Experience vs Portfolio

Hi guys,

I’m not sure if this is the right section, but if not feel free to move it.

I was having this talk with a friend of mine and thought I’d ask everyone’s opinion on the subject.

A bit of context:
I’m a 3rd year Canadian ID student who just accepted a 12 month internship at Blackberry for Industrial Design which made me push back the completion of my studies to Spring 2016 (I was supposed to graduate Spring 2015 otherwise). So me and my friend were discussing pros and cons of going on internship for a year and he mentioned NDAs and how they can restrict what you put in your portfolio (in some cases barely anything). So it got us talking about the importance of the portfolio (as in the visual representation of previous works) versus the actual listed experience working at various companies.

I know full well that the 2 usually go hand in hand (more experience = more pieces to put in portfolio), but let’s say for argument’s sake that a company you’re working for has restrictive NDAs and you can show very minimal amounts of work. In such a case, is the experience worth it if there’s no representation (or very little) in the portfolio? For example, as say a hiring manager, assuming you had 2 candidates siting on your desk, one resume has more experience and the other has a nicer portfolio, which way would you lean?

It’s just a thought I was having concerning the different dynamic of ID (and the creative industry as a whole) in terms of the hiring process compared to other industries that only have resumes.

I’m currently interning in the Innovation Lab for Under Armour, which means very little of the stuff I’ve been working on will be able to go in my portfolio.

However, I think there’s a few things that you’re overlooking:

Connections, connections, connections - People say it’s all about who you know. After spending a year with a company you will gain some incredible connections (if you make the effort, of course). Those connections can land you a job after graduation, 5 years from now, 10 years from now, who knows. I can tell you from first hand experience, many times a hiring manager will ask people within the company who they know that can fill a certain position before even posting a job listing. If you can land yourself in that group rather than the random applicant you’ve just increased your chances tenfold.

If you want stuff in your portfolio to show, ask your manager if you can do a personal project that you can say “Completed this project during my 1 year internship at Blackberry”. My manager and I will be sitting down and laying out everything I’ve done, and picking out what I can and can’t show, and when I put it into my portfolio I will send it to the office to get their approval before I send it out to anyone.

Lastly, experience wins over school any day. A 1 year internship, with references, and recommendations tells your future employer that you have the experience of working in the real world. Your internship means much more than just a line on your experience page.

I hope that helps, I’ll let someone with more experience chime in on your question regarding two competing portfolios.

I’m definitely a proponent that internships can benefit you in so many more ways than just direct portfolio samples; you do make connections, you adjust to “real life” which involves things like real world dynamics, business deadlines, working with other departments (aka non-designers) and even if you can’t show your work while at an internship, doing the work itself will sharpen your skills and thinking. There’s little doubt in my mind that more experience can be detrimental unless we’re talking other circumstances (ex: relocation but unpaid internship).

My question was more “philosophical” in the sense that other professions do not have portfolios so the bulk of the decision making, aside from connections as you said, will lie in previous experience/training. The portfolio gives candidates a chance to visually demonstrate the skills (and previous experiences) they have so really, does that make the resume invalid in a sense which was more or less my initial question. What good is saying “I worked at place A” if you don’t (for some reason or another) have a visual representation in your portfolio. I know that that is an extreme case, but like I said, for “argument’s sake”. My opinion is written in the first paragraph of this post: work samples aside, the “intangible” benefits you and I outlined would make it worth it, but I was interested if anyone shared this view.

I’ve not yet started at Blackberry but thanks for the advice on how to approach putting work into one’s portfolio! I’ll definitely try this at the current company where I’m interning this summer.

Experience can be represented many ways - visual (being literal) is merely one way. Relying solely on visuals caters to more of a ‘beauty contest’ in essence, in presenting yourself - either they think your work is ‘pretty’ or they won’t. That is only one component of telling them about you, the designer.

We are all story tellers - what we worked on, what the challenges were, how we solve problems, how we visualize solutions, what gets us excited, what challenges us, what we want to do, what our strengths are, and what we want to contribute. The presentation of ‘you’ to future employers should (could) cover all of that and more - your portfolio is important, but it isn’t the most important thing - your experience, your skill, how you could apply them and how they see you helping them get there is what they are after.

It’s okay to tell a future employer where you interned, some generalities about it, what/how you were contributing (roles, tasks, etc.) and stating that you cannot go into great deal of detail about it due to the confidential nature of the work is good. It shows them that you would take the same great care in working for them, their clients, and their client’s confidentiality. It’s okay to say, “I’d love to show you the work I was doing, but I cannot as I need to keep it in confidence for them.”


In this industry everybody knows that most projects are confidential. Last year I did an internship for an agency and I couldn’t show any of the projects I had done there (I still can’t, even though some have been released), sometimes not even them have the rights to showcase the projects. However, you’ll learn a lot there and you’ll sharpen your skills. You can use that knowledge to prepare personal projects to show how your skills have improved with that internship and what you are capable of doing now. That and a recommendation letter should be enough.

Apowers idea is also good, if your mentor agrees, would be a great way of having something to show right away.

I’m not sure I get your original post, are you saying that within those two candidates one has a years worth of work experience under NDA and four years of school work versus a recent grad just with four years of school work and no work exp? I don’t get how one would end up with a better portfolio than the other…

Aside from the already mentioned connections in theory having that year in industry should drastically change the way you work once you start to complete your final year of school.

You can take your real world experience and apply it to your school projects, making sure that everything you do is worth while as if it were being paid for and not just fodder because it ticks an examiners grade box. The presentation, thought process, execution should all be of a higher quality.

It might also give you a better work ethic and really use your remainder of time at school a lot more wisely, in the end coming out with more work. If I were you and couldn’t show the work done at Blackberry then I’d set my own brief in my free time and complete it to the same standards that the Design Director would want to see.

Take bepster for example, he worked on a lot of CE projects but can’t show them so did two new self initiated projects showcasing his new skills in the space of two weeks. Imagine having an entire year, whilst still having the luxury of being a student…

It will be frustrating at first as you might feel like you have worked and slaved over projects you can’t show and which might only end up in a big pile of concept work or taken over by someone else.
A year is not that long in product development terms. But it’s long enough to really pick up not only hard skills but also a general feel for what professional work looks like.
My advice would be to not focus to much on picking up portfolio pieces and look more for running support to the team, jumping on as many projects as possible.

Sketchgrad is absolutely right. The thing is, that if you really got to develop yourself as a designer during this time, you will want to do projects for your portfolio on your own and it will be a lot of fun. I looked at my old work after only 18 months and couldn’t bare the quality standard. I just had to do something about it and re-CADed and re-renders everything.
All of a sudden you realize that you can shape, develop and present your work at such a higher level than before. You decision making will be much improved.

So I believe that in the end it really maybe doesn’t matter that much if you walk away with portfolio pieces but rather that you will be a much sharper designer after the experience.
If I were you, I would definitely go for this. No question. Congrats on the opportunity!

PS. Is Alicia Keys still involved? Yet another argument then… :wink:

this is not a VS discussion, it is an AND discussion. Experience AND Portfolio.

First, take the internship obviously. You will learn so much more about what it means to be a real designer with experience, vs the fictional environment of academia which is great to jumpstart learning, but is not really a reflection of the professional practice. While you are on that internship, you are working what 40-60 hours per week? Also set up some portfolio projects for yourself and track your hours, work 20-30 hours more per week on those… now you have both.

+10 for Yo!

I totally agree that you should 100% go for this, congratulations!
You’ll learn so much through working, and have a sharper mind for when you go back for the remainder of your studies.

Experience is the one off the basic needs of today job world. No one will ask you that in how many years you have completed your degree but the experience. So go for it and try to utilize maximum hours for the learning. Books shows up the way while job show us how exactly you can implement that.