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10+1 Reasons Why I Don’t Show My Portfolio [Medium]

I know this will sound incomprehensible to most of you: I don’t have a public portfolio on my website. Which looks pretty counterintuitive for a Designer.
This article is not meant to be a suggestion to ditch your own. This works for me for reasons I will elaborate on here, but it might be the wrong choice for everybody else. It could also be for me, but since making this decision, I have already collaborated with clients who never saw my portfolio.

So let’s begin.

Note

This article first appeared on medium.com. I can’t control what Medium does with its platform, so I decided to keep a (more up-to-date) copy on this blog.

My name is Fabien. For the past 25 years, I’ve worn many hats in the Design industry: Creative Director, UX Lead, DesignOps Manager, Web/Graphic/Brand Designer. But I’ve also been a DJ and the first Italian male food blogger. This last one doesn’t really matter here, but I’m half Italian and half French therefore food must always be mentioned. 🙂

In all these years, I worked on hundreds of projects, in diverse areas, for local businesses and Big Brands.
If anything, my portfolio should instead display a plethora of very diverse creative works and highlight the big clients. Yet I decided to take it all down for several reasons, including…

1. Non-Disclosure Agreements

The first reason is obvious, even though it might sound like a very convenient excuse.
Much of my agency work over the past 10 years (since I moved to London) is covered by very strict Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA). And not just a warning not to disclose any detail of the project while working on it, but even not to publicise my role or the fact my company was delivering it. Ever.

I never liked these restrictions, and I find them very detrimental as well. It becomes challenging for an agency to attract new clients and good talent if it can’t publicly display anything it does (yes: agencies should show their portfolio).
But the agencies I worked for these past years agreed with such terms to ‘protect’ their clients. Therefore those projects cannot appear in my personal portfolio. Among others, I worked for fintech, insurance, and healthcare companies, and the restrictions make sense when working with very sensitive data or for projects that could attract malicious attention.
But why still enforce it after the project’s been published?

Anyway, you could argue that I shouldn’t care at all now that I left those agencies… But if you were to hire me, would you instead appreciate my integrity or see that I breach agreements at any given opportunity?

2. Clear work-life separation

A good recommendation to any designer without a portfolio (or with undisclosable work) would be to showcase side projects.
100%. I totally agree. But these are not really my thing either. My side projects are mainly outside the Design sphere: in Photography, Music, and Literature, to name a few.
Not to mention all the spare time I save for my family.

Even though Design has always been my passion and life, to the point that I can say I breathe Design, I have so many interests in life that I can’t (and don’t want to) solely focus on that. Therefore my side work is elsewhere and doesn’t belong in my design portfolio. I do apply my Design and UX skills to everything I do. For example, designing the layouts for my photo zines. But are those portfolio materials? I don’t believe so.

If you’re curious to see my Photography (including my Photographer Of The Year features), some of it is on Instagram: @fabienb

3. More is less

25 years is a long time. And a lot of projects.

design portfolio, too many items make decisions harder
illustration generated by AI with Stable Diffusion

A portfolio like mine would contain lots of them in order to attract as many clients as possible. That seems to be the sensible thing to have. But as you know, it’s hard to decide when there are too many options.
And when there are too many projects in a portfolio, it’s difficult to judge and find the one that’s right for a specific client (in a timely fashion).

It can be overwhelming and a waste of client/recruiter’s time.

Now, I hear you say I should limit that to the last, what, 3 years? But before that, I may have had 5 years of experience working with a famous brand… So should I scrap that and not let similar brands hire me and take advantage of my expertise?
Let’s just say it’s complicated. And I’m all for simplifying things.

Creating ad-hoc pages to pitch my profile to clients based on their industry is much more valuable. My approach is to pick a handful of works to showcase in order to focus on a compelling proposition rather than a portfolio.
But 25 years of projects in an online portfolio? Uh, no thanks.

4. Published works are already outdated

Even if I were to disclose projects or publish all my work, some time has passed, and therefore those projects would be already outdated.
You know how fast things evolve nowadays, so it’s likely that you would be looking at something that doesn’t have much relevance anymore.

I wish I could say my work is timeless, and perhaps some projects are.
But in this day and age, a Designer should simply accept that their work, particularly in the Digital field, is very much volatile.

I have also been on a sabbatical this past year, travelling the world. Quite a lot, actually (on one trip, I literally went full circle, moving East). And this adds to the age of the projects I worked on… Mind you, some of my designs might have even been entirely replaced already.

5. Projects ownership

Over the past 15 years, I focused more on developing a Creative Direction role, which meant most of my daytime job was hands-off. Or I got more involved in the initial phases to prototype and pitch ideas to the clients than in getting my hands dirty.
Consequently, my design may have evolved during development and become almost unrecognisable in the published work. Hey, it’s a good thing: projects change based on user feedback, research and testing… It’s UX, baby!
Or maybe the published work is ultimately more creditable to my team than it is to me. Which again would be a good thing because it contributed to my designers’ team growth.

Sure, I kicked off the idea and the direction, worked closely with my team and the clients and ensured delivery and post phases were all equally top-notch. But is that still my work? And can this honestly feature in my own portfolio of creations?
How can I let you judge all I have done operating in the background from a few visuals I did not effectively publish myself?

But I can take you through the processes, of course. I can tell you how my role impacted the projects, yes. So do not stop at a portfolio: call me, and let’s talk.

6. Mentorship and Leadership are not visual

OK, is there anything I can sell in my role if I can’t use my designs?
Of course, in all these years directing Design and UX in different companies, I can confidently say I have provided effective mentorship and leadership.

portfolio stable diffusion illustration ink students mentorship
illustration generated by AI with Stable Diffusion

You want a leader that leaves a mark. One for whom tears flow when they leave or get introduced as “the person who taught me everything I know” by their team.

Everybody wants a leader who drives towards what’s best for their company and clients. But also one that doesn’t forget to be a team player caring about the other members sincerely and mentoring those who will eventually take his place. All while nurturing a healthy and fruitful relationship with clients and stakeholders.

I am that leader. I trained and grown to become the best version of it, and I would love to show it to you. But then, these are skills you can’t really display visually in a portfolio, can you?
If we are to talk, I can take you through the successes (and failures) and elaborate on what all of this means. But that’s not really something one can judge simply by glancing at a portfolio.

7. The hard truth about mental health

mental health, depression, lonely man on a sofa, stable diffusion, illustration, ink, therapy
illustration generated by AI with Stable Diffusion

We’re entering personal rather than professional here…

If you read my article about my recent struggle and where this took me, you already know that I wasn’t in a particularly happy place for a while.
And I’m afraid my mental health problems have clearly impacted my work and vice-versa.

Thanks to my team’s work, we published good stuff together and created successes for our clients. But I would have left that period as a gap in my portfolio anyway because of what it reminds me of. And not knowing my story, this gap could raise concerns in a client looking at it. Ultimately pushing them away.

I talk openly and honestly about that; I just don’t enjoy showing that side.

8. More of the same

Back to the professional side of things, one of the many drawbacks of an online portfolio is that you are always showcasing what you have already done (and that is lapalissian).
Then, you get hired to do those same things over and over because that’s where you proved your skills already.

And (tragically) this is true at a very granular level. For example, I know of great illustrators who can draw pretty much anything but then publish a couple of works with, say, pinups, and all they get hired for is drawing more pinups.
Don’t get me wrong, this could be perfectly fine if your aspiration is to become the best pinup illustrator in the world. There are designers giving talks at conferences about how this actually helped them. But to many creatives, this could become quite frustrating as they’ll find themselves in the same endless routine loop.

And guess what? I’m that creative.

9. I want to work on the NEXT big thing

A direct consequence of the previous point… You can appreciate now that I don’t particularly enjoy doing the same thing over and over or resting on the laurels of my (and my clients’) success.

I know it’s counterintuitive, as you would typically use what you learned in a project to improve the next one and play to your strengths. But actually, what really drives me as a designer is to continuously challenge myself and hopefully learn something new every day.
I work hard to master the skills required to succeed, but then I feel the urge to move to master another one. And then another one.
I’m eager to learn new things, and curiosity drives everything I do.

The journey can be as fascinating as the destination. At times one could feel in a perennial loop of mediocrity, always starting afresh with something they’re uncomfortable with. But learning, maybe going through a few failures and then succeeding again, is part of the growth that always makes you better and stronger. You learn different ways to find solutions and can discern better the one that solves your problems best.

Being hired to work on a similar project to one in my portfolio would not allow me to learn anything new and then grow.
And copying myself over and over would also be the wrong thing to do for my clients’ business because…

10. What you want me to do is understand you, your business, and your clients

… because that previous work was a success for that particular client. But their mileage may vary considerably, even if they have a similar target audience.

What you really want from me is understanding YOU, your business and your clients.
If I don’t do that and provide you with a copy of another project, simply with your skin applied on top, you won’t have the success you aim for and consequently blame my work for that.

A portfolio is often viewed as a catalogue from which to choose a product and somehow reuse that. But my work for you needs to be tailored to you alone to achieve maximum success.
And I genuinely believe in this, whether it’s an icon for an app or a long-term digital strategy, a UX consultancy or a branding exercise.
Whatever the work, you are unique, and so is the solution that suits you.

I can reuse tools and take advantage of what I learned from previous projects. But on the line are your own needs, your own clients, and your own success.

11. Hire (me) for attitude, retain for skills

designer portfolio, good vibes only
Photo by MARK ADRIANE on Unsplash

So now you know why you won’t find a public portfolio on my personal website.

But let me wrap this up with a suggestion that is not necessarily specific to me: hire for attitude (and then retain for skills).

You think you need to see a portfolio because it may help you find someone with the design flair and skills you would like to introduce to your team. But you can’t possibly know if the person will fit your company culture and be an excellent colleague or team member.

And to me, this has always been the far more critical aspect.

Also, remember that skills can always be learned.

You must go beyond a portfolio to find who’s right for you.

Hopefully, this has somehow tickled your interest, and you want to discuss furthermore if we can collaborate on something that would make you, your users and me happy and successful.

So let’s talk. Let me help you, your business and your clients.

“A person isn’t solely defined by the work they do. They are defined by their experiences and passions that reflect their point of view on life and thus the way they solve problems.” — TIFFANY EATON


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