Presentation Skills I Learnt From Pecha Kucha

Design Articles
May 21, 2012

I was shocked how hard it was preparing for Pecha Kucha Night. Even after seven iterations, I was still not done! Despite being a seasoned presenter, Pecha Kucha was a brand new experience and a challenge indeed.

For those that don’t know, Pecha Kucha is a gathering of creative minds to share what they are passionate about. As creatives like to talk, Pecha Kucha runs its presentations in a unique format; 20 slides that stay up for 20 seconds each, no more, no less. Like an emotionless robot, it all runs on automatic leaving many presenters in mid-sentence when the slide changes.

People say that we should treat the creation a presentation like a design exercise. I agree. But being forced to work within the constraint of 20 X 20 slides you suddenly realize why Simplicity is hard and very few people do it well.

In the process of creating my slide deck for Pecha Kucha and then subsequently presenting it, I relearned a number of presentation techniques that could also apply to any normal presentation that has the luxury of time.

1) Consider your Presentation Style.
Are you a presenter that tells stories and uses slides as a visual backdrop? Do you need to prepare your presentation with detailed notes? Are you the type that bullet points everything you need to say on a slide? Whichever it is, you will need to be fully aware of your presentation style and keep to it.

I’m the type that likes to talk off the cuff, flowing and ebbing to the crowd’s response. However because of the format of Pecha Kucha, I wrote everything down for fear of overrunning the 20 second per slide format. This killed my flow, as my mind struggled to switch from my usual presentation technique. I ended up referring to my notes frequently and that cost me some audience engagement.

2) Keep it Light
I also realize almost immediately that a slide presentation should not be used as a training manual.

There are just some topics that don’t work at Pecha Kucha. Explaining complex theories or scientific problems is one. It goes so fast anyway, so the heavy stuff just goes over the head.

I think my presentation on Design Thinking almost crossed the no-go line. I believe the best topics for Pecha Kucha are anecdotal stories which works great for the portfolio stories it originally started with.

In the real world, your presentation format may be in the form or a class lecture, a cozy portfolio review, or staged performance etc., regardless of what it is, be aware of how much a presentation can do before it become too much.

3) The Power of One.
One thing to keep strictly to when designing a Pecha Kucha presentation is that your total presentation should only communicate 1 key topic. Furthermore, each slide should be restricted to 1 point only. The key to keeping things simple is to ask “What am I trying to communicate?” and “Do I really need make this point?”

While this restriction is a must for a 20 second pace, I have found that this should be also a key requirement for presentations in the real world. Even with the opportunity of having more time to read the content on each slide.

I have sat through so many presentations that meander badly, or have far to many confusing bullet points on a slide. There is something to be said on the efficiency and impact of keeping slide presentations simple.

4) The Tale of 2 Presenters.
There are actually two presenters at every presentation; you and your slide.

You really figure out the value of both “Presenters” at Pecha Kucha. You can use one to support the other, or even design the presentation in a way that when combined together they tell a much bigger story.

Therefore, it is a real pity to only repeat to the audience what the bullet points on each of your slide say. Furthermore, this also means that most slide decks can be reduced by 50%.

5) Keep the Presentation Sharp.
In Pecha Kucha we are advised to keep the verbal element to 2-3 sentences a slide.

This also makes sense in normal presentations as well. Focus on the points you are trying to communicate and that will prevent you from rambling on more than you need to.

6) Pick a Topic You are Familiar With.
At Pecha Kucha always pick a topic that you are familiar with, or willing to get familiar with. When you are familiar with a topic it just rolls off your tongue naturally, especially in presentations with time constraints. Oh, don’t underestimate the value of practice, it does make perfect.

7) Pause for Effect.
One thing that was really hard to create at Pecha Kucha was strategic pauses to let points sink in. With the rapid 20 second pace, even giving people time to laugh was almost impossible. This means you could come across like you are racing through your presentation.

This challenge made me realize and cherish the importance of strategic pauses in a presentation. When you are now designing a presentation that has the luxury of more time, you can now use this time efficiently to drive home key points, increase audience engagement, or even as a great icebreaker.


I hope you enjoyed reading my learnings from presenting at Pecha Kucha. I love to hear your thoughts, and if you have experienced Pecha Kucha please do share your learnings as well?

What it Means to Have a Designer as a Startup Founder

So it looks like The Designer Fund, a VC fund that specifically invests in Startup companies that have designers as founders is starting to gain traction. It seems that suddenly everyone seems to have an opinion on the premium placed on designers.

Brace yourselves! I’m going to join the fray with my 2 cents worth simply because I find that many people seem to miss what the Designer Fund is extolling. I would even dare say that even the Designer Fund itself seems to miss something in the communications of their objectives.

But before we go on check out some of the current sentiments on this hot topic, researched and organized for you in chronological order:

1) The Designer Fund in all its glory! A brag list of all the exciting and successful companies that have a designer(s) as one of the founders.

2) Yongfook rants, (in respond to this brag list) in his post “Design is Horseshit!“, on how the premium set on designers is overblown and there is a lot more to running a start up than being a designer. Yongfook seems to lean towards the view that design is about creating value through making things beautiful.

3) Joshua Porter calls out YongFook in his post “Design is not Horsepoop“. Joshua’s take is that design is more than skin deep, it’s a process and a mindset. He quotes Steve Jobs saying, “Design is how it works.”

4) Finally, a bunch of us were having a conversation on Twitter today on the seemingly narrow view of design on this website: “Startups, This is how Design Works“.

You see, it is not about how you define design, but how wide (or narrow) you consider the scope of design to be. This is the same problem many people have with the whole Design Thinking shindig. Take a look at the following graphic and you’ll know what I mean.

Click on the Image for a Bigger View.

It’s one of the situations where people are both wrong and right at the same time. We are all really talking about the same thing. It’s all design. From making things look good or easy to use, to creating the right experience, to identifying opportunities for market grown through user insights etc., we are all talking about the same thing.

Now, lets go back to the Designer Fund’s point of view, and look at what they mean where they say that Designers should be part of a Startup’s founding team. What they are trying to say is no different to what some of us (go Rita-Sue!) have been saying for years, and that is we need to get a Designer in the boardroom.

When you have designers (skilled in the “Design as a Strategic Activity” bit) in the boardroom or coffee shop table (where most Startups find themselves), design becomes central to the business strategy and decision making process at the highest level. So the Design Fund believes that having Designers as founders will lead to a design driven Startup that will have a high change to build something meaningful, useful, and awesome!

But to start building, you will need everything to come together in the right way, and at this stage design switches to design implementation mode. Therefore, in reality you will need both parts of Design (and in between) as outlined in my graphic above. Any argument, for or against the Designer Fund, which only considers one part of this equation is fundamentally wrong.

When Designing Experiences for Humans, Consider Common Psychological Behaviors

Design Articles
May 03, 2012

Often designers design stuff (products/services/interfaces etc.): to fit user personas, to solve problems, to make it beautiful etc. but don’t often consider the how it psychologically interfaces with the user. Such user experience design draws heavily from human psychological behaviors that are a result of millions of years of evolution. These behaviors will not change tomorrow or even in the next 10 years, therefore we should be aware of what these behaviors are and how our designs should take them into consideration.

I was therefore really excited to stumble on this article “The Psychologist’s View of UX Design” by Susan Weinschenk which is the most comprehensive collection, I have seen, of these “truths” of human behaviors. For my and your reference, I’ve taken the liberty to summarize the list here and added a sprinkling of my thoughts.

1. People Don’t Want to Work or Think More Than They Have To
Consider simplicity, lead by example i.e. show users how it is done, provide what people only really need, and help users make decisions.

2. People Have Limitations
Remember information overload? This is where it rears its ugly head. Keep information on a need to know basis, clump and/or create visual priority.

3. People Make Mistakes
People will make mistakes, respect that and try not to make them feel stupid. Having an “Undo” is vital and the best error message is none at all. Oh, do make sure the errors, if any, are not fatal please?

4. Human Memory Is Complicated
Human memory is prone to errors and inconsistency. It’s BS to say, “oh they will remember how to use it after using it for the first time”. Susan says “People can only remember about 3-4 items at a time. The ‘7 plus or minus 2’ rule is an urban legend”. From my anecdotal experience, I agree with her.

5. People are Social
People are social animals and will listen to others for guidance even if they don’t know that person. This is probably why many companies that the 5 star rating system seriously. Furthermore, the famous 150 “friends” social limit does apply. Any greater, the bond between people weakens.

6. Attention
People are easily distracted; design for focus or for attention, not both. You will be surprised how often both things happen at the same or at the wrong time.

7. People Crave Information
Susan says it best:

People will often want more information than they can actually process. Having more information makes people feel that they have more choices. Having more choices makes people feel in control. Feeling in control makes people feel they will survive better.

Don’t forget that feedback, such as at acknowledgement chime or a message, is also considered as information.

8. Unconscious Processing
Be careful in creating the wrong associations with your design, particularly important with communication and object design. There is a lot of subtle processing that happen especially through the visual sense, and this impacts greatly on decision-making. That is why, for the longest time, aesthetics was the key driver for the definition of good design.

9. People Create Mental Models
Mental models are the reason why Skeuomorph Design is so important in user experience design. If user research cannot determine a relevant mental model, use Metaphors to help with the ease of understanding and acceptance of a new concept or technology.

10. Visual System
Despite knowing that our visual sense is the strongest sense, this insight surprised me:

Research shows that people use peripheral vision to get the “gist” of what they are looking at. Eye tracking studies are interesting, but just because someone is looking at something straight on doesn’t mean they are paying attention to it.

I do encourage you to check out the full article at UX Mag, it is well worth the read.

12 Reasons Why The Apple Design Process is Nothing Special

Design Articles
Mar 14, 2012

You would probably have caught wind of Sir Jony Ive’s rare interview with the London Evening Standard by now. I was not planning to blog about this as I figured that this would just become a pointless re-post. Except something dawned on me as I read the post. My suspicions that Apple’s Design Process is nothing special was confirmed!

While I would encourage you to read the entire interview (which is pretty cool), please let me summarize what Jony shared:

1) The Design Process at Apple is very much about “designing and prototyping and making. When you separate those…the final result suffers.”

2) Designing something new leaves you with little reference, this required focus.

3) Designers need to be “…to be light on your feet, inquisitive and interested in being wrong.”

4) Design’s goal is “…to design and make better products. If we can’t make something that is better, we won’t do it.”

5) Most of Apple’s competitors are only interested in doing something different or new, not necessary better. For Design to make something better, there needs to be discipline, and a sincere and genuine dedication to do so. “Committees just don’t work, and it’s not about price, schedule or a bizarre marketing goal to appear different – they are corporate goals with scant regard for people who use the product.”

6) When an opportunity arises, designers need to ask the “stupid” questions. “…What if we do this, combine it with that, would that be useful? This creates opportunities that could replace entire categories of device, rather than tactically responding to an individual problem.”

7) Not surprising, here is Jony on focus groups: “We don’t do focus groups – that is the job of the designer. It’s unfair to ask people who don’t have a sense of the opportunities of tomorrow from the context of today to design.”

8) The design team works in a collaborative environment with people from different disciplines and different “areas of expertise.”

9) When you are focused on a design problem, you need drive, confidence, and experience to push on.

10) Constant innovation is difficult, and you will never know it is done until you get there.

11) Sometimes an innovation can come from “the smallest shift” that “suddenly transforms the object, without any contrivance.”

12) Consumer are not stupid, they are incredibly discerning, and can “…sense where has been great care in the design, and when there is cynicism and greed.” Consumers are aware of the values of the people who made the product.

Most of you who have been around the block a few times would probably be able to check off 95% of the ways of working highlighted above. The reality is that Apple’s Design process is no different from what the rest of the world uses.

Then why is Apple so successful?

It’s all about the people. This is the key reason why good design fails in any organization.

People who care, people with discipline, people with passion, people that advocate and value design, people who want to do the best, people who can work together, and people who want to make a difference. Sadly the majority of organizations are short of such people, most of which are probably working at Apple.

Design Sojourn Rebranded!

Our Facebook fans had a little treat last week, when they caught wind of Design Sojourn’s new look. Developed together with my friends from Black Design, this rebranding initiative was targeted to coincide with our first massive Workshop Project.

Since our consulting work has taken up most of the time required for articles here at Design Sojourn (Sorry!), I thought it would be nice to share some of what we have done with all of you.

A logo design has to work in both black and white.

In our effort to redesign our brand we looked at Design Sojourn from both sides of the lens, i.e. the customer and the organization. From the organization’s point of view, we wanted the logo to reflect Design Sojourn’s core belief that every Design activity or process is a unique journey, and that we are here as your guide in this journey. In other words, we help brands, businesses and organizations to connect the dots or find their way, so to speak.

On the other side of the lens, we wanted the design language to not only communicate this journey but also communicate a sense of authority, trust, and precision. Our old logo, while great for a blog, did not accurately portray what we wanted for our company. The old logo gave a more relaxed vibe, when what we wanted was to come across a little more formal. We are also all about the spread of Design knowledge and know-how.

We kicked off the project looking at a number of concepts on how to represent a “journey” graphically. We explored maps, train tracks and even how stations were represented by a row of connected dots. This row of connected dots eventually formed the inspiration of our new logo design. We liked it as it was simple and universal.

I was however unsatisfied. I wanted more edge to the design, as I was uncomfortable with the minimal (perhaps too minimal) feel. I pushed the team to consider not just a train journey but also a visualization of the design process. This was a reflection of where the original Design Sojourn logo came from, and how it was inspired by a design process.

As a result of this prodding, the design team devised a very cool branding concept that has now been reflected across all my corporate collaterals. I think I’ll shut up now and let the rest of the images below tell you the story.

Exploring the branding concept. Connecting the dots, but not always in a straight line.

We even played around with geographical grids etc.

The branding concept applied to the templates of our PowerPoint slides.

This has to be my favorite of all my collaterals. I felt that connecting the dots or path finding in a design journey was like finding your way through a maze. The design team then created this “With Compliments” slip for my clients to have a little fun and hopefully leave a lasting impression when we say goodbye.

Every touch-point was designed, including all our communication graphics. The new Design Sojourn brand has to be consistent across all collaterals.

Well I hope you enjoyed this design story and also this small insight into what I have been up to in the last 6 months. The brand development activities will not stop here. Black Design and I have planned a whole range of marketing and PR activities (including updating this website) to leverage and take advantage of this new brand concept. So do stay tuned for more goodies to come!

Bonus Image: As we ran out of budget, I took the social media icon they developed for me and turned it into a company chop for official documents.

SOPA and PIPA from the Eyes of Design

Design Articles
Feb 03, 2012

As the wave of SOPA and PIPA protests die down, it’s time to take stock of the implications such legislatures can have on the design community.

Please do take my thoughts with a pinch of salt as I do not live in the US, and very likely not have the same cultural background or government system. But I do think that such a Bill could find traction in many other countries should it be passed. So indirectly, I could be affected.

The importance of protecting Copyright and Intellectual Property Rights cannot be stressed enough. That is very clear. As designers, this protects the lifeblood of our profession, which is all about the creation of IP for economic or social benefit.

We have often seen designs stolen and used by others in the name of “inspiration” with little or no modification. Therefore I believe that the spirit behind the creation of the Bill can be a huge boon to our design profession.

But where do you draw the line? Not only that, when do we consider an IP infringed? Will it be so cut and dry that it is all about: “My chair has 4 legs so yours cannot have 4”? It cannot be. This is because there is no such thing as an original design. At least not since the paperclip, toothbrush or doorknob was invented.

We won’t go into the differences between a design and an invention, but you know what I mean!

As you know, I always encourage designers to have an online presence with their own or by using sites like Behance or Coroflot to share their portfolio or ideas with the world. If you think about it, with Bills like PIPA and SOPA in place what could happen is that your inspiration images, mood boards, material textures, competitor product images etc. can be reported as copyright violations. “Casual” use of such images will likely be stamped out completely inside and outside of the studio.

The bill was also designed to actually stop the piracy of movies and music from non-US based websites by freezing payments via Paypal etc or by US Based Ads. This blanket act unfortunately also included creative content for blogs and user-based submissions to sites like Youtube and Vimeo. Even sites like Tumblr or Posterous, where the users usually crop and share interesting finds on the Internet, will be banned.

As you know creativity often stems from the leveraging on other ideas. So should a legislation like this be passed, we might see a new Internet that will be as bland as a dictionary. It will have tons of information, sure, but it will be soulless. As a side note, I think Creative Commons could find a new renaissance should a bill of such a nature be passed, but that system needs work as well.

From someone who creates Intellectual Property as part of his livelihood, I’m all for legislation that protect my intellectual property. I would love to ban/block that website that stole my blog theme! But “god is in the details” and therefore that defaulting line needs to be very clear. I’m not so sure how this is going to be done. If we consider how challenging it is to determine patent infringement, it looks like there is no clear and easy answer.

I love to hear your thoughts on this issue, especially if you reside in the US. Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

8 New Year Resolutions All Designers Should Have

Design Articles
Jan 16, 2012


We are two weeks deep into the New Year and I am sure all of you have already hit the ground running. If you are anything like me, then you probably either forgotten to make a New Year’s resolution or could not think of one. Therefore I’ve decided to save everyone the trouble and compiled a quick list of 8 New Year resolutions I think designers should have. Just pick one and enjoy!

Network More
Make your online and off-line presence felt. Plan to meet more people in the real world, go to that party you keep pushing off, or even attend that design forum. Going online, dabble in social media, start a blog or a website, and do everything you can to get noticed!

Take a Non-Design Colleague for Lunch
Had enough of designers? Aim to take a different non-design colleague out for lunch at least once a month. This will not only stimulate your creativity but will also open you up to different ideas and radically different perspectives. Not to mention that the connections you make, will be a boon for your career!

Update your Portfolio more Frequently
Most of us always wait to the very end, especially when we change jobs. And when that happens, we are scrambling! So do try to find some time at the end of every project to document that project. Then target to update your portfolio every 6 months, or try to do so at least once this year. What I do is mark it into my calendar and you should too!

Practice Design More
Get back to the basics and try to sketch, CAD, present, pitch, model make etc. a whole lot more. In a broader spectrum I think we can add “read more and look at less picture books” to this list.

2012 Will be the Year of Your Passion Project
If you have not already done so, perhaps this year will be the year to get your passion project going! There is no time like today, particularly with great services like Kickstarter, Shapeways, Etsy, and the plethora of e-commerce and social media marketing engines. Don’t worry if the project fails, the learning experience is priceless.

Focus on One Thing
In today’s digital environment, is this even possible? Sure thing. If we just cut down on our multitasking with email, social media or online games, and just focus on one task at a time, I can guarantee that you will get so much more done. I make sure that I find time everyday to batch process everything. You will not miss that last Tweet as much as you think you will.

Spend More Time Away From The Computer
This is my favorite call to action for all designers and I’ve included it here again. I always say designing solely on the computer is inefficient as it causes you to lose a sense of proportion. Going back to the basics of design (i.e. pen on paper) will bring you back to the core of things, not to mention sketching outside inspires you to no end.

Learn To Be More Organized
They say that when we clutter our workspace, we also clutter up the energy of the place. The most obvious way to combat this is to regularly de-clutter your workspace. This workspace should include your desk, computer desktop and even your thoughts (via a to-do list). Try it out and immediately feel good with a neatly organized desk.

I hope this list of 8 ideas helps you get going. I am sure you have your own resolutions and I would love to hear them below? And before I forget, Happy 2012 dear reader and thank you for all your support!

Implementing Design Thinking: A Blog Series

I was actually quite surprised to find myself deep undercover in Design Thinking activities in the last 12 months. The great thing was that these activities were varied, spanning from running Design Thinking workshops, developing a Design Thinking curriculum, lectures on leveraging on the power of design, and best of all implementing Design Thinking within organizations that are non-traditional buyers of design. What a ride!

What is even more interesting, was finding out that Design Thinking has not died (or become a failed experiment as some say), but more accurately, it has evolved into a vibrant ecosystem of activities that focuses on businesses, brands and organizations leveraging on design as a strategic competitive advantage.

Some of you might mistakenly think that I’m against the whole concept of Design Thinking. I don’t blame you as this probably stem from an article I wrote on how Design Thinking is Killing Creativity. If you read that article, it actually explains that the problems of Design Thinking stems from the activity not being facilitated or managed correctly, or worst still, subjected to the negative influences of traditional corporate culture. Those observations in that article have been validated time and time again during my yearlong involvement with Design Thinking.

Therefore I thought it would make a lot of sense to run a regular series here on Design Sojourn to share my thoughts and my experiences in how I helped companies implement Design Thinking as a tool for business success and ultimately Design Leadership. Furthermore, this seems to be a Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) and discussion point with my clients and participants of my workshops.

This post will contain a table of contents that will be updated whenever new posts from this series are published. So I would like to encourage you to bookmark this post and visit our blog frequently? I hope you enjoy my thoughts and the ensuing conversation. Do stay tuned!

Table of Contents:

Implementing Design Thinking 1: Focus on the Outcome not the Process
Implementing Design Thinking 2: Have the Guts to Say it Sucks
Implementing Design Thinking 3: What Kind of Design Thinker are You?
Implementing Design Thinking 4: It is a Full Time Activity!

Sketching with LunPlus: Concept Art Workflow

Design Articles
Aug 10, 2011

Here is something slightly off the beaten track today. Technology is one of the key drivers of change today, in particular, it changes the way we live and work. Designers, being mostly early adopters of technology, are always very quick to jump into the next big thing. When the iPad was launched every fan boy designer, rightly or wrongly, saw that product as the digital sketchbook of their dreams. Autodesk Sketchbook Pro cleverly read the market trend and cornered the tablet sketching market by quickly making their iPhone Sketchbook Pro app, iPad usable.

In the coming weeks, (probably weekly?) we will be running a new series of articles here at Design Sojourn, called Sketching with LunPlus. LunPlus (aka Lun Cheak) is a full time Industrial Designer and part-time illustrator. Being a hands on sketching kind of guy, he will share with you tips and techniques in getting the best design workflows from the latest technology available to designers, such as designing on your iPad. This way we can judge on our own if the technology is right for us or not.

By the way, you might already be familiar with Lun Cheak’s work. He created that very cool sketch illustration that really emphasized how far our Expandable Sketchbook could expand!

So anyways for this week we will start with something basic to get you all in the mood. No actual designing, but just a straight out concept art workflow that is very similar to the process that entertainment designers use. So grab a cuppa, sit back and enjoy: The Puppet Story Booth concept art workflow. All images and text below are by Lun Cheak.

1/5: Sketch

Click for a bigger image.

It always starts with an idea in the head, before I start doodling on my iPad, using Sketchbook pro and my trusted Griffen stylus pen. I keep the sketch really loose, focusing on the composition and getting the idea across on a page. I like the edginess and unfinished look of it. I think that’s where my personality as the artist is best captured. I know if I proceed to tweak it further at this level, I tend to lose the original intent of the idea and the fun, free-spirited energy in the drawing.

2/5: Background

Click for a bigger image.

Once I’m relatively happy with the sketch, I’ll move on by choosing a texture and color I would under-lay the line drawing. Depending on my mood and how I’d like the drawing to turn out, the background sets the overall tone for the rest of the colors that’s going to be laid onto it.

At this point, I opted for a dark grey stone marble texture I found on the Internet. I wanted the outcome to be somewhat dark. I like how the texture gives the drawing an edgy, weathered and worn-out look. This artwork was inspired by the story of the Little Riding Hood, so the dark weathered look works.

3/5: Base colors

Click for a bigger image.

Other than the line sketch, I think this is the second most important part of the drawing process. Getting the colors and tone right makes the difference between a successful drawing and a bad one. I don’t get it right all the time. It really depends on how are feel and the coffee I’m drinking! ;)

Starting with the colors that I’m familiar with, I work fast and go with my gut. For example applying Red on the hood. After that, everything else becomes my interpretation of what works with red vs. the background color.

4/5: Light + Shadow = Depth

Click for a bigger image.

Once the base colors are applied, the drawing is 80% complete. The rest of the work is all about popping things to the foreground and pushing objects into the background. I do this by applying highlights and shadows.

I opted for a white outline around the main characters to give them more focus.

At this stage I’ve also included additional texture details to give more depth to the overall drawing.

5/5: Finishing touches – Focus

Click for a bigger image.

I always think that when we first encounter an image of a humanize form or an animal, it’s instinctive that we our attention is drawn to their eyes. The eyes are where the soul is. Therefore, I’ve decided for the Wolf to carry the soul of the drawing. Though this addition is just a small highlight, it gives life to the character and the drawing on the whole.

I’ve also included other details like blood and text to spice up the overall concept/ drawing, but making sure it doesn’t take attention away from the subject.


Tool: iPad2 + Griffen Stylus Pen
Software/App: Autodesk Sketchbook Pro


I hope you enjoyed this little workflow tutorial, and now it is time to have your say. If you have any thoughts, questions of comments about this article or for Lun Cheak, please leave them in the comments section below. For more artwork by Lun Cheak, check out his LunPlus Facebook Page.

10 Essential Tips for Creating that Killer Portfolio

Design Articles
Jul 26, 2011


It is actually a perfect time to update your portfolio!

Not only are we somewhere in the middle of the year, we are right smack in the middle of summer and it’s blistering out there! Lazing on the beach is not going to get you a job, so why not stay indoors in the air conditioning and take this opportunity to update your portfolio?

I have therefore compiled a list essential and useful tips (I hope!) that can help you churn out that killer portfolio. As a side note, this list was generated while I was teaching students, at the local polytechnic, techniques on how to improve their portfolios.

1) A portfolio is a story about you.

A lot people say a portfolio is a selling tool. I fully agree. But a portfolio is more than that. If you think of your portfolio as a sales tool, you tend to just focus on execution skills or how many pieces of software you can use. A portfolio should instead tell an engaging story about you. It should show, through your projects, where you are in design, your passions, your goals, and your strengths. A good way to start your portfolio story is to have a 2-sentence summary about who and what you are all about.

2) Have an intro page.

This might be a no brainer, but a well-designed introduction page sets the tonality of your portfolio presentation. Many designers just have a title page at the start that says: “Jack’s portfolio.” That’s not good enough. Expanding from the first point you need to share a little about your background to give your portfolio story more depth. Keep it light though; you are summarizing your design career not writing a biography.

3) Keep the number of projects in your portfolio to between 8-10.

As time goes by, you are bound to build a drawer or a hard drive full of design projects that you have played a part in. The trick is to pick 8-10 of your very best projects for your portfolio. Any more than 10, it gets too many and most people cannot remember what they have seen. Run with less than 8 projects, and your portfolio content feels a little light.

There is one caveat to this number, and that is the number of pages per project. If your portfolio tends to have more pages for each project, you should cut the total number of projects down. If you have fewer pages per project, then you may need to bump the total number of projects up.

4) Ensure that projects in your portfolio are no older than 3 years.

To help make your selection process easier, consider removing projects that are older than 3. A big and extensive design project, could sit in your portfolio for up to 5 years as it probably took more than 2 years to complete, but try to avoid anything pass that timeframe as the work could start to look a little dated. When in doubt, prioritize commercial work over concept or schoolwork.

5) Know the purpose of each project in your portfolio.

Every project in your portfolio should have a purpose, a reason for it to exist in your portfolio. That purpose should be somehow related to highlighting your strengths and ability as a designer. Does this project show your potential employer you can deliver award-winning designs? Is this project all about your 3D rendering skills? Or does this project share a little about your design process? In many cases designers tend to double up projects, for example show a lot of 3D work and as a result unknowingly make their portfolio very 3D heavy. Try to avoid repeating skills and be ruthless in your selection criteria.

6) Who did what?

Always be crystal clear when a project you show was group work, and especially highlight your role in that project. Managers are always very happy to hear how designers can work as a team and produce great work. Not only that, as the design industry is small, many designers tend to vie for the same jobs which could put you into an awkward situation.

7) Create customized portfolios.

Selecting and deciding on projects for your portfolio can be hard. On the flip side, having a lot of projects allows you the flexibility of customizing a portfolio suitable to the type of employer or client you will be showing your work to. Are you meeting a marketing guy, or a head of R&D, or perhaps even a CEO? Having a variety of projects and presentation styles helps make your portfolio more relevant to that individual.

8) Know what you want to do as a designer.

Knowing what type of design you want to do can help you build a more engaging portfolio. Do you want to work in a consultancy? What about in an in-house design team, or even in a cross disciplinary role that reports to the CEO?
Knowing what you want in your design career can also help you shape the projects you yet to do. If you want to work in a consultancy, and you find you are weak in 3D rendering skills, this may prompt you to seek out more 3D rendering projects to shore up your portfolio content.

9) A portfolio is a living document.

A portfolio should always be evolving and living in beta. My advice is to update your portfolio every 6 months, or at the very least, update it yearly. Waiting longer tends to allow for work or documentation to go missing. Not only that, a juicy job opportunity might just pop up that could leave you scrambling to get things organize before the submission dateline is over. The Scout’s motto applies here: “Be prepared.”

10) A killer portfolio is well designed.

It is logical that as a designer, you should take every step to make sure that your portfolio is well designed and not just a bunch of images sitting in a plastic folder. Unfortunately, there are a lot of portfolios out there that are poorly designed, even though the content might be acceptable.

Not only it is advisable to have a consistent portfolio layout, the flow and organization of the content should be designed to work in your favor. Do all of your projects start with a beauty shot of the design? What about ensuring a consistent landscape or portrait format? The industrial designers reading this may be forgiven for a poor layout, but the graphic designers will need to be extra careful to ensure their portfolio reflects their capabilities.

A good way to get started is to create a template by using the grid technique (popular with graphic designers) and populate your design work from there. It is always tempting to over style your portfolio, especially if you have a high octane personal brand, but at the end of the day, the best thing to do is keep your layout design simple. You don’t want the background or portfolio layout to overshadow your design work.

11) Bonus tip: Digital vs. Printed portfolio?

With the Internet becoming a standard means of communication, most portfolios are now sent through email. Not only that, more and more designers are presenting their portfolio work on their laptops, iPads and projectors. Don’t discount the paper portfolio though; the honesty and tangibility of the medium could be the winning factor that gets you your next design job.
My point is that it is important to design for the medium. In many cases, a layout for a printed portfolio will not work on a laptop screen or projector. There is a lot more real estate on paper than on a laptop/iPad screen. Paper also tends to be a more forgiving medium as well. A laptop screen’s allows for bright and vibrant images, but a computer screen is limited to so many pixels and zooming breaks the flow of the presentation.


I hope you enjoyed these tips and suggestions. They are by no means a complete list, so please do not hesitate to share your own proven portfolio tips in the comments below. I look forward to reading them.