Comment & Opinion

11 portfolio tips for game design graduates

Mojiworks game designer Kate Killick offers advice on structure, what to write and what employers are looking for

11 portfolio tips for game design graduates

Kate Killick is a game designer at Mojiworks. You can read more practical tips at her personal website

Nobody ever said getting your foot in the door of the games industry was easy.

As a graduate designer, it can feel like an uphill struggle  -  everyone wants you to have experience, but nobody seems willing to give you your first break.

The good news is, that’s not entirely true. Games studios do want to help foster new talent, but in order to get that sought-after interview, you need to make the absolute best first impression you can.

In many industries this would come down to a well-presented CV, but for design roles it’s portfolio that takes precedent.

These are my tips for making a great portfolio site, based on my experiences as both an applicant and a member of a hiring team. This isn’t about how to build a website  -  there’s plenty of existing articles for that  - but rather how to create content that will help pique interest and get you to interview.

(Note: when I refer to design, I’m specifically talking about game design, or UX for games, although much of it’s relevant to other design disciplines.)

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  • 1 Case studies are where it’s at

    For aspiring designers, case studies beat any other kind of content you can put on your site.

    Pretty pictures, videos and game design documents can all serve a purpose, but what I’m really trying to understand when I look at your portfolio is how you think. How do you approach & break down a problem? How do you make design decisions?

    Game screenshots on their own can’t answer that, and unless you’ve released a killer game that achieved significant commercial success, chances are your visitor needs more to go on.

    Spoiler alert  -  most of the tips in this article will be about writing case studies!

    A case study is not just a description of a project, which is what I see on a lot of junior designer portfolios. I’ll go into more detail about writing case studies later, but first things first: you need a topic.

    Rather than trying to encompass an entire project, which tends to lead to information overload, try focusing on a specific piece of work that demonstrates your critical design thinking. If you’re stuck for inspiration, my top suggestions are:

    • A problem you tried to solve which required multiple design iterations
    • Something unexpected you learned during design/development and how you adapted to it
    • Something you learned through research or user testing and how you incorporated those findings into your design
    • A problem you discovered in an existing product/design and how you tried to solve it

    Using a descriptive title is a good starting point, and can help your site visitors understand what the study will be about from the get-go. For example: “Re-designing Gumdrop Grab’s tutorial to be more intuitive” is a more informative title than plain old “Gumdrop Grab Project”.

  • 2 A few good case studies…

    …is better than ten mediocre ones. Especially if they’re tailored to the roles you’re applying for.
    Projects you have released/live product are likely to be the most useful and impressive.

    But if you don’t have that experience yet, don’t panic  -  side projects are also great to write about. They demonstrate passion and instantly put you above grads who have only college projects to show.

    Being frank, academic projects are less impressive. They don’t inherently prove either passion or commercial thinking, and are often done in a group where the individual’s contribution isn’t clear. Game jam projects too  -  they rarely involve any process or user testing.

    That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write about them elsewhere on your site or blog, but they probably aren’t suitable for the type of analysis required for a case study.

    Finally, the usual rule of prioritising recent over old work applies, especially if the tech or design is now outdated.

  • 3 Use a consistent structure for your case studies

    Consistency helps visitors quickly move between case studies and find the information they need. It doesn’t mean the format of your case studies must be identical, but do include key structural elements in all of them.

    Think of your case study as a story. The reader begins with no knowledge of you or your project. Take them on a journey through your work with a clear beginning (context/brief), middle (process/iterations) and end (final outcome).

    When they’ve finished reading, they should have a few main takeaways about your approach to design.

    The important elements to include are:

    1. Context

    A concise overview of what the project is. One or two sentences is enough. For example, a one line description of the game, the stage of the project and your role in the team.

    “Gumdrop Grab is a match-3 game for iPhone I created as a side project during my third year at college. Working as the UX designer in this small team, I was responsible for getting the tutorial in shape in preparation for an Android release.”

    2. Problem/brief

    Again, keep it short. What problem did you need to solve? Why? Were there any constraints? Who was the intended audience?

    “Through regular play testing, we knew players loved Gumdrop Grab’s gameplay, but we also found that new players had difficulty grasping the more complex power-up mechanics in level two. I needed to redesign the tutorial to make the game more approachable for players not already familiar with the match-three genre.”

    3. Process

    Without a doubt, the most important  - and longest  -  part of the case study, and the part where the format will vary the most.

    This might include:

    • How did you break down the problem? How did you learn more about it?
    • What designs did you try?
    • What worked, what didn’t work?
    • How did you get feedback?

    I can’t really provide an example here, but you can read some of my real case studies on my website.

    4. Outcome

    If you have measurable outcomes from your work, great. For example:

    “At the end of the original testing session, only one out of five users could accurately describe how the power-ups worked. After my improvements, all the players could answer correctly.”

    If not, don’t worry  -  try to summarise the result in a positive way. For example: “The end result was a much more intuitive tutorial, with the result that our testers could understand the game without extra guidance.”

  • 4 Keep it snappy

    Your audience doesn’t have much time. They may be looking through a lot of applicants in a day - as well as trying to get on with their regular work!

    Cut out the irrelevant. Rewrite and distil until there’s no noise left.

    Don’t try to include everything , but aim to get them interested enough to give you an interview  -  you can go into more depth when you get there.

    Try following George Orwell’s rules for effective writing.

  • 5 Think about tone

    Sometimes (often) when I’m writing, I realise I’m boring myself.

    If I’m bored writing it, I guarantee others are going to be bored reading it. Avoid being overly formal and dry  -  a conversational tone is more engaging than a dry academic style.

    Don’t be afraid to emphasise “I” over “we”  -  this is your portfolio and if you want to sell yourself then get comfortable with self-promotion.

    Your visitor is deciding whether to interview you, not your team.

  • 6 Make use of images, videos, etcetera

    Images, videos and interactive prototypes are all useful elements to include in your case study.

    If done well, they communicate a lot, break up walls of text and instil confidence that you can create design deliverables.

    If done badly, they are confusing, messy and detrimental to your case study.

    The most common problem I see in design portfolios is images that are not understandable at a glance, such as overly detailed wireframes and user flows.

    Good communication is essential to a design role, and if you can’t demonstrate it on your own website, it doesn’t bode well for your performance in the job.

    Always think about whether an image makes sense to a reader who has zero inside knowledge of the project. You can achieve this in a few ways:

    • Add captions that give context. e.g. “Wireframe showing how the user flows through the tutorial screens.”
    • Overlay annotations on the image itself to explain specific elements. e.g. “Tapping the question mark re-opens the tutorial text, in case the user forgets what to do.”
    • If necessary, replace a complex image with a simplified version that’s easier to understand. Cut out irrelevant information.
    • Don’t overdo it  -  pick the best images to communicate something useful about your process.
    • Use short videos or GIFs to show how a specific part of the design works. This can be much clearer than trying to describe functionality using static images and text.

    A user flow recreated for a case study (true story).

    Finally, the “outcome” section at the end is a good place to include finished work, such as final screenshots or a gameplay video.

    It ends the case study on a high note, and reinforces how your process brought you to a polished result.

  • 7 Follow web design best practices

    It should go without saying, but I still see portfolios where this isn’t the case!

    Even if you don’t consider yourself a visual designer, you need to show you have an eye for quality.

    It doesn’t need to win awards, but it absolutely needs to be usable and well-presented. Mobile-friendly, readable, clean design, well formatted  -  there are plenty of templates and articles out there to help, and it’s important. No excuses!

  • 8 Make multiple sites if you need to

    Applying to both game artist and game design jobs? Mobile and console?

    Create separate websites/sections with their own URLs that show only the case studies relevant to the role and send whichever link best fits each job.

  • 9 Focus on your most relevant skills and interests

    The priority here is to demonstrate your design capabilities.

    That’s not to say you shouldn’t write about additional skills or interests  - small companies especially value generalists  -  but giving them too much space muddies the message, so keep it minimal.

    Consider linking to other places where people can find more if they want to, such as your Medium blog or Tumblr gallery, and avoid making them a top-level section of your website.

  • 10 Get inspiration (but be critical about it)

    Look at portfolios and case studies of people doing jobs you want.

    Analyse what works and what doesn’t and see what you can apply to your own site.

  • 11 Get feedback. Keep iterating

    Creating and maintaining a portfolio can be painful. It’s a punishing design project that never ends.

    But it has to be done, and when you’re an inexperienced candidate your portfolio is really all you have to make yourself stand out.

    The more people you can pester for feedback, the more you can keep improving it, the better your chances of getting to interview.

    Reach out to people you admire. Poke people on Twitter. Get to industry events that run CV workshops and mentoring sessions. Email people who write useful articles about creating portfolios.

    Hopefully these tips gave you some ideas about where to start with your portfolio, or how to improve your existing one. I’d love to hear comments on whether it was useful, or from fellow designers/recruiters if you agree or disagree with any points!

    I’m a game designer at MojiWorks  - currently hiring. All views are my own. regularly posts content from a variety of guest writers across the games industry. These encompass a wide range of topics and people from different backgrounds and diversities, sharing their opinion on the hottest trending topics, undiscovered gems and what the future of the business holds.