Creating a new portfolio is possibly the single most painful task that a graphic designer encounters in life. Even harder than deciding on that new business card stock or designing your best buddy’s wedding invite.

And whether you are working solo or at a studio, it always seems to take much much much longer than it should…

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But if you think about it, most of the roadblocks are mental rather than physical.

You know your own work. You know your clients.

So in theory, it’s just a case of joining the dots between the two.

So what makes designing your own portfolio so hard?

(1) Lack of a deadline. If as Parkinson’s law states, work really does “expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”, then without a deadline, you can’t ever finish. Which sounds like a serious problem to me.

(2) Freedom. Aka a serious lack of constraints. There’s no client. You can do anything. Design anything. Do whatever the hell you want. But where will you start?

(3) Fear. Fear of failure, fear of what your peers will think, fear that it just won’t be good enough. (Confession: I haven’t properly designed my portfolio since I applied for my last job… five years ago)

How can we fix the redesign process?

Looking at the list above, there are some obvious ways to get back on track.

(1) Impose a deadline. Set a date, and stick to it.

(2) Impose design constraints. Focus on the core of the problem (how best to communicate what you do to potential clients) and work outwards, stripping away the non-essentials as you go.

(3) Remove the need for perfection. Your new portfolio isn’t forever. You can tweak it once it goes live… which is the beauty of web design after all, compared to print design. If it’s an experiment, it can’t fail.

Redesigning the redesign

Chewing this over, it seemed like I needed a framework for the redesign process. Otherwise I would probably end up using the creation of one as a reason to procrastinate further.

So… I’m going to use Design Staff’s product design sprint framework, and force myself to complete the dreaded portfolio redesign process in 5 days, instead of the usual 5 weeks or 5 months.

They describe it as “a five-day recipe for startups”, which sounds perfect to me because startups can/should be extremely lean and agile when it comes to making stuff happen. And if it’s good enough for Google Ventures, it should be good enough for some humble designers like us, right?

Here’s how the Design Staff workflow looks at a glance. Without changing any of the language, it sounds like it could work nicely applied to a portfolio redesign:

Before the sprint: Prepare
Get the people (ok, we will need to skip this one step) and things you need.

Day 1: Understand
Dig into the design problem through research, competitive review, and strategy exercises.

Day 2: Diverge
Rapidly develop as many solutions as possible.

Day 3: Decide
Choose the best ideas and hammer out a user story.

Day 4: Prototype
Build something quick and dirty that can be shown to users.

Day 5: Validate
Show the prototype to real humans (in other words, people outside your company) and learn what works and what doesn’t work

For an idea of how this looks in practice, watch this video of a design sprint that Google Ventures did with furniture company CustomMade:

An important disclaimer

I have absolutely no idea if mapping this team process onto a solo task is going to work or not. But documenting the whole thing should make for an interesting series of articles, if nothing else. If in doubt — write about it!

Keep reading for the first step (Preparation) or check back tomorrow for the results of Day 1 (Understanding).

Before the sprint: prepare

Because the product sprint is a process for teams, I’m going to cherry pick the relevant stuff for an individual (graphic designer) from this section.

Pick a big fight
The first thing you need is an important design problem, and if you work at a startup, chances are good you probably have one lying around the office… It just has to be really important to the company, and it has to be something you’re struggling to start or to make progress on

Well, what could be bigger problem for a designer than his/her own portfolio? 

For the record, here’s how my current portfolio looks. Note: this is the best case scenario, as it is not responsive in any way. I’m not going to pass comment just yet, but you can probably spot a few problems. Oh, and I hate the URL as well…


Schedule the user study before you have anything to test
Once you know when you’re going to do the sprint, recruit users and schedule the user studies for the last day of the sprint. This is a bit terrifying: you haven’t even started to talk about the problem, let alone design solutions, and people — outsiders! — are going to come in and need to be shown something.

Ok, this one is a little tougher. I’ve never run a user study before — just been on the receiving end of hugely detailed usability reports generated by other people. So instead of setting up an observation room in which to interview my users, I think I’m going to do some coffee shop testing. (Luckily for me, there’s one right below my studio). That just leaves the task of persuading a few random passers-by to review my new website. I must admit that I’m a bit hesitant about this part, but fuck it, let’s see what happens.

Put it on the calendar
Clear everybody’s schedule for five consecutive days. It’s also very important to have a dedicated room for the duration of the sprint, usually a conference room with lots of whiteboards.

Well, it’s just me here, and I’m going to be fitting the work in around whatever paying work lands in my inbox this week. So I’m not going to block off a clear five days for this. But I’ll do my best to keep the decks clear. And I’ll be sketching on paper instead of whiteboards, then sticking them on the wall.

Okay, the stage is set. Now it’s time to start the sprint.

Cool. Let’s do this!

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Posted to Graphic Design