Making Assumptions: pedagogy, practice, and the portfolio

Making design portfolios is approached from industrial-age view. We reveal and interrogate changes in design to fill gaps in preparing students for practice.

By Peter Lusch1, Liese Zahabi2

  1. Lehigh University, Lehigh, Pennsylvania, USA
  2. University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, USA


Hypothesis and Motivations

At a time when undergraduate design programs pivot towards educating the designer of 2025, we hypothesize that the current pedagogical approach to making design portfolios is a remnant from design’s industrial age. A physical or electronic portfolio, generally showcasing five to twenty discrete artifacts with short written descriptions, has been the traditional format to demonstrate professional credentials. We question if the portfolio remains the most important indicator of competence, creativity, and employability.

Designer Hugh Dubberly writes that “both what we design and how we design are substantially different from a generation ago.”[1] Presently, designers are practicing under a knowledge economy/user-centered design paradigm in which an audience is defined as a community of users whose chief activity is to experience. Looking towards an emerging future, Dubberly anticipates a design paradigm structured around facilitation that includes users as participants in co-creation. Business organizations now value complexity, and the effective designer is expected to work as a facilitator whose chief role is building agreement between stakeholders. Services provided as part of this new economy are inherently different than the static products of the industrial era. Technologically speaking, the tools and outputs designers now use to create have altered how design is distributed and consumed, in turn creating new forms of practice. The proliferation of social design and social innovation practices—work without familiar ends of products and services—have further altered the discipline.

Additionally, the continuing technologic and social changes in our discipline impact the means by which graphic design faculty are preparing undergraduate students for their careers. In her landmark presentation (that contributed to the larger AIGA Designer of 2015 initiative), Meredith Davis cautions new and future faculty that, “your generation will need to do more…you cannot simply follow the patterns of your own education…you will have to design learning for the twenty-first century.”[2] The increased fragmentation of design into specializations, the shift from form-making towards planning and designing systems, and the increasing focus on users as co-creators strongly suggest that the traditional approaches to teaching design portfolios are increasingly outdated.

Despite the great deal of literature produced about educating future design practitioners, we cannot identify consensus about how this emerging design paradigm has impacted the design portfolio. Is there any consensus to be had among design educators and practitioners regarding deliverable credentials, their format, their contents—and most importantly–their relevance? How might designers creating work that is not so neatly displayed through visuals showcase their process, thinking, and outcomes? We aim to identify what this new paradigm means for the future of the portfolio, how educators teach students about it, and what the profession demands of it. We wonder if the portfolio should have a broader emphasis on collaboration, strategy, and design thinking.

Researchable Questions

Our study is framed by the following researchable questions:

  • What are the differences and commonalities in the ways that design educators and design practitioners think about the design portfolio?
  • How closely does the approach design educators take when teaching the design portfolio align with the expectations and hiring/assessment methods of design practitioners?



In the spring of 2017 we were granted Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval to conduct this project using human subjects. We sought IRB approval to ensure that our research met appropriate ethical and logistical standards, and to add rigor to our inquiry. Our means for obtaining data are through one-on-one interviews and the distribution of a survey.

Criteria for Subject Selection

Subjects for the study are identified within two groups of participants working in the United States: a) graphic and visual communication design faculty at institutions of higher education, and b) practitioners of graphic design (or equivalent occupations). Faculty subjects must be currently teaching as full-time, tenured or tenure-track instructors, and must be teaching classes related to visual communication, graphic-, interaction-, user experience-, or web-design, or any other similar endeavor. Practitioner subjects must have at least three years experience in the field, and must hold a degree in graphic design or a related field of study. The research team aims to include as diverse a pool of applicants as possible, from different types of organizations, located in different geographic regions, and with different perspectives. An initial cohort of thirty to forty subjects from each group is anticipated.


Practitioner subjects are asked scripted questions about the usefulness of the design portfolio in hiring new designers and the relevance of printed (e.g. physical) design artifacts in a portfolio when determining a capable candidate. Faculty subjects are also asked scripted questions about how the portfolio is taught at their institution, and how faculty perceive the role of a student’s design portfolio. Both groups of subjects are asked to provide their broader insights as to the contemporary state of graphic design, how graphic design has changed since their own undergraduate experience, and to share thoughts about the future of the discipline.


The research team is conducting private interviews between one principal investigator and one subject, via phone or Skype, for a duration of approximately thirty to sixty minutes. Sessions are audio recorded and then transcribed for data analysis. This interview format, accompanied by our privacy policy withholding a subject’s identity, establishes an inviting condition for the subjects to speak honestly during their session.

Accompanying Survey

We will also submit a short written survey to participants to anonymously solicit demographic information (such as age range, education background, gender, race, etc.), and to gather responses to general questions about number of courses/students taught, number of years in profession, etc. This will provide the research efforts with some quantitative and demographic data that may lead to different kinds of insights.

Data Analysis

All interviews will be transcribed, either by the two investigators, by assistants, or by a hired transcriptionist. In addition to compiling statistics from surveys to generate some quantitative data, we are using two methods to analyze the resulting qualitative data from the interviews:

  • Coded content analysis
  • Narrative analysis


Preliminary Findings and Future Goals

To date, the research team has conducted approximately fifteen interviews. This research is still very much in progress, however the initial findings are exciting, have generated interest within both the faculty and practitioner communities, and suggest promise. Specifically, we believe this research can help explore new ways design educators might help frame appropriate expectations regarding design portfolios for the designers of 2025 and beyond.

Preliminary findings

  1. Expectations about formatting portfolios are changing
    1. Documentation of process (e.g. case study model) is more highly valued now than in the past
    2. Multiple variations of the portfolio are more often used
    3. Social media is more often used as an indicator of the designer’s digital reputation, process, and interests, and is becoming an aspect of portfolio output
  2. The hiring process is changing
    1. Portfolios are more often reviewed prior to a candidate’s interview rather than during
    2. Portfolio is the means for applicants to obtain an interview; purpose of the interview is to assess applicant’s character, integrity, and professionalism
    3. Significant changes are occurring in an employer’s expectations about the role of designers, and within the vocabulary used in job descriptions
  1. Pedagogy related to the portfolio is changing
    1. Curricula and portfolio expectations are increasingly shaped by alumni feedback
    2. Portfolio strategy is becoming dictated by student socio-economics and the local design marketplace
    3. Students demand their portfolios be personalized, impactful, and affordable
    4. Many faculty are seeking to include portfolio teaching in curricula prior to the junior year

Future directions/goals

  • Complete data collection and analysis
  • Lead panel discussions at design education conferences
  • Collect example syllabi/practices from educators teaching the portfolio
  • Publish output of articles, case studies, best practices
  • Publish book



[1] Hugh Dubberly, “Design in the Age of Biology: Shifting from a Mechanical-Object Ethos to an Organic-System Ethos,” in Digital Design Theory: Readings from the Field, ed. Helen Armstrong (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2016), 112.

[2] Meredith Davis, “Toto, I’ve Got a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore,” Keynote Lecture, AIGA Massaging Media 2 Conference, Boston, 2008.