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The worst portfolio ever?

By Paddi MacDonnell | Web Design | Jul 31, 2013

A few weeks ago Alex Cornell, posted what he describes as “The Worst Portfolio Ever” a page of clichés, overused trends and boring copy.

His motivation was presumably to educate the masses as to how a portfolio should look. Cornell’s amusing spoof features such gems as the obligatory “road to nowhere” photograph, pretentious biography and a skills chart listing expertise as percentages.

The sub-heading on Cornell’s mock site is “This is how not to get hired as a designer”. However, the fact of the matter is that many designers with promo pages — let’s not call this a portfolio, good or bad, because it isn’t one — do get hired.

 

What’s good about “The Worst Portfolio Ever”?

Well, the key to this page’s value is the first line of the biography; the designer says she is 23 and living in San Francisco. That means that if I’m looking for a junior designer for an agency based in San Francisco, our fictional designer passed my first criteria.

What’s more, our fictional designer has a life and interests outside of the office. That makes her the kind of person I’d like to spend 60+ hours per week with.

worst

Cornell’s own critique of the page is most scathing on the lack of work, but in my experience, junior designers very often have limited input in large projects. If you’ve spent a couple of years after college working as a glorified tea boy/girl, then there’s not much I’ll learn from reviewing your portfolio.

The reality of this industry is that some very competent juniors put in very long hours on large-scale projects from which it is impossible to present an honest reflection of work. How exactly should our fictional designer caption her work, “Here is a site I worked on, the typography, branding, layout, photography and code were all handed to me, but you see that rounded rectangle? I changed that from 8px to 9px”?

If I want to grasp the level of her ability, I’ll check out this designer’s LinkedIn page, which is linked conveniently enough.

 

Who is the “The Worst Portfolio Ever” for?

I’ve been involved in several recruitment processes over the last few years and in each case one thing was true: every design vacancy is massively over-subscribed. As a result job vacancies are rarely handled by designers; they’re handled by HR managers, or even recruitment consultants. A page of world-class work is of no use to these people, they rarely have design qualifications; there’s a list of requirements and if you can tick off 75% of the boxes — that’s right, you don’t need 100% — then you’re probably in line for an interview.

Naturally Cornell views the page from his own position, it’s a spoof based on his experience of recruitment. One of his central bugbears is the focus on presenting skills as percentages. And yes, of course it’s true that no one knows 55% of logo design. But what these skill charts tell me is firstly what skills our designer possesses and secondly where she views her strengths and weaknesses, for example it’s clear from the chart that whilst our designer has spent around half her time on logo designs, she’s spent a little less on coding; that bias tells me if she’ll be a good fit for the vacancy I’m recruiting for.

skills

Imagine for a moment that a leading San Francisco agency is in need of a junior designer. Here’s a list of requirements they’ll typically ask for:

  • recent graduate or 1–2 years of agency experience;
  • resident in, or willing to relocate to the Bay area;
  • experience of Adobe CS/CC, Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, etc;
  • knowledge of Mac OSX beneficial;
  • experience of brand development;
  • knowledge of HTML & CSS (not WYSIWYG) a bonus.

Guess who’s getting an interview… yep, you got it, our fictional designer.

 

Will “The Worst Portfolio Ever” land you a job?

No. But neither will the best portfolio in the world. What this promo site will do is get you in the door, add you to the shortlist and give you a chance to impress at interview.

Cornell’s example isn’t particularly well designed, the copy is awful and the photos used are terrible clichés. But for junior designers this is closer to a design solution than many work-centric portfolios that at best obscure a junior designer’s abilities, and at worst exaggerate them.

The lesson we take away from Cornell’s amusing spoof has to be: when we design, target audience has to be central to every consideration. On that basis, “The Worst Portfolio Ever” isn’t the best portfolio ever, but it’s a long way shy of the worst.

 

Is “The Worst Portfolio Ever” the worst portfolio ever? What’s the worst thing you see in portfolios? Let us know in the comments.

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  • brucetonbryfield

    I disagree entirely with your review. I think you have entirely missed the point in this website. The author is trying to put across that this is what many designers portfolios look like. Not just juniors. I don’t know where you got the impression that this was just a reflection of juniors portfolios?

    If, by your own admission, most design positions are over subscribed, then you need to stand out. So, if you repose the question that you are looking for a designer – and you see 50 + portfolios with that same pretentious opening paragraph and lack of work vs someone who just shows their work and has a separate about section, as well as a resume that will cover their skills and experience. Then I think it’s pretty obvious who will get the interview. Recruitment for DESIGN positions is not about ticking boxes! – we want to SEE your experience. It’s no good telling me that you are 50% proficient in Adobe Illustrator – and then I hire you and you can’t do what I need. If I can SEE your experience in visual form, then I will know who I am hiring. I think you are extremely delusional if you think that this is the right kind of portfolio website. Re read the authors post – as I think you really missed the point here.

    • Paddi

      I didn’t say it’s a good site, I said that some aspects of it are more suitable for getting shortlisted than the many work-centric portfolios that make the assumption that the viewer is design literate.

      Yes, decision makers want to see good work, but the people who write shortlists for them want to tick boxes. If you don’t get shortlisted no one who can give you a job will ever see your work.

      And at 23 you’re a junior, unless you graduated college at 15 you’re too inexperienced to be anything else.

      Reread the post — you definitely missed the point here.

      • brucetonbryfield

        I still entirely disagree that this site is more likely to get your shortlisted above a work centric portfolio. I don’t think you fully understand the design recruitment industry, which is different to the normal box ticking that goes on at a normal recruitment agency. I know because I have worked with plenty of recruitment agencies, as well as for one at one time. Conversations about skills etc are done over the phone and from there we look through the portfolios to see candidates that will fit the agency best in terms of their work/style. I can’t do anything with the worst portfolio ever example, as there is no work on it to go off. You can’t deny that a great website example is more likely to get you an interview over the fact you like whales. Come on, Paddi.

        This site is an example, just because her age is 23 doesn’t mean that he is referring to just junior designers. The number of senior designers portfolio websites that I have seen that fall into this trap is ridiculous.

        I have already read this post several times because I can’t quite believe the ridiculous points you are making. Seriously, you missed the point entirely and I certainly wouldn’t want you recommending candidates to me at a design agency!

    • Seth

      That escalated quickly

    • Isis Marques

      Sorry for gettin’ into the conversation, but I really can see your point and I see the point of the author (Paddi) too!

      I just saw this site today and I had a strange feeling about it. I don’t know, it just made me feel bad, because is not a well-humored criticism that would make you grow, it seems just tricky, just the kind of thing that get views (starting from the title).

      I read some other of his posts, and they fall into the same “mistakes” that he points out. There’s even a machist text about how to go shopping with a woman…I’m not saying he is entirely wrong – we invest in things that works – but I could not see in Cornell a position of who says “I already did this too”, or ” I still need to improve too”, specially when you go to his website and you find flat + bright color + logo in bagde design, exactly as the “worst portfolio”, just positions changed.

      I do agree with Cornell about the charts, there’s no point of quantify a thing that can’t be measured. I hardly believe that people who coded Photoshop can know it 100%. But I understand Paddi’s point, this helps the manager to quick visualize the strongs and weak points of the designer, so it’s a good thing. In my website, I use it but I don’t use the percentages, I think is a good 50/50 solution.

      I agree with Bruce that people – no matter how young – have some work to show, and nothing justifies a portfolio with no works. But hey, that “worst portfolio”, could have a section of works, or probably the social network icons are working in the same way that section buttons would do.

      I think both posts (Cornell and Paddi’s) have things we can learn from. As I said before, I just think Cornell’s one is a bit too harsh, with fewer contribution to make people growing as a designer.

      =)
      (www.isismarques.com)

      • Paddi

        I agree that he has a pretty big idea of himself, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s wrong. I just question the wisdom of having one approach for all target markets.

        I think you’re probably right that somewhere in the middle is the best approach unless you know who you’re selling to and what they’re buying.

        As for “shopping with a woman”, he’s definitely single lol.

  • http://www.fasttrackcreations.com/ Nikhil Malhotra

    Hey Paddi, Guide me how my website looks …

  • Jeremy Penner

    Paddi, I think what Alex missed was the human side of the portfolio. He pushes final product without any personality. I posted a blog entry similar to yours, I’d love your thoughts:

    http://domain7.com/blog/worst-portfolio-ever-or-is-it

    • Paddi

      Yes! +1 exactly that.

      Great blog post, I completely agree.

      There’s no way to tell if you want to spend 60+ hours per week with someone from screen shots of their work.

    • Isis Marques

      I really like your post, it explained to me a bit why I felt that he missed the point in someway. Thanks! =)

  • Kevin Linkous

    You have strong communication skills and you are a decent writer. But every designer, programmer, artist or… needs to spend time evaluating the work they do. I have been in the business 14 years and hate my portfolio and my website because I’m a designer. Real designers will fight with themselves to make the work better.

    In conclusion, I have hired people with mediocre skills that have grown.

    Always be positive.

  • Paddi

    It’s a nice balance, but you make the mistake that a lot of people make, in that you’re presenting yourself as a design studio.

    If you are a design studio, that’s fine, but in that case you should have an agency approach.

    For example, are you really a creative director? How many staff do you direct?

    Or are you a freelancer? There’s no shame in being a freelancer, many companies prefer it and honesty is always the best policy. So rather than try and be more like an agency I’d tell you to focus on yourself as an individual.

    • http://www.fasttrackcreations.com/ Nikhil Malhotra

      Paddi thanks for the feedback. Will make the changes suggested.

      Its really nice of you to share your honest feedback.:)

  • Paddi

    I normally work with individuals so I’m probably not best positioned to advise you on this.

    If you pushed me, I’d say that you’re going too far the other way. As an agency, you’re not trying to sell individual traits like a job candidate, you’re trying to sell results to companies. So lose some of the about us (nobody cares what applications you use) and that will put greater emphasis on your work.

  • Deech

    I have to say this article is pretty accurate, As a requirement for my portfolio class that I just finished a few months ago we had to make and present our portfolio websites. The professor gave us instructions on what should go into it but gave free reign over how we design it and meet the task. The class consisted of all second year college students (aka junior graphic designers) and I’d 90% of the class succumbed to the majority of these trends. Even I admit that I too fell victim to “skills percentage bar”.

    So for me this article was awesome, and really opened my eyes to what I should avoid in my future portfolio site!

  • nyviii

    Love it. As a fresh GD graduate I have just recently been through building and setting up all of this. I have to say it doesn’t go far enough, but mocks the usually found portfolios on very good points.

    To the point made in the article. While the agency asks for experience in certain software it is simply an ignorance of the designer that s/he would say: “I know half of something.” Is s/he then expecting to get paid just the half of the salary or worse deliver half witted work?

  • KyleBavender

    If Alex had titled it “An Overplayed, Vapid Portfolio”, this article wouldn’t have legs to stand on. That it’s only defensible as a not terrible junior portfolio says something.

    Since he titled it “The Worst Portfolio Ever”, however, I can see the desire for some pushback…but still. There’s mountains of merit to the site’s criticism, considering our industry.

  • Matthew Beasley

    I agree with the whole skill bar percentage bit. I think if you want to list your skills, that is fine. You should know what you are strong a, what you are weak at and what you want to learn more of and pick the field of your choice. If I am not so good at html/css but want to learn more but still mainly focus on graphic design. Target a graphic design job that will allow you to built on your html/css skills along the way with smaller projects.

    You should not limit your self right out of the gate.

  • Neil Cooper

    Once you’ve seen one witty paragraph describing how a designer is exactly the same as thousands of others, you’ve seen them all.
    But that doesn’t offend me. People have to promote themselves, especially in an industry as competitive as the one we reside.

    What offends me about the worst portfolio(s) in the world is the sheer lack of imagination that near enough ALL designer websites are presented. We all profess to have a mind with untold creative resource. And yet, all conform to the same template when presenting our selves.

    As a profesional, who is currently recruiting (and let me tell you, i can send you a few TERRIBLE portfolios, like a girl who thought that her best work was a poorly animated dog in Flash! For a web designer role! Crazy.) i would much rather see a work centric site, (HAND CODED, NOT TEMPLATED!) displaying a few choice projects that would interest me and fill me with promise.
    Not how your a free thinker, who blogs about minimalist design during the industrial revolution using a Commodore 64.

  • http://juanolvera.com/ Juan Olvera

    Well, my portfolio was a lot similar but without any picture, http://juanolvera.com/v2/ and I was able to get a lot of projects because of that, people that hired me wasn’t designers or developers, mostly small business owners.

    Right now my portfolio is this one http://juanolvera.com and it gives me a lot of good comments in my interviews.

    (Sorry for my poor English, still learning)

  • Paddi

    Haha! I’d love to work a 40 hour week, but neither I, nor anyone I work with does.

    Salaries tend not to specify a number of hours, and everyone expects overtime. It’s an unfortunate aspect of this industry that recharging batteries is low on the priority list.

    If you want to charge by the hour, I’m afraid yo need to look at freelancing, not employment.

  • Lance

    yea he comes across as really elitist

    like you said ..ive seen wayyyyyy worse sites from student designers looking for their first gigs

    id be curious to see his first portfolio

  • MKE

    I immediately roll my eyes any time I read “As a ________, I think ________”

    Never heard of Alex Cornell, but he seems like a douche. The feedback is not necessarily invalid (though sort of obvious), but it is presented in a crass way. Not very encouraging to young designers needing direction.

    Who cares what a portfolio website says? Work is what catches the attention of HR and design departments. They want to know you can do the job. Then they get you in to “figure you out.” Bad work can’t hide behind hollow copy and bar graphs. Duh.

  • Nohemi Olvera

    I have to say my portfolio looks like this! It’s not an excuse but i am learning html and css and this is what I can do with the basics. But thanks for this post, has been helpful!
    http://www.nolvera.com

  • Lurk Sidewalker

    Can we as a community please stop using phrases like “hand-crafted” to describe our pixels and padding? There is a huge difference between carving, cutting, hammers & nails and typing, sketching, and mouse manipulation. I should know, as I do both. Please people, let it go.