Practical portfolio advice, from choosing a specialism to solving real problems

18 January 2018

Alec McGuffey is the co-founder of RookieUp, a design education platform that offers short-term bootcamps and portfolio-building tools to give aspiring designers everything they need to build a strong design portfolio and launch their design career. Here, he outlines his top tips.

Crafting a unique portfolio that showcases your work, highlights your personality, and conveys your strengths is crucial if you want to launch a career in the design world. But it can also be difficult to know exactly how to build up your portfolio early in your career. When you’re in the early stages of your design career, how do you come up with ideas for interesting projects and then turn those ideas into well-researched and comprehensive projects that you can include on your actual portfolio site?

Over the past year, we’ve heard from hundreds of aspiring designers struggling with these same questions, and in this article we’re going to shed some light on the things that employers are looking for in both the projects and the portfolio sites of junior visual and UX/UI designers trying to get their first design jobs. We’ll tell you how to come up with ideas for projects and how to actually work through these projects following the same processes used by real world designers.

So how do you come up with ideas for projects that will help you build your skill sets and impress employers at the same time? Regardless of whether you’re an aspiring UX Designer, product designer, or visual designer, these are a few recommendations we repeatedly heard regarding the types of projects to include in your portfolio.

Choose a speciality and focus on it

When chatting with hiring managers, the most common opinion was that new designers entering the field should find one or two areas in design that they’re particularly passionate about and develop a deep skill set in those areas. If an employer is looking to hire an app designer, they’ll be most impressed by someone whose portfolio is focused on app projects versus someone whose portfolio includes ten unrelated types of projects.

At the same time, employers want to hire designers who have a broad range of skill sets and can accomplish any task that they’re assigned. So even though specialisation is a good idea, you should ensure that you work on a few projects that show you have a breadth of abilities and understand common design principles outside of your area of focus. So if you’re focused on UX, have a strong foundation in design fundamentals like colour theory, typography, and grids. If you’re focused on visual design, show that you’re capable of working through user-centred design processes.

Showcase real work

Another theme from employers is that they love to see real projects in junior portfolios, and including real work is an amazing way to differentiate yourself. Working on real projects shows employers that you’re capable of working within constraints and as part of a team, compared to the candidates who only have a few basic projects for theoretical clients.

If you’d like the experience of working for a client very early in your career, try reaching out to nonprofits online or simply walk into local businesses. Nonprofits and local businesses generally have tight budgets, so asking if you can help pro bono with a design project, be it a marketing campaign or website redesign, is a great way to get experience and flex your philanthropic muscles.

And if you don’t care about working for a client, you can also launch your own side project. Think about problems you want to solve or products you want to create and create an action plan to actually build and launch it. This could be an e-commerce store where you sell prints of your work or a newsletter or blog about an issue you’re passionate about. Launching a side project lets you work through a full product design process and release an actual product based on research and user testing.

Solve real problems and follow the right process

If you’d rather come up with project ideas yourself, that’s fine too. If you go the route of doing a design project for a theoretical client or a redesign of assets for an existing brand, just be sure that you have justification for the project and that your designs are based on real problems you’re trying to solve. For theoretical projects, come up with ideas by thinking about problems that exist in your target industries and ideate around the ways you could apply design principles to solve those problems. For redesigns for real brands, research their current designs along with problems caused by those designs, and try to understand how their business or user experience could be benefited by new design. As long as your decisions are based on real problems and you’re validating your designs with peers and mentors throughout the process, having theoretical projects in your portfolio is fine.

For UX/UI projects, start by conducting research on the industry. Then create user personas and use cases to understand the needs of users prior to jumping into sketching and wireframing. Then create prototypes for your designs and work with a peer to have them test out your designs. Iterate accordingly based on their feedback.

For visual design projects, conduct research about the industry and consumers prior to jumping into moodboarding and ideating. Then spend time ideating and sketching out thumbnails of your ideas prior to jumping into a tool like Illustrator to refine. Even for visual design projects, it’s important to test your designs with peers throughout the process, asking for feedback and iterating as you go.


By focusing on solving real problems and following the correct design processes for each of your projects (don’t cut corners by jumping straight into Sketch or Illustrator), you’ll be setting yourself up for success and ensuring that you stand above the competition when applying to jobs. If you want help coming up with ideas for portfolio projects or going through the proper processes to build an amazing portfolio, check out the Portfolio Starter Kit on RookieUp, which includes over 30 step-by-step portfolio projects built by the pros, tons of resources to help you craft a portfolio site and personal branding, and more to help you create an amazing portfolio that will stand out to employers.

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Alec McGuffey

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