The Death of Design Portfolios
How Big Tech is changing the way designers show their work
Designers 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)…