Medium reading list on your website/portfolio
- Retweet design thinking and articles that you agree with, and include a short commentary in your tweet
- Attend UX and Design events and publish your response / highlights
- Write short pieces about common UX problems you see in products around you and how you would solve them
- Write articles responding to trends and events in the tech industry (or the industry in which you hope to work)
- If you are self-taught and are not coming out a programme like Iron Hack, find ways to produce case studies: competitions, hackathons, volunteering, or plain old mock projects will do until you get more experience under your belt
The aim should be clear: show a hiring manager, your future manager, or your future company your passion, insight and your ability to take ownership of problems around you. Not every senior designer does the same.
Remember: companies aren’t doing you a favour (on the contrary!)
It’s absolutely normal to feel nervous when searching for a job. When I spent 9 months teaching myself UX in my parents’ kitchen, watching my savings dwindle and receiving rejection after rejection, it was a difficult time.
It’s easy to think “Would someone just please give me a break, anyone?” and to feel in awe and eager to impress anyone who appears that they might.
As Head of UX & Design in a tech company who sees dozens of portfolios a week, I know better than to think companies are doing candidates a favour in hiring them. When I am looking to hire, there are several business reasons that inform a need to find the right candidate. It also comes as a cost.
Looking for candidates, interviewing, and eventually hiring and training a new employee is costly for a business. As a result, people who do hiring are heavily invested in (and often worried about) finding the right person for a role and to do it quickly.
When you’re in a job interview setting, remember: both you and the person on the other side of the desk have something at stake if this goes poorly. When I interview someone, I hope and pray that the interview goes well and that we have found our next team member. And while it’s a part of my job, it’s always a disappointment when that isn’t the case.
Come into your next interview excited, prepared, and naturally a little nervous but feel free to have the confidence that you have much to offer.
When changing careers and beginning a new journey in UX or Design, don’t feel that you must draw a line behind your previous experiences. They are what make you the valuable team member that companies are looking for. The rest can be taught and earned with a bit of sweat.