So you’ve kickstarted your design journey, you binged tons of design videos and you feel confident that you can change the world through design. Now, it’s time to show everyone that you are the best designer in the world and the best way accomplish that is by building a portfolio. Thinking about your first project idea is typically what stops people from building a portfolio. When I started, I wanted to redesign every single website on the internet. After sitting for hours trying to analyze websites such as Linkedin, Facebook, Gmail, Yelp, Amazon, and Airbnb, I realized that analyzing and critiquing a piece of work is easy, but implementing new design ideas without breaking the consistency is hard especially when you are just getting started.
The main thing that starting designers need to know is that creativity and innovation are terms that have been overutilized to mystify the research, process and hard work required to come up with great ideas and solve complex problems. So Let’s Get Started!
The tricks and tips that I am going to give you don’t only apply to product design projects, but for any tech or business side-projects.
Disclaimer: They are a lot of resources on how to build a side-project and/or a portfolio. There are lots of good ways of doing things. I am sharing my own process of coming up with tech side-projects and design case study ideas.
Step #1: Problem Framing
I would say that the key of building a portfolio and coming up with project ideas is to frame your lack of ideas as a design problem. Once you understand the scope of what you are trying to achieve, creating your portfolio and working on your first side-project will feel like a design exercise rather than a time-consuming burden. Also, the job of a designer is to solve problems using a problem solving process (commonly called: design thinking) that best suits your personality.
Since the main job of a designer is to solve problems, not being able to solve the portfolio problem will make it really difficult to get a job as designer. Getting a UX design job without a portfolio is really hard and unlikely, but I have seen people break into the industry without it. Therefore, it would be unfair to say that it is impossible.
For portfolio inspiration: http://cofolios.com/
Step #2: Discover an Impactful Problem to Solve
Redesigning an existing website or mobile application might feel easier because it doesn’t require you to think about creating a new mobile app from scratch. However, I find that redesigning an existing website requires a lot of reflection because it takes a long time to fully understand the process that resulted in the final digital output.
So how do I come up with new app idea from scratch?
Think about things that pisses you off everyday. Think about something that makes your life a mess. It could be anything: school, job, girlfriend/boyfriend, your kids, traffic, food, life… When you are deciding yourself on what to work on, ask yourself: “If I work on problem “XYZ”, will I be able to stare at my computer screen for 10 – 12 hours straight for 3 consecutive days?”. If yes, GET TO WORK RIGHT NOW! When you spend time on problems that you are passionate about, you will get in flow state. You will be able to accomplish good work faster, and you will feel excited to showcase your work to other people. You might potentially be able to turn your idea into a business (topic for another blog post).
What if I still have no idea?
If you can’t think of anything which is normal, they are tons of websites that crowdsource impactful social problems that you can work on. You can look up OpenIDEO, Xprize and Hult Prize.
Step #3: Think About Process
When you start off working on a problem, it is super easy to give up because most of the time you might not even have a clue of what the solution will be, and that’s fine. That’s why before starting any project, you should outline the process you are going to use. Even though you might deviate from it, planning your process helps because if you get lost on the path of solving the problem, you can just go back to what you’ve outlined. Keep in mind that solving a design problem is a messy process. It is perfectly normal if you go back to the videos you watched and/or notes you took. This is an amazing opportunity to learn how to use the diverse design tools and frameworks.
If you ever feel lost in a problem and you get discouraged, go back to step 2 and start working on another problem. Sometimes, I personally go too deep into a problem and I get lost. Working something else helps me in rethinking my problem-solving approach.
By going through the problem-solving process many times, completing more projects and getting feedback, you are going to develop your own problem solving process and you will understand own to use the design tool and framework effectively. You will be able to adapt them in a way that fits your needs. At the end of this process, you will have an idea of the structure you will use to solve the problem and then generate creative ideas.
Here’s a visual of how I personally solve a problem:
Feel free to take inspiration from my process, but keep in mind that it is not perfect. No process is perfect. There are literally new process tools, framework, and diagram coming out every single day! The key is to understand your own process so that you know where it can fail and you can plan for it.
Spoiler: You don’t need to build an app. If the best solution is a service, fashion, or a virtual reality experience, find a way to prototype it and show it on your portfolio. For me, writing blog posts is the medium I use to solve problems by using the same process.
Step #4: Execute and Trust Yourself
Once you have your process outlined, get to work! Going through the whole process by yourself will enable you to explore and execute on different segments of the design process and discover where your interest lies. For instance, some people prefer to work on visual design while others prefer to work on the research. Understanding where your interest lies will dictate if you should focus more on UX Research, UX Design, or UI Design. Feel free to deviate from your original outline, experiment and learn along the way.
At the end of the process, you will have multiple broad ideas or if you’re lucky, one specific idea that you want to work on. Make sure that you define the scope of your project, you understand the problem that you are trying to solve and you have a clear definition of what is a “DONE” project.
Once you have that, choose the idea that would appeal the best to your target audience and start designing. While executing on your idea, you will get tons of other ideas. Write these ideas on a piece of paper and stay focus on what you are working on. Be careful to not lose the scope (Scope Creep). Always remember your goals as well as the problem you are solving and don’t let your creativity distract you from finishing the project. To see if an idea is worth dedicating time to, see if it aligns with the scope.
Step #5: Done is Better Than Perfect
Now, it’s the time when you ask feedback! Getting feedback from your work is a crucial part of the design process. When I ask feedback, I usually ask:
- What you like about it?
- What would you improve?
- Do you have any questions?
- Any new ideas?
Do not be defensive, just listen and take notes. If there is something you do not agree with and/or you misunderstand the feedback, feel free to ask follow-up questions and dive deeper. When you ask for feedback, try to be specific on what you are looking for. For instance, when I started, I was asking questions regarding the process outlined in my case studies. Right now, I usually ask feedback regarding my visuals. It really depends on your focus and where you want to improve.
Rule of Thumb: Don’t be scared of other people’s opinion and don’t take anything personal. They are not critiquing you, but your work.
Most important thing is that done is better than perfect. The field is changing at a really quick pace. Your work will never be perfect because design is really subjective. What matters the most is to have a decent rationale behind your design decisions. Show your work, even if it is “ugly”, “unfinished” and “bad”. You can fix it later when you get more feedback and more experience.