How to get a Product Design Job without a Portfolio!

01 title

Starting out in an industry and getting that first job is one of the biggest milestones for any professional. And entering the world of design requires a multitude of skills as well as a truly kick-ass portfolio that will blow the interviewers mind! But what if we don’t have a substantial portfolio? This question is addressed in the write-up below by Jonathan Courtney(Co-Founder of AJ&Smart) who gives some smart and unconventional tips that will definitely land you that job!

Still looking for a job? Check out Yanko Design Job Board to find an opportunity now.

Looking to hire a designer? You can post your requirement with YD Job Board to connect with our dynamic young professionals who are always on the lookout for fresh prospects.

Image#2 job no portfolio

It’s a classic chicken/egg problem!
You’ve just gotten out of University, you’re still in University, you’re changing careers, you’re just curious and you want to give Product Design or UX a go. There’s one problem though… you don’t have a portfolio, or you have one but it’s mostly side projects or fake projects, nothing that would excite anyone hiring for a design role. The other problem is, you don’t have a lot of connections, you don’t know how this whole tech and design world works, it’s dark, confusing and a bit intimidating.
Well, good news! I’m here to help. I’ve been a Product/UX guy for over 8 years, have had the pleasure to work with some of the biggest and best brands in the world, I’m buddies with design super-stars like Jake Knapp (he’s like the Brad Pitt of Silicon Valley), and now I run my own agency that hires Designers! Why do I want to help you? Because I want internet attention of course! Just kidding (please like, share, clap, subscribe, tweet, insta) — really I just want to help those willing to listen to find some of the shortcuts I wish I had known about.

Ok, enough blabbing! Here are my best tips on getting a job in Product Design! (If you don’t feel like reading, just watch this cheeky video myself and my lovely colleague, Brittni, made:)


Image#2a job no portfolio Copy

1. Volunteer at Events (and be useful AF)
Goddamn it! This one is so obvious, but so few people get it. Getting a job is so much just about “being there” and building relationships with certain people. When you volunteer at events, for example a UX Meetup run by a company you want to work at, you’re basically giving yourself a foot in the door without having to be interviewed or going through the painful process of showing off your portfolio, which is likely not going to have any real projects in it anyway!

Everything in work-life is about relationships. Sure, skills are important, but they’re absolutely trumped by relationships. Volunteer at relevant events, meet and get to know relevant people and slowly you’ll start to find some great shortcuts into the places you’ve always wanted to work.

Now there is one caveat to this strategy: if you volunteer at an event, you need to completely overdo it in terms of being proactive and useful. You also need to be patient and build trust with employees at the companies you want to work at so it doesn’t come across that you’re desperate for a job. You want to seem curious (and you should be) about how the company works, what the culture is like, what their processes are.
The current AJ&Smart product team is full of people who I first met at our events!
At AJ&Smart, we’ve met some of our best employees and allies through volunteering, but it was always the people who went the extra mile, gave us insights we hadn’t thought of and in the end showed us that they have a great work ethic. I’ve seen too many volunteers who get the opportunity and then waste it by simply doing the basic tasks at hand and making no effort to take it a step further or even ask questions.


Image#3 job no portfolio Copy 2

2. Canvas Strategy (a.k.a Make Other People Look Good)
This one is so simple and so obvious, yet so many people are so busy thinking about themselves when they look for a job that they forget that the people hiring them are also only thinking about themselves!

Making other people look good, removing obstacles for them, helping them make connections to people that they might find invaluable is the ultimate job hack. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking for something new or just looking to be promoted, the Canvas Strategy (which I first heard about from Ryan Holiday here) is a tried and true formula for accelerated success.

So, how about an example?

Let’s say you want to work at my agency. Now, we, like many product studios, get a lot of applications daily and it can be quite hard just to keep up with which candidates are interesting, which ones we should meet. Now let’s say I get an email from a candidate (who, maybe volunteered at a recent event 😉 ) and let’s say this email is an introduction to someone at a company they know I want to work with, or maybe they figured out I’m trying to grow our Youtube channel and connect me with an influencer who wants to help. They’re not asking for a job yet, but they’re already creating value before I’m ever exposed to their design skills. They’re already building a relationship by making my life easier.

This is so much more likely to turn into a coffee or a beer with me than the emails I receive asking if someone can “pick my brain”. Before you ask for something make sure you’re delivering some form of unconditional value.

Ryan Holiday outlined 3 great ways to get started with the Canvas Strategy here:

3 Keys:

  1. Find new trains of thought to hand over for them to explore. Track down angles and contradictions and analogies that they can use. Ex: I was reading the biography of ______, I think you should look at it because there may be something you can do with the imagery.
  2.  Find outlets, people, associations, and connections. Cross wires to create new sparks. Ex: I know _________, and I think you two should talk. Have you thought about meeting ____?
  3. Find inefficiencies and waste and redundancies. Identify leaks and patches to free up resources for new areas. Ex: You don’t need to do ___________ anymore, I have an idea for improving the process, let me try it so you can worry about something else.


Image#4 job no portfolio Copy 3

3. Use the Least Crowded Channel
Even if you have a fantastic portfolio, even if you have some experience, standing out against the crowd when you email your resume is extremely difficult. Especially if you’re interested in working in a smaller to medium sized product studio who may not even have a well-oiled hiring system in place (ahem… we’re very guilty of this at AJS). What’s very likely to happen is that your submission will be either looked at and forgotten or never even opened.

So, how do you get a companies’ attention in the over-saturated, messy world of hiring? Well, you look for the companies’ Least Crowded Channel.

This is simply a way of contacting a company or gaining attention from a company by taking a route that not many people are taking.

Want to work at Really Cool Startup? Well, maybe you should see what happens when you contact them on instagram DM! How about Famous Design Agency? Are they putting on events in your city? How many people go to them? How many people volunteer at them? How about Big But Still Cool Company? Check out their Snapchat, they’re just starting out and not a lot of people are getting in touch.

I’ve made some of my most valuable connections using the Least Crowded Channel approach, especially in the last few months using Instagram DM’s (thanks for the advice Gary Vaynerchuk!).

Yesterday a girl walked straight into our office asking about a job posting we had online. No email, no warning. It was bold and could have gone wrong (in fact she tried the day before but nobody was there), but she ended up landing an interview before anybody else even had the chance. Our new intern (who we now want to hire full-time) contacted me directly through Instagram before I even got around to reading the email requests for internships. This works people! Give it a go.


Image#5 job no portfolio Copy 4
4. Be Eager and Humble
It doesn’t matter how well you do the other 3 things in this list if you do it half-assed or arrogantly. We’ve had volunteers who have landed full-time jobs and have been with us for years, we’ve also had volunteers who were more work than help. Nobody wants to work with somebody who’s not eager to work.

When you’re eager to work, eager to learn and honest about what you don’t know, you start to build an honest relationship with employees of companies you might want to work at. It’s simple: People like people who are eager to help, there’s something about the energy of someone who’s excited about the work they’re doing, even if it’s setting up a workshop table. There’s a tendency with some people to “overcompensate” for their lack of experience by acting uninterested, or even arrogant. This is a major mistake.

When I see somebody doing a half-assed job of a simple task, I don’t think “Oh well, that’s probably just how they deal with boring tasks like this”, I think “Well, that’s how this person is and I don’t want them to infect my teams with this sloppy attitude”.

Ok, I gotta finish this up because it’s getting sloppier the more I write, there are a few more tips I missed in the video above if you’re looking for more. I know I wrote this article with Product Design as the focus, but realistically these tips can be used for any industry.

Click here to read the original write-up by Jonathan Courtney.

Yanko Design Job Board is the best Job Board to connect with great product designers. Post a Job now to reach out to our vibrant following of 2Million+ designers looking for an interesting opportunity!