Issue 7: What did you wish you knew early on?

Do you have any tips for transitioning from agency to in-house design? What makes a great portfolio website?

Welcome, designer.

Happy Thursday! I hope you’re having a fantastic week so far. I won’t do much chitchat in the intro here today because this issue is a loooong one so I’ll just get straight into it.

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This week, we answer:

  • What did you wish you knew early on?

  • Do you have any tips for transitioning from agency to in-house design?

  • What makes a great portfolio website? Not the case studies, but just the website.

What did you wish you knew early on?

What skill/knowledge that you have now, do you wish you'd had when you started as a UX/Product Designer? This could be a “hard” (specific software, processes, etc.) or “soft” skill (learning more about team members, perspective, etc.) or perhaps just a bit of advise that resonated and helped you.

So. many. things. Just to name a few:

  • I wish I focused more on communication skills.
    Although we all acknowledge the importance of communication, I wish I gave it serious and intentional effort earlier on in my career. This includes understanding how my design specs could be clearer, how I could better rationalize product decisions, and how I can create more compelling presentations to stakeholders. Developing this skill often requires external feedback, meaning I ask my manager to send me notes after big presentations on what I did well / need improvement and I pay attention to common questions from my engineers so I can account for them earlier in my specs.

  • I wish I broke away from the rigidity of Design Thinking earlier.
    Hot take but while Design Thinking is a great way to teach students design, it’s not always a practical framework for designers to actually operate within. Dealing with the messiness of real-world problems requires flexibility and creativity far beyond the Double Diamond or user personas and if I had realized this sooner, I would have been a more effective and collaborative partner to my cross-functional teams.

  • I wish I was more upfront with my managers.
    I had started out assuming managers were here to keep me in line and fire me if I ever deviated too far, which meant I often kept from asking too much (raise, promotion, what have you) and were even more tight-lipped when it came to failures or mistakes I made. But once I understood that a manager’s job is to help me succeed, I began to be upfront about my career goals and maintained an honest and ongoing conversation about my performance and how that gets me what I want at the company. This became a huge factor in accelerating my career and erased a lot of imposter syndrome over time.

  • I wish I networked more outside of my company.
    Only in the past couple years did I start seeking out peers at my stage of career as well as veterans in roles I someday aspired to be in. Not only did this expand my pool of connections, it also led me to opportunities that I didn’t even realize were there, including jobs, speaking events, side hustles, partnerships, and mentorships. These are the relationships I carry with me throughout my entire career, not just while I am at one company.

Do you have any tips for transitioning from agency to in-house design?

I’m currently a UX designer at an ad agency and want to transition to in-house after a year-ish or so (almost at 6 months right now). Do you have any tips to go about this transition or how to gain insight on where to work as an in-house designer (ex: a start up vs tech company or diff. industries)?

This question came from Twitter and I thought I’d share—with their permission—a screenshot of my answer with you:

What makes a great portfolio website? Not the case studies, but just the website.

Obviously the most important thing is the quality of work in the case studies but outside of that, what is important to have in the website itself? What isn’t?

I don’t want to make a binary call here and call out one thing important and another unimportant. When I was at AngelList, I interviewed dozens of recruiters and hiring managers on this and they’ve given some contradictory answers but I’ll share some patterns and majority consensus that I’ve gleamed.

🟢 Important

  • Crystal clear navigation and information architecture
    Nothing should make it harder for visitors to find and read your work. Although this sounds obvious, I’ve landed into portfolios and gotten stuck in awkward layouts or navbar behavior.

  • Links to LinkedIn / resume
    Most recruiters view your portfolio at the same time as your LinkedIn / resume. Although they likely have it as part of your application, it doesn’t hurt to make it even easier for them get to it.

  • Mocks in project thumbnails
    Before jumping into a case study, help recruiters pick the ones that are most relevant to the job by having your final design mocks in the project thumbnails. Pictures say a million words and these thumbnails should give the recruiter an immediate idea of what they’re about to look at, such as the platform (ex: web, iOS, Android) and industry (ex: fintech, enterprise, e-commerce). Unless you’re under NDA, don’t only use the company logo or stock photos as they’re not very descriptive.

  • Upfront project metadata
    Similar reason to the above, once a recruiter does click into a case study, break down the most important details right above the fold, such as the makeup of your team, the project timeline, whether the project has shipped or is a school project thought experiment, and metrics proving impact.

🟡 Not as important

  • Flashy animations or transitions
    These are cool but unless your case studies provide enough signal about your skills, they won’t give you a leg up. Even worse is if they get in the way of reading your case studies (ex wacky parallax, scrolljacking).

  • Unrelated hobbies and interests
    While it’s great to show off your photography or dance routines, definitely don’t let them get in the way of your projects. The best way to have them on your portfolio is usually on your About page, not your Work page.

  • Domain name or website hosting service
    The domain name you pick has no sway in whether you’re a good designer. And as long as all the important pieces are there, it also doesn’t matter whether you choose Squarespace, Wordpress, Wix, or even Notion to host your website. It doubly doesn’t matter if you didn’t code your website. If coding is a requirement of the job, it should be part of your case studies, not necessarily your website itself.


LIVE: Preparing for your next design interview

Femke and I are holding a 1 hour livestream tomorrow to share our advice and experiences preparing for design interviews. We’ll touch on how to set yourself up for success as well as what to avoid when it comes to interviewing. RSVP here

Figma Config 2021

Besides the incredible new features announced, there have been some amazing talks. If you haven’t checked it out yet, you can still catch day 2 or watch the recordings when they’re released in May! In the meantime, one of my favorite slides from this talk:

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Until next time, 👋
— Lily