Ikea and Deliveroo design leaders call out “old fashioned” portfolios 

In-house design experts question the utility of portfolios when applying for jobs, instead preferring a more narrative approach with case studies where possible.

Perfecting a portfolio is often a designer’s first step towards entering the job market. The practice is taught on university courses up and down the country, and is drilled in early.

Portfolios have been the way of the design industry for decades, but is it all a waste of time? Ikea Retail global experience design operations head Karolina Boremalm is one of a growing number of design leaders to question their utility.

Rather than being the most effective way to convey experience to a hiring manager, Boremalm considers portfolios to be “a legacy from ad agencies”, which in the past focused on “nice posters” and not much else.

“I’m completely uninterested in seeing what you’ve produced”

Speaking at Figma webinar Inside the Minds of Design Leaders, Boremalm explained that while portfolios are often impressive visually, they don’t give her what she needs as a hiring manager.

“My thoughts on portfolios is just don’t do them,” she said. “As a manager, I’m completely uninterested in seeing what you’ve actually produced.”

Instead, Boremalm says her biggest interest is in seeing the thought process behind the work. “How did you collaborate with the stakeholders? What did you deprioritise and prioritise based on the goal or budget?” she asks.

Boremalm says conveying all this in a multi-page portfolio is hard.

“I don’t want a set of graphics from a big folder”

Deliveroo director of design Stuart Frisby also expressed doubt over the use of traditional picture-only portfolios.

“Being able to see someone’s technical skills in a portfolio is important,” he said. “But the old-fashioned notion of a portfolio isn’t what I want as a hiring manager today.

“I don’t want a big set of graphics, from a big folder you carry round with you to every interview – what I want is the context that goes with the work.”

Instead, he said he prefers prospective job applicants to present case studies. This provides context for the work, he explained, such as the why decisions were made, what constraints were present and what kind of team an applicant was working with.

“People ignore their own strengths by trying to do everything”

Both Boremalm and Frisby highlighted that to produce an effective case study, the first step is properly reading a job description and tailoring previous experience to tick the necessary boxes.

But as Boremalm stresses, applicants shouldn’t force themselves to fit the shape of particular role. Designers who specialise and enjoy UX, for example, shouldn’t force themselves to apply for a service design role in a bid to become a multi-hyphenate.

“People ignore their own strengths by trying to do everything,” she said. Instead, she explained people should focus on building a career on what they enjoy doing.

“Different companies look for different things from designers”

One problem with tailoring case studies for each individual job application is that it takes more time. For designers applying for eight or nine jobs, producing tailor-made case studies can take days if not longer, Frisby concedes.

Additionally, the lack of standardisation when it comes to portfolios and case studies alike means everyone is doing things slightly differently. But as both design leaders explain, standardisation isn’t the solution to the problem.

“Of course it would be helpful if there was one standard document you could send to all of the different jobs you apply for,” said Frisby. “But I think the reality is that different companies look for different things from designers.”

“Narrative is the difference between a good case study and a bad one”

As for actually creating a perfect case study for an application, Frisby says the key is to think of it as a narrative. A story with a beginning, middle and end is a sure bet, he explained.

“The beginning is about setting context on the project, helping the person reading to understand,” he said. “Then talk me through the execution, and then end by talking about the impact of the project on the business.

“I think narrative is the difference between a good case study and a bad one.”

What do you think about portfolios? Let us know in the comments below…

Banner image from Shutterstock.

Hide Comments (12)Show Comments (12)
  • Kate Harris July 30, 2021 at 8:56 am

    I agree that the best way to uncover great design talent is to find out how a designer thinks. Articulation of their thought process is the best clue. This part of the design process is often passed over by some who only see the value in a pretty picture. As I am often reminded by my clients (and my husband), design is still a commercial enterprise and all about problem solving.

  • Nick July 30, 2021 at 9:49 am

    Replace the word narrative with process and I don’t feel like there’s anything new being said here.
    It’s always been important for Designers to demonstrate their journey to an end solution. Likewise tailoring work samples to suit the target employer is sensible but not without challenges. The difficulty with the latter comes, I believe, at the more junior end of the industry when you just don’t have a large enough body of work to select from, so you end up opting for more generic portfolio which can then lead to a bit of a stretch to explain the applicability of your work to the role your applying for. I guess this is where the discussion around the value of personal projects within a portfolio crops up – how else can a fresh graduate or Junior level creative add to their body of work to create more tailored content when they have a limited amount of industry experience / projects to showcase?

  • Safkus July 30, 2021 at 9:51 am

    “But as Boremalm stresses, applicants shouldn’t force themselves to fit the shape of particular role. Designers who specialise and enjoy UX, for example, shouldn’t force themselves to apply for a service design role in a bid to become a multi-hyphenate.”

    Designers do that as nearly all job listings require that these days, I don’t think i’ve seen one listing recently for designers that doesn’t require you to be a jack of all trades!

  • DC July 30, 2021 at 12:26 pm

    Is there any difference between:

    “I’m completely uninterested in seeing what you’ve produced”.


    “I’m completely uninterested in who you are or what you’re about”?

  • Mark North August 1, 2021 at 1:32 pm

    When interviewing a designer I always tried to use their portfolio as a prop, something to talk around, as a technique to tease out more about the designer as an individual. However, to get to the interview they usually had to send in a portfolio, with a short description of the brief, the solution, and the outcomes for each project. So what’s new?

  • John Williamson August 1, 2021 at 2:08 pm

    Hi DC, I agree with your comment – if that is initial picture someone gets of a business / the culture of the business, I think people might decide to apply to a different organisation.

    I think people want to know how candidate thought processes work, I also would want to see some finished work – how else can someone demonstrate their creativity, ideas the out-working of those ideas.

  • Steve August 1, 2021 at 6:07 pm

    I agree with Nick. You are limited with portfolio content as a junior. Add i agree with Safkus that graphic design is a multi disciplined role. I do see a lot of jobs that seem to require as many skills from a designer for their buck add possible. Perhaps it reflects the kind of business it is; the smaller companies or companies that don’t value design as much are more aimed at getting someone to fulfill all of the design related work they need doing where as larger companies or companies that place a greater value on design require several designers all with varying skills to make sure the greater workloads are catered for? I could be wrong of course (especially as I’m a second year Graphic design student currently).

    It is an interesting article! I am happy to say that at my university we were required to create a “process book” in which we focused on the developmental process of our designs to analyse and explain our decisions we made and how we have approached the ‘problem solving’ aspect through to completion. It not only helps me to learn from retrospect but to help lecturers and potential employers to see more clearly my ideation skills. After all, it is a designers ability to generate new, unique and innovative ideas that employers are interested in.

  • G August 2, 2021 at 9:21 am

    Not sure why an in-house job at a software company needs to feature on this post.

    But either way I’m ok giving this interview a miss :

    “I’m completely uninterested in seeing what you’ve actually produced.”
    “How did you collaborate with the stakeholders”
    “What did you deprioritise and prioritise based on the goal or budget?”

    Maybe Figma has the same interview process for the MD, janitor? Sorry, but you said it. That just makes my creative soul hurt, I doubt you would say the same to your corporate office interior designer. to play devil’s advocate, I guess it is an in-house job at a software company with a set brand guideline and by the sounds of it zero creative input.

  • Neil Littman August 8, 2021 at 1:14 pm

    I thought the comment “I’m completely uninterested in seeing what you’ve produced”. is so arrogant. I would not want to work for anybody who said that to me. In any case, I have run my own company for over 12 years so don’t have to put up with that kind of attitude. Have worked in the industry since the days when a physical portfolio was expected and the only way to show work. Since then; three websites, PDF mail shots, and a couple of limited edition brochures have seen me through my career. Most of my work is via word of mouth from people who know me and my attitude and creative thinking. The brochures have been my most successful calling card resulting in projects and new clients. Have met all kinds of people over the years, some were interested in what I had to offer and others were not. Personal chemistry and sense of humour also play a great part in the process of deciding who you want to work with plus designers differ in their approach at the various stages of their careers. Thankfully we don’t have any single approach and that is what makes us unique. The blanket statements in that article were basically negative and don’t endear me to anyone who says that kind of thing.

  • Nick Gierus August 8, 2021 at 6:19 pm

    The last 18 months have left me feeling that it’s an employers market out there. Fifty applicants per job role kind of vibe. Standing back a wee bit, I can’t help but think that some of the thinking evident in the article might need reframing somewhat. Here, again, we’re being told where employers have now shifted the goal posts to. To refer to someone’s portfolio as a “big set of graphics, from a big folder” speaks volumes.

    As a potential employee (collaborator?) I have some pretty strong requirements myself if I’m looking to invest years (yes, years) of my time into your company. Do you have strong leaders who are honest, brave and inspired by competence? Or, do you have weak leaders who are dishonest, fearful and intimidated by competence?

    Do you attract and support good talent that will allow someone like myself to both contribute to and benefit from working with? Am I going to bang my head off the wall for the next 3 years of my life? Or will my hard work, heart and soul be put to good use? What are you hoping to achieve? Are you growing, receding or playing it safe?

    It’s a two way process where both parties have something to gain and something to lose. That’s why we as potential employees, should always ask questions (in the most civil terms possible, of course). Company reviews on GD are pretty good but like all walks of life, you need to meet the personalities behind the profile.

    And, of course portfolios need context and a justification of their processes. Just like fancy company websites with provocative sound-bites need further inquiry. That’s why we have interviews I guess. We’re getting each other onto the dance floor.

  • John Flo August 11, 2021 at 11:36 am

    Certainly I am not taking advice from IKEA. Its old fashioned approach to design, consumption, ethical practices upon the environment, and the individuality of the customer speak for themselves.

    As for Deliveroo, well NO COMMENT!

    My studies, background, brain and creativity will lead me to where I want without the guidance of mass stupidity derived from these so called hip and shit Companies.

    Thank you very much indeed.

  • Belle FIIK August 17, 2021 at 6:04 pm

    “How did you collaborate with the stakeholders? What did you deprioritise and prioritise based on the goal or budget?”

    When was the last time a designer ever got to actually speak directly to stakeholders or get a final say on the goal and budget? Let alone have a direct say in the entire concept and process?
    Think about it deeply. Unless said designer is working for themselves and running the show, it’s very rare. Agencies have Creative Directors, Heads of Design, Marketing, Account Managers, Strategists etc – all these other people that get a say then hand the designer the brief. We rarely if ever even get to meet the client.

    So asking a designer for all this, especially any that have freelanced for a lot of their careers through agencies; that’s like asking a designer to give you a company report from 8 different people’s specific roles to cover everything.
    Extremely unrealistic and quite ironic considering this quote: “People ignore their own strengths by trying to do everything”. When that is what you are asking them to do, to get your job, which I doubt pays them enough if this is what you’re asking, let alone having any work life balance.

    One more note: “I don’t want a set of graphics from a big folder” Sorry, it’s not the 80s, 90s or even the naughties anymore, no one has a ‘big folder’. My word.

    I agree with Nick Gierus above, what are you actually going to give us? A micromanaged office where anything creative or out of the box we show is edited and shut down till it fits some fearful client’s beige and grey needs, just to fit the budget and end goal? No thanks.

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