Forget folios and be a real designer already

Forget folios and be a real designer already

Matt Shanks

Matt Shanks

Principal Product Designer & Author/Illustrator for children. I'm out to improve the quality of life for everyone who uses the things that I make.

So, here’s the thing. I can’t believe agencies are still requiring designers to submit folios to prospective employers — as if these folios alone give this employer some insight to the talent that they’re trying to find.

Well, here’s some news for you. A folio, alone or even alongside a CV, tells a prospective employer nothing about how good the applicant is at producing good design work.

There, I said it. And you know what? I make no apologies because quite frankly, I’m sick of it. It’s useless. It’s a waste of time and effort for everybody. The employer gets nothing out of it except a chance to pass arbitrary judgement on a set of images or ideas that someone has put their name to. Enjoyable? Yeah sure, but so is making and reading comments on Brand New so if you’re in to that sort of thing, spend your time there. So, I’m calling it. Folios as part of intro emails for job applications are officially the old way of doing things. Here’s a few reasons why:

Firstly, it takes time for the applicant to put one together. Someone applying for a job could literally spend days and even weeks trying to find what they think is their best work. It’s stressful. The criteria for selecting the pieces to include is endless. What does this employer want to see? What do I like to show personally? How much of my personality do I put in? How much do I leave out? Do I put in what they do now or what I think they want to see? Can I put in personal projects or is that cheating? How many projects is too many? How large is my PDF file? If I go over by a few kilobytes will they get mad? I could go on.

Secondly, because of this confusion that is rife on the applicant’s side, they typically end up making some arbitrary decisions based on some of the criteria I’ve listed above. Or sometimes they read 400 articles about “How to have a good portfolio” on shitty agency websites and follow some version of that. So, by the time it gets to an agency, some Senior Designer or HR person is viewing a set of images selected by a confused person who’s taken a punt on what they think you might want to see. But here’s the thing, no folio tells you about their decision process. An applicant never says, “I chose these images because it’s what I think is my best work.” or “I selected this suite of images because it looks like you do that work, and I like to do that work.” They often write a brief 200 word description about the client (which, lets be honest, no employer is really ever reading) and so we’re left with what is effectively a random Pinterest board curated by someone, for some purpose.

Wow, now doesn’t that sound useful?!

Where does that leave both parties? Pretty much f*#!@d, really. This archaic process that we’ve inherited from the ad men (and very very few ad women) of the 50s has led to a situation that’s filled employer’s inboxes with oversized PDFs of ‘design porn’ from designers who aren’t quite sure what you want to see. On the other hand, the applicant has tried to put their best foot forward, but they have no idea if they got it right. It’s the cardinal rule of design — make sure you have context before making decisions, and designers are breaking it every, single, day.

Maybe this approach worked back in the day. And by the day, I mean, like, 70 years ago, when commercial art and advertising were a little more linked. A time when a “designer” worked on their own. But design doesn’t work that way anymore. Design requires teams of people to produce great work. There’s seniors, juniors, art directors, active clients, account managers, the list goes on. Every one of these people can influence what comes out at the end of a design process.

This “folio way” is even more irrelevant now because private education institutions have worked it out and they’ve gamed the whole damn industry. These institutions have evolved their practices not to teach the core fundamental skills that make a designer great. You know, those skills like critical thinking, good communication, teamwork and empathy. They’re rolling out folios with students attached. Their assignments and their lecturers are helping students craft flashy, contemporary images that appeal to anyone whose up with what’s cool in ad land (same goes for websites by the way). They’ve devised lesson plans that shortcut students to ‘employable’ students with ‘employable’ images within 12 months, 6 months and now 3 months.

Well, you know what? I’m over it.

At Cogent, we’re not accepting portfolios as part of an initial job application any more. If you want to submit one, we won’t look at it without you. What we care about is you, as a person. Are you nice? Do you share our values? After that, we’ll talk about design and your skills. We want to see how you articulate the journey that ended at whatever artefact you feel illustrates the outcome. The most important part of the design process is just that, the process. We couldn’t care less how ugly or pretty the outcome is. What we want to know is what you learned in the process of creating that image or outcome. What challenges did (or didn’t) you overcome? Are you proud of the end result? Why do you feel that way? What would you do differently next time? Did you find certain parts of the process more difficult than others? What do you love about it? Were there moments where days vanished because you were so engrossed in what you were doing and you want to spend every day at work doing that same thing? That’s what we want to know.

What we care about is you, as a person.

We don’t care if you can photoshop a horse’s head on to a super-sized model’s body so realistically that it makes us question our own existence or that you can bang out fully-responsive bootstrapped flat UI in your sleep. If you don’t question why you’re doing it in the first place (especially in that first example), we’re probably not the right fit.

The reality is, these final images that get presented in folios are not true representations of the designer’s capabilities of doing great design work and really, that was supposed to be the point of a folio. Anyone whose worked in the industry for longer than a few months knows that you need a lot more than some magical, genetically-gifted endowment to produce great design work. You know, work that is beautiful *and* functional. Work that changes lives and improves our, let’s be honest, pretty shitty world. Because design will, but only if we make it happen by holding ourselves accountable to the processes and practices we use and iterating when, quite frankly, they aren’t working.

Image: Matt hosts General Assembly students at Cogent to talk about Cogent’s approach to good design
Thanks to Andy Nicholson.

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