The Value of Unfinished Projects: Making the Most of Your Design Portfolio
May 1, 2023
5 min read
In recent conversations with Designers and Design students, I've discussed the significance of the projects we display in our portfolios. It's no longer a secret that formulaic, "recipe-following," or fictional projects won't place you at the top of the applicant pile or make you the prime candidate for a promotion.
Finding real, engaging projects that we see through fruition can be challenging, particularly when you lack extensive experience in the field. The reality is that many Designers work on projects that either never come to fruition or need multiple pivots.
Promoting such projects can be complicated. Browsing through an app or live website can sometimes sell the product itself, and often they carry a greater impact than incomplete projects.
In this article, I will discuss tips for successfully incorporating these projects into your portfolio.
First, let me explain why I believe unfinished projects are not a hindrance but hold immense value.
The truth is that the successful launch of a product or feature relies on numerous people, decisions, and factors—both technical and non-technical—which are beyond the control and influence of a Designer, regardless of their seniority. Financial, political, or logistical factors can play a role, and assessing a Designer's power and influence over these factors is simply unrealistic.
If your work is solid and tells a compelling story, that's all that matters. Personally, whenever I work on such a project, I view it as a learning opportunity and a challenge. Developing the ability to pivot, adapt, and not take things personally are essential skills, and embracing these projects offers a chance to learn or practice these skills hands-on.
Tell a transparent story
Be truthful about the project and its constraints. There's no need to misrepresent the project as something it's not. You have much more to gain from being transparent and discussing the limitations and the challenges you had to make.
When presenting an unfinished project, honesty is crucial. Discuss the reasons for the project's lack of success or implementation, whether it was due to budget constraints, shifting priorities, or other unforeseen challenges. Being open about these demonstrates your ability to analyze and learn from setbacks, which is by no means a small feat.
The pivot point, or the moment when the project changes direction, can often the most intriguing aspect of the story. People are naturally curious about the reasons behind a challenge or a change, and sharing this information can provide valuable insights into your problem-solving abilities and adaptability. Walk them through the context while also highlighting your thought process and role in navigating these changes.
This will help potential employers or clients appreciate your resilience, adaptability, and capacity to learn from challenging situations.
Show the iterative process
One of the most crucial aspects recruiters or clients look for is the ability to adapt, iterate, and not become infatuated with the initial idea or feature as soon as it's outlined in Figma.
The more generative your work is, the more solutions you consider, and the more flexibility you grant yourself for change, the better the project outcome can be. Often, the best solution isn't the first one.
Anyone can come up with an idea at any point, and anyone can follow a project plan by the book. Not everyone has the ability to be at ease with iteration. It took me some time to become comfortable with this process as well. Regardless of the size of your project, the number of pivots you had to make, or how often you had to part ways with your initial designs and ideas, embrace the process and take pride in it.
Talk about collaboration with others
Two key elements define Design the most: iteration and collaboration. We've already discussed the importance of showcasing the ability to operate under ambiguity and being comfortable with change. Now, let's delve into collaboration.
Design is a team sport, so it's always a good idea to emphasize collaboration with others. By "others," I'm not just referring to clients or software developers, but also potential users, mentors, and anyone else involved in the process who can help you hone your skills.
Demonstrate how you communicate, gather and provide feedback, and express your willingness to incorporate other people's input into your work. Highlighting these joint efforts can further bolster the strength of your portfolio and showcase your well-rounded approach to design projects, no matter if the project has been implemented or not.
Although you may not always have a substantial impact on the business or product in every project, in terms of collaboration, you can influence others, shaping how they make design decisions and how you effectively communicate those decisions to them.
Highlight the learnings
If you've worked on an imperfect project (hello, 90% of them), there is a high chance that you have learned a lot. Talking about the lessons learned from these experiences can often be more impactful than merely showcasing impressive numbers or projects.
By reflecting on the challenges faced, the solutions designed, and the growth achieved throughout the project, you demonstrate your adaptability and commitment to continuous improvement.
In your portfolio, consider sharing specific examples of obstacles you encountered and the strategies you used to overcome them. Detail how these experiences shaped your approach to future projects and how they contributed to your professional development. This level of introspection and self-awareness is a sought after skill for Designers. And it makes your life easier eventually when dealing with difficult projects.
As a final thought, featuring unfinished or incomplete projects in your portfolio actually displays a designer's courage in presenting themselves openly, despite what some may perceive as "failures." Sharing real-life examples contributes to telling authentic stories, which ultimately shape you into a more prepared and well-rounded Designer.