Need UI UX portfolio help? Here are 10 questions an Art Director asks before hiring you (from an Art Director & UI UX Mentor)

What you could get away with in Portfolio Design, circa 2008 (around the time I was an in-house UI UX Designer at EA and id Software)

(quick disclaimer, I am a UI UX Designer for games and apps, not a web designer! But I figured good UI UX advice is good advice, so I hope you will forgive such incredible vanity)

As an Art Director and Mentor, I’ve seen probably a hundred Portfolios from Designers I’ve had to either veto or build up. I honestly think what spooks students and junior designers the most about Portfolio design is they’ll just… never know. When your application is passed over – you’ll never know if it was lacking any one piece, not enough information, too much information, or if the whole thing was just fine… and… that’s life.

But wait where are my manners? Ah good day to yous, my name is John Burnett, UI UX Designer, Art Director and 1-on-1 remote UI UX Design Mentor in games and apps. What if you could have insider knowledge about the decision-making process an Art Director follows? Far better to make a strategy knowing your opponent’s end goal then to construct in the blind.

To that end – in this Age of wanting to give back generously to students (and soon to be students?) I’ve made this cheat sheet on what questions I always ask myself (as both Art Director and Mentor) when I look at your work.

  1. Is my lightning-quick impression of you a good one?
  2. Where are your Skills and Abilities?
  3. Is the work tonally appropriate?
  4. How much of this did you do?
  5. Does the work show progression?
  6. Is this real or fake stuff?
  7. Does the Portfolio show a variety of work?
  8. Are you a Bad Engineer?
  9. Are you a Bad Artist?
  10. Do you have any relevant extras?

An Art Director would ask: Is my lightning-quick impression of you a good one?

  • Art Directors are powerful art-whisperers, discovering worlds about you the instant we see your work. In fact, we’ve likely made up our minds by the time the light hits the back of our retina.
  • No need for long-winded case studies. In fact*, we are hiring you specifically for your work to speak for itself*. If your Portfolio is unintuitive, cluttered, or blissfully unaware of its audience – well then, I hope you’ve explained that in your case study as well.
  • Art Directors can also tell if your Portfolio has a rich variety or just a bunch of filler. If you’re going for a digital role, make sure you’re not presenting a majority of print work. If all I see are wireframes, why would I risk the art-heavy UI role on you? Oh, and mobile and console games are worlds apart; be sure you are applying with at least a few examples of your awed respect for the disparity.

An Art Director would ask: where are your Skills and Abilities?

  • Art Directors will look at your Portfolio like people look at nutritional information on the back of the box. Make things easier for them and for you: immediately show them that you solve their kinds of problems (or stop things from going too far if you don’t have the expertise!).
  • If I’m hiring a web designer, I absolutely want to see WordPress as a skill immediately. If I’m making a game in Unreal and I only see Unity, I can’t go any further with you. If I have a 2-week, $8000.00 UX gig for a mobile rpg and you have no wireframing experience, GG nerd. That’s my 8 grand in two weeks now.
  • Fun fact, some students come to me only knowing Illustrator, an absolute no-no in game UI UX Design. The assumption you know Photoshop is so innate that it’s quite possible nobody would bring this up during the entire interview process. Imagine getting hired only to horrify your Strike Team with your inability to even open a .psd – let alone edit one – to say nothing of your ability to enchant one.

An Art Director would ask: Is the work tonally appropriate?

  • It’s tricky to describe, but an Art Director can tease out whether your style(s) would be congruent with the project slate. If a company lists a singular project you’ll be working on, make sure the mood and tone of your work fits
  • If you’re applying to make something similar to Fall Guys, but all your work looks like Silent Hill – I can’t risk the project on the possibility you’ll grow into it. If you’ve made lots of coder-facing apps that are ugly as sin, I can’t be confident that you’ll make my dispensary app beautifully user-centric just because you really want it this time.
  • This is why a broad variety of platforms, genres, and emotions are so important. Don’t give Art Directors like me a moment of reflection to say, “None of this fits.”

An Art Director would ask: How much of this did you do?

  • Games and apps are huge undertakings, so it’s okay to be a singular, shiny gear in a grand mechanism. But if I removed your gear, would anything shutter to a stop? How do I know what proportion of the work was yours versus the team?
  • Art Directors are very good at sniffing out what likely wasn’t your contribution. Iconography and line-weights are a few easy ways for an AD to track your scent in the wild. If there aren’t any personal anecdotes about challenges or processes, why are you writing in the first place?
  • Always include a standalone sentence that lists your duties on the project (Conceptualization, wireframing, iconography, art asset creation, integration [Unity, Unreal], etc. etc.). Explicitly state your Herculean feats & labors.

An Art Director would ask: Does the work show progression?

  • Don’t throw away those sketches and wireframes! You throw that in a pot and baby, you got yourself a stew! Sketches and wireframes show a clear process, attractive to vanilla UI UX Art Directors, but irresistible to Game Art Directors – as UI UX exists almost entirely in their blindspot.
  • Additionally, sketches and wires solve the problem of authenticating your work. Think of them like creative receipts.
  • If there’s anything slightly more important to an Art Director than the end result, it’s a working process. If we can see iterative growth that solves more problems than it breeds, that’s the unfair advantage I’m hiring for my Team.

An Art Director would ask: Is this real or fake stuff?

  • The challenge for all junior designers is how to showcase professional work when you’ve never been a professional before. This isn’t an impediment, and junior-level roles obviously skirt this issue, but it is still definitely noticeable.
  • Very few Art Directors are going to Google the projects you’re showing, since we’re not here to authenticate the project (and we categorically don’t have the time or interest) – we’re here to quickly vet your craftsmanship.
  • Yes, a real project showing real skills functioning in the real world is the ideal. But fake projects still demonstrate your skill, and the whole point of a portfolio is to get you better work than what you have at present.

An Art Director would ask: Does the Portfolio show a variety of work?

  • Art Directors will fast-track you because you have something hauntingly similar to what they’re working on now, or you’re a strong generalist. You’ll rarely luck out on the former, but you can always build towards the latter.
  • Don’t be ashamed of eclectic, unrelated work, so long as it sets a high quality bar. In fact, a variety of work at a high level of craft counts for much more than a competent portfolio with a narrow focus. We want a Shapeshifter – show us how well you fit your containers.
  • Game Art Directors in particular are very interested in the technological breadth of your work. PC, console, mobile, web, video, HTML5, Unity, Unreal. Each platform and tool presents unique challenges – meeting all those challenges head-on shows me you belong in mobile infantry (which made me the man I am today!).

An Art Director would ask: Are you a bad Engineer?

  • Don’t let your work highlight rancidly terrible UX. Are you showcasing ridiculous navigation, are your systems painting Coders into a corner, did you make a bad Designer’s idea even worse? Do not make pretty, broken things.
  • If you had nothing to do with the UX or wireframing and you think it’s stupid-bad, dear God, say so! Label it “Client’s Wireframe”, “Original Client Supplied Draft”, “Inherited Concept and Design” anything that says, “Get the f-, No! I had nothing to do with this!”
  • Remember: app and web-centric Art Directors will have an eagle’d eye for UX flaws, much more than your average Game Art Director. That said, Game Art Directors still have an encyclopedic knowledge of games, and they’ll know when something is ruinously amiss

An Art Director would ask: Are you a Bad Artist?

  • Your mileage on this one varies wildly if you’re in Games or Apps. For vanilla app design, you can get away with not being a particularly good artist for an entire career. But in game design, you’ll definitely need to show some Journeyman competency with Photoshop.
  • For all UI UX Design, you’ll want to demonstrate Artistry. That means using very little to great effect. Simple shapes, line, gradients and typography can build you an empire – especially when technical bumps shatter the more elaborate designs.
  • Remember, UI UX Design, especially for gaming, depends mightily on color theory and composition to use the eye to guide the eye. That effectively helixes art and engineering together – meaning if you are a bad artist, you’re likely an equally bad information architect – and every AD can detect that.

An Art Director would ask: Do you have any relevant extras?

  • Fluff and irrelevance are detrimental to a Portfolio, sure – but there are some extras you can throw in that highlight your enthusiasm, and therefore, the presumed ability for you to “police” yourself.
  • Continuing or complimentary education, especially Mentorships, bootcamps, and online classrooms should absolutely be mentioned. They show proactivity, familiarity, and aggression (you wanted to solve the problem!). Don’t ever be ashamed of wanting to be slightly more today than what you were yesterday.
  • Blogs and publications are also great additions, especially if you have compelling titles that are industry related. Don’t expect for one Mocker-Minute anybody is going to read your blog, but knowing you are academically familiar with design is a factor in how much you’ll grow all on your own.

Whew! That’s it! Now you know how the magic trick is done. I hope this helps you better understand Portfolio design by seeing it through the eyes of its silent audience. Take care of yourself out there – portfolio design is actually a pretty grueling and personal affair. Remember: it’s not about getting the job eventually, it’s about being healthy enough to do it when it happens.

submitted by /u/TheWingless1

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