The Death of Design Portfolios

How Big Tech is changing the way designers show their work

Rachel Berger
Aug 26, 2019 · 5 min read
Photo: benedek/Getty Images

DDesigners keep up with what’s going on in design by looking at blogs, magazines, schools, exhibitions, and portfolio sites. We know we have to maintain this habit because we are interested in promoting ourselves to get business, build our reputations, and assert ourselves as culture makers. But what happens when those interests change?

A few years ago, I started noticing a strange phenomenon: When designers I followed went to work for technology companies, their portfolios froze — no updates, no new work, nothing. In the Bay Area, where most designers were working in the tech sector, this meant that a lot of folks had ostensibly vanished from, or never really entered, the creative community. With tech’s inexorable expansion in other parts of the country, from Seattle to Austin to Washington, D.C., I see this trend accelerating, with more and more designers being swallowed up by big tech.

Why would so many prolific, proud, (sometimes annoyingly) self-promoting designers go dark? I decided it must be because they had to. They probably weren’t allowed to show the amazing work they were making in-house because they’d signed restrictive contracts locking it away from public view.

My initial inquiries supported this theory. An intellectual property lawyer confirmed that tech companies’ contracts are overly expansive and that most designers are powerless to fight them. Colleagues whose studios do a lot of work for tech companies said it can be a struggle to get permission to show the work on their portfolio sites.

Digging deeper, I asked designers at Apple, Google, Facebook, Airbnb, Pinterest, Adobe, Dropbox, and Snapchat — technology companies that have invested in large in-house design teams — about the unfair contracts keeping them from updating portfolios. Their answers surprised me. Sure, confidentiality is an issue, as it is with most client work, but that isn’t what’s putting their portfolios on ice. To answer that question, I needed to face a basic assumption I was making about design practice: that designers make work they want to show on a portfolio site.

There are really three assumptions embedded in that statement: 1) designers make work, 2) they want to show, 3) on a portfolio site. I will address them in turn.

1. Designers make work

Fast-growing technology companies are in constant flux. Organizational changes, shifting priorities, ambiguity over roles, lack of established systems, and employee turnover are the norm. The pace of change is exciting, but it can impede productivity. Designers often spend a lot of time in meetings, just to keep up with what’s going on at the company. Katie Barcelona, former brand design manager at Pinterest, told me, “If showing fully blocked out calendars and meeting statistics were impressive in a portfolio, I’d be all over it.”

In tech, an individual designer is just one of many contributors to a project. It is hard to point to something, even a small part of something, and say, “I made that.” This can be particularly challenging for product designers. Sonja Hernandez, senior experience design manager at Adobe, explained, “With design languages already worked out by a centralized team, the product designer isn’t choosing visual aspects like colors or button shapes, but is guiding the flow and experience.” It is also hard to take credit for work that never sees the light of day. Designers can spend months or years on projects that never get off the ground and features that never make it into a product.

2. Designers want to show their professional work

When I checked my second assumption with Tim Belonax, design director at Pinterest (formerly Airbnb and Facebook), he responded, “The question for myself is what do I get out of showing it? What’s the benefit?” Several of the designers I talked to work on ambitious personal projects outside of their day jobs, and they are much more likely to show that work than their professional work. Belonax recently founded Double Issue, a magazine that tells stories about social issues from the past and present. Sarah Kim, a visual designer at Snap Inc., is part of Eggy Press, an artist collective specializing in limited edition prints and objects. Lexi Visco, former senior brand designer at Dropbox, runs P.E. Area, an initiative supporting new ways of making and distributing publications.

Design history is largely defined by artifacts — books, posters, clocks, chairs, cars, buildings. We glorify the beautiful evidence of designers’ creative efforts, and look for the mark of an individual designer’s vision in the work. Designers working in tech today tend not to have a lot to show for their professional work. They are not creating artifacts, they are contributing to systems. These systems might have a greater impact than a beautiful object, but they are not recognized in the same way. Bryan Ku, a visual designer at Google Search, explained, “We design interfaces and components that aim to be intuitive, functional, and nearly invisible. Although invisible, the fulfillment of the work comes from the number of people that directly benefit from my effort.”

3. Designers want to show their work on a portfolio site

My last assumption was that a portfolio site is the best platform for designers to show their work. Unfortunately, a couple juicy images and a bold headline can’t capture the context, scope, and objectives of most design work happening in tech. Brian Singer, former design manager at Pinterest and Facebook, complained about the “drive-by” critiquing of design work on the internet. Tim Belonax agreed: “The way that people judge work can be misinformed or too quick, especially online.” Sarah Kim acknowledged that she hasn’t posted Snap work on her website because she’s still figuring out the best way to tell the story of its process.

For designers working in tech, a tweet announcing a product launch, a Medium post analyzing a new sign-up flow, a lecture at SXSW, or even a patent filing can be a better showcase for their work than a portfolio site. Personal portfolio sites are too static for the pace of change in tech. Bryan Ku noted, “Even when something has launched, I’ll know it’s outdated because I’ve been working on its next iteration for months.” Several of the designers I talked to seemed hesitant about reviving their portfolio sites because of the work involved in keeping them fresh. Tim Belonax is glad he doesn’t have to “be all over the internet or magazines and things like that to bring in work” and can focus his energy on other things.

Personal portfolio sites are too static for the pace of change in tech.

ByBy nature, the design industry is always changing, in the Bay Area and beyond. In researching this piece, I was confronted with evidence of change that challenged a notion I’d assumed to be true about designers, particularly about good designers making timely, important work. As contemporary design practice evolves from “I made” to “we made” and from static artifacts to dynamic systems, designers will need new tools and tactics for sharing their work. One detailed case study explaining a designer’s contribution at each stage of a project could be more useful than a dozen flawless product shots. The best employers value designers for how they think as much as what they’ve made — the key for designers going forward will be to find effective ways to demonstrate that.

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Helping designers thrive.

Rachel Berger

Written by

Rachel Berger is a designer in Oakland, and chair of Graphic Design at California College of the Arts.

Modus

Modus

Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

Rachel Berger

Written by

Rachel Berger is a designer in Oakland, and chair of Graphic Design at California College of the Arts.

Modus

Modus

Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

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