A Founder's Guide to Evaluating Design Portfolios
This guide highlights how founders can evaluate design portfolios based on 5 tangible elements, to determine if a specific designer is the right fit for your role or not. We'll break down our process from having evaluated over 2,000 portfolios in the last few months.
Patterns from 2,000+ design portfolios
Over the past few months, in helping startup founders hire the best designers, I’ve personally reviewed and vetted over 2,000 design portfolios.
As a designer who has worked primarily in startups, I’ve been on both sides of the hiring table. I understand what it feels like to be a designer putting a portfolio together and a founder/hiring manager trying to find their ideal hire. Over the past 13 years, each lived perspective has helped refine an intuition to operate at the intersection of these three — design, startups, and hiring.
In this guide, we’ll go in-depth on what founders should look for in a design portfolio to find their perfect designer. We’ll dive beyond the usual surface-level notes that are out there and look at 5 different elements — each with good and bad examples to help put each point into context.
My hope is that the next time you look at a design portfolio, you’ll have a roadmap on what to look for and how to evaluate quality so you can make your design hiring process a success.
Why Evaluating Portfolios is Challenging
The challenge with evaluating design work is that it can be very subjective. What feels ‘visually appealing’ to one person may not feel the same to another. Recommendations I make in this guide may not resonate 100% with another designer based on their experiences and taste.
In some ways, product design is an art, and in other ways, it's a science. The trick is to be able to evaluate a portfolio from both perspectives and gauge if it aligns with what your team needs.
Throughout this guide, I’ll try my best to break down ‘evaluating portfolios’ into a tangible, structured process for founders who may not be design-savvy or just need more pointers in this step of the design hiring process.
5 Elements of a Stellar Portfolio
When you look at a design portfolio, there are five main elements you should be looking out for.
Storytelling in design portfolios refers to the ability of a designer to talk about their work, process, and impact in an engaging way. It refers to being able to effectively and succinctly explain the why, how, and what behind each project — without overwhelming the reader. Like any good story, it has an arc and leaves the reader excited for more.
The biggest tell in a designer’s caliber and quality is not their years of experience, the companies they’ve worked at, or how fancy their website is — but their ability to tell a good story from start to finish. It’s their ability to talk about their work in a way that helps non-designers understand what their impact on a project was.
Storytelling is an invaluable skill for early-stage design roles because it’s needed to:
- Champion the function and value of design internally
- Rally a team behind a design process
- Prioritize projects based on cross-functional goals
- Communicate and work closely with product teams
- Inspire good design that has a business impact
The more experienced a designer is, the more effective you’ll see their ability to tell a story about a business, project, or feature.
To put it into perspective, here are some examples of poor storytelling in a portfolio:
What I dislike about them is that they’re just sharing information about their work, not the story behind the goals & impact of the project itself. These usually read as “I got this brief, I made this feature, and we shipped the project successfully” — which is okay, but how did that impact the business and the team?
On the other hand, here are some examples of great storytelling in a portfolio:
What I’ve noticed in each of these is that they’re easy to read, grasp, and convey a strong understanding of both design and business goals. The sentences are crisp and have depth — not just spamming design keywords.
2. Business Impact
With ‘business impact’, I’m referring to tangible business outcomes that were a result of a designer’s work. This could be increased revenue, retention, happier customers, a step function improvement in product, a new customer problem discovered, new business opportunities tested, etc. The question I’m asking myself when reviewing portfolio projects is, ”What impact did this work have, and how well did the designer understand the business goals behind it?”
I’ve noticed that as designers level up, they develop a sharper product/business sense and are able to wield design as a tool to help the company’s core metrics.
Let’s take 2 scenarios:
- Designer A says they worked on a feature for customers that helped them select multiple rows in a database and bulk-edit them. They designed beautiful interactions, a simple UX, and worked with engineers to ship it on time and effectively.
- Designer B says they discovered that the biggest blocker for B2B customers to become power users of their product was wanting to bulk-edit information. They shipped product improvements to solve this problem which resulted in 30% higher customer retention and drove $10K in additional revenue per customer.
In an early-stage startup, which one would you want to hire? My gut says that Designer B not only knows how to execute design work but also has a deeper understanding of why it’s important and can tie it directly to business outcomes.
3. Visual Quality
Visual quality refers to the quality of the visual design decisions in the portfolio itself and the various projects in it. These decisions can include color, typography, grids, negative spacing, brand/voice, consistency, and more.
I’ll admit that (unsurprisingly) this is where I’ve seen the biggest difference in evaluations made by designers and non-designers. Non-designers may see something as visually appealing, whereas a designer might completely put it aside as unaesthetic.
Over the 10+ years as a designer, I’ve had a chance to train my eye and intuition to recognize good design when I see it. While it’s challenging for me to translate this into a few bullet points, I’ll try to point out some simple proxies that founders can use as guidelines. These proxies are very specific aspects of design work that can be immediate tells for their quality of work. The higher quality a designer is, the more you’ll notice these consistencies in their work.
One important point to note is that not all projects need to be visually top 1%. This is because it’s important to consider the context in which work was done — if a designer worked at a large fintech corporate, the impact of their work (eg: $X million in revenue opportunities created) could far outweigh the ‘visual quality’ of that same work.
That being said, good designers have a strong grasp on visual fundamentals, and when I see inconsistencies here, it immediately tells me that their visual quality is not up to mark.
Are they using colors that may be easy for people with low vision to see? Are the font sizes easily legible based on the platform they’re designing for?
Here’s an example of a design that’s not accessible:
Here’s an example of a design that’s accessible in terms of readability and colors:
Are they using icons that are legible, clean, and consistent? Look for icon sizes, weight, style, and more to gauge how they fit into a design. Can you understand the icons in their work when you see it?
Do their designs feel crowded and noisy? Or do they feel light, simple, and with a good amount of white space/negative space? A good way to test for this is to squint your eyes and gauge if the overall visual you’re seeing gives you a sense of organization or chaos.
Quality of Presentation
Have they just slapped a bunch of app screenshots on their website, or do they have device-based mockups, curated images, GIFs showing interactions, or videos to make it easier to see the final product?
4. UX Design
UX Design, put simply, refers to how easy it feels for target users to get value from a particular app or product. UX decisions can include things like how information is organized, access to primary & secondary actions for a task,
Good UX design is what drives tremendous business value, especially for early-stage startups.
The simpler a solution for a customer problem — the more likely users and customers will be able to get to their end goal. Think about the impact of design on your product if X% more users were able to understand what your product does, how to get value from it faster, and come back to use it frequently. The implications of good UX can often make or break the ability for users to get value from a new or existing product.
Here are some ways you can look out for good UX design in portfolio projects:
- Navigation: Is the app structured in a way that makes it easy to navigate and discover various value props inside the product?
- Primary actions: If you’re able to gather context on the product, think about what primary actions a user may want to take on this application. Are these actions obvious to spot, easy to use, and accessible in the designs? For example, if a designer is showcasing their work on a fintech product to transfer money, are you able to clearly see how/where this action lives in the designs shown?
- Tradeoffs: When showcasing UX work, is the designer clearly explaining the tradeoffs and considerations they had in mind as they worked through their process? Are the learnings they’re highlighting just surface-level (eg: “40% users didn’t complete this task”), or are they more meaningful (eg: “We noticed that users hesitated to share their email addresses at this stage due to a lack of trust in the app”)
- Simplicity: Does the work they’re showcasing feel easy to navigate? If someone handed that product/screen to you, would you be able to explain it back to them at a high-level?
- Platform-specific: Does a specific design project look and feel native, depending on the platform they’re building for (especially mobile apps)? For example, if it’s an iOS app, are you seeing interactions & patterns that are familiar to you on iOS? Or do they just look like a mobile version of a website?
Slope refers to the velocity at which the designer is showing growth in their work, learnings, and their ability to take up bigger, more complex, or more abstract challenges with each new project.
This is something that’s super important for startups — you want people who not only have a bias for action but are also ambitious in wanting to solve bigger, better, and more complex design challenges over time. As a startup grows, this can allow the designer to evolve into more of a management or leadership role.
The best way to gauge this is to look for patterns from their oldest project to the newest one – is there a clear progression in terms of project difficulty, complexity, abstractness, scope, responsibility, or impact of work?
Don’t rely on their past titles alone to gauge ‘career growth’ — again, look past the surface-level indicators and see if the scope, complexity, and quality of their work is improving at a healthy pace over time. In my experience, this is where we usually spot ‘High Potential’ designers, i.e. designers who may be earlier in their career but are clearly exceptional at not only their craft but also the slope of learning & growth. These are more challenging to find, but if you do see someone who doesn’t check all the boxes but is growing quickly, they could very well be your ideal hire.
A rubric to evaluate portfolios
Based on the criteria above, here’s a simple rubric you can use to evaluate any design portfolio. For each portfolio, rate the following out of 5:
- Business Impact
- Visual Design
- UX Design
If the total score is ≥ 20, then that's a great portfolio in your books.
A portfolio is just a piece of the puzzle
It’s important not to rely solely on portfolios as the end-all and be-all when you evaluate designers for your role.
As designers progress in their careers and collect more successful projects along the way, they start getting more inbound inquiries for new roles. As a result, many (senior designers especially) end up not maintaining or keeping a public portfolio. Many of the best designers in our DesignBake Talent Network don’t even maintain a public portfolio. It’s only after building a relationship with them that we get to see their work to strengthen our understanding of their caliber and quality.
Not having a public portfolio doesn’t mean that they’re unworthy of being considered for your role – just that you’ll have to rely on other signals and then invest some time to ask them for examples of work before moving them forward.
Design recruiting made easy
Design recruiting is hard. Especially for founders who are non-designers, it can be tricky trying to hire for a role that you’re not a specialist in. Most senior designers know how and what to say in their interview process — but how are you going to intentionally evaluate their work to see if what they say matches their caliber of work? I hope that this guide has provided a roadmap to answer that question and help you better evaluate design portfolios.
We started DesignBake to bridge the gap between startups and top designers, and we're excited to solve this problem. We look at thousands of portfolios each month — so you, as a founder, don’t have to. DesignBake runs a curated network of top 1% of designers for startups, and we work 1:1 with founders to help them hire for mission-critical roles like Founding Designers, Heads of Design, Senior Designers, UX Researchers, and more. If you need help with design hiring, we’d love to partner with you on your search for that ideal designer.