Thinking About The Portfolio – The Question of Process

Mingxian was recently talking about using structuralism to analyze interaction design portfolio sites.   I think this is a great idea, and it prompted me to think about what constitutes a good portfolio site for an interaction designer.   I am particularly interested in the role of design process in an interaction design portfolio.

A quick survey of interaction designers portfolios finds that some designers, like Jeff Howard (, talk about problem interpretation and process, while other interaction designers, like Adrian Tavares (, show only photos and brief descriptions.   So should interaction designers talk about their process in their portfolios?  Is process important?

In design, good process does not equal good design.  The design itself is the only thing that matters.  You can do years of ethnography, thousands of usability tests, hundreds of sketches, and still end up with a bad design that people do not like or use.   A person with no formal training in design can create things people love.  The design itself is the only thing that matters.

Despite the fact the process is not the measure of success in design; it can still be an important part of the interaction designer’s portfolio.  I think the decision of including the process depends on how much experience you have as a professional interaction designer. The relationship between showing process and professional experience can be represented like this:


On the right side of the spectrum is the professional designer with a lot of experience.  She has designed successful interfaces for 30 different applications.   Who cares what her process is, she gets the job done.  On the other hand, a student without much professional design experience has very few designs that have been released to market.   This means showing screenshots and the final design is not enough for the student.  The student must show process and a thoughtful application of interaction design methods and theory to persuade the employer that he will be able to create successful designs for the company.

Does this sound right?  Or am I way off base?  What do you all think?


  1. Kevin Makice

    In that light, it paints process along the same lines as summer internships and class projects – something that you should only showcase if you don’t have anything better to showcase. If anything, I think that process should become much better defined with more experience.

    It is difficult to make a general statement out of the context of the personal goals for employment and the market needs. The people who are established now didn’t have the same market experiences that we will have leaving the program, and therefore using their sites as exemplars biases what might be an outdated model for job searches. I think it is true that the more prestigious successes one has, the more cache you carry on market. But matching your process with your potential employer is more important, imo, than matching the quality or domain of a project. Process is adaptable, whereas projects are particular.

  2. mingxian

    Thank you Dovid to remember my paper plan:)

    I agree with you that experts show their pieceworks and novice designers show their process. Because I believe that the purpose of a portfolio site is to show the owner’s competence to so something. For experts, their work is the best prof, And I guess that they leave the process as interview contents. For novice designers, we’d like to show them the process because we don’t have much product to show. By showing the process, we make sense about our competence to so something. We know the models, we know the terms, the process, have an idea about how to begin a project and follow our schedule, etc.

    By showing the process, we could also say something about our personalities rather than just our work.

  3. chmbrigg

    Actually, David, though your logic sounds plausible at first glance, there is one major factor that, imho, changes the equation, and that is unpredictability.

    First of all, i will say that i’m assuming that the purpose of a portfolio is showcasing a designer and her work with the intent to be hired – either full-time or for freelance work. I will here address the full-time intent. In a recent blog post (sorry to make a tacky self-reference, but i think it’s appropriate: i wrote about the surprising (at least to me) emphasis that investors place on the team in whom they are investing, and lack of emphasis that they place on any of that team’s ideas. This is mostly due to unpredictability. Unpredictable environments demand adaptability. Adaptability demands smart, adaptive people. Adaptive people (again imho) use myriad and good processes effectively.

    Along the lines of what Minxiang suggests, showing your process is a great way to allow a future employer or client to envision your future trajectory, rather than just your past successes – especially in a chaotic environment where your 10 process-less flashes of design brilliance in static css design don’t say all that much about how you will perform in 2 years when static css website design goes the way of the dodo bird, and is replaced by some other new medium or context. Showing process though – and especially your ability to adapt that process to fit a different medium or context – does say a lot.

  4. thismarty

    Sort of along the lines of what Christian mentioned in his comment, I think that designers who choose to present their process (and philosophical statements, influences, etc.) on their portfolio sites do so in order to indicate how well they will integrate with the teams at the studios who are shopping their portfolio site.

    A person hiring a new designer needs to know how similar, compatible, adoptable, desirable, and so on that the process of the would-be-newly-hired designer is to that in the culture of the hiring studio.

    Also, to quibble one small assertion you make, while a lot of great design has been done by people working without the benefit of formal training or process, good process does generally equate to better design done in a shorter period of time. Design industry and education exist, in part, in service to that proposition and would not support it long were it untrue.

  5. davidroyer

    I agree with all that has been said.

    Christian – I think your point is totally true about VCs, but I don’t think adaptability + good process has to be shown in a portfolio if you have been around the block and pwned a bunch of product UIs. I know a bunch of senior interaction designers without portfolios at all. Only a list of projects and employers. And they get great jobs.

    Perhaps this is different because they got great jobs for Nokia, Siemens, SAP, and other giant companies, working on more predictable projects. In general though, if someone says ‘Hey, I designed the UI for Gmail, the iPod,, and 10 other super successful interfaces” they wouldn’t be forced to show too much process.

  6. Kevin Makice

    If you have a portfolio that includes participation in the UI design of Gmail, iPod, and others, then the portfolio is not how you are going to be getting your next job anyway. Success also breeds an extensive social network of business connections. You won’t be applying for jobs as much as being recruited for them.


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