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Guide to Building a Top UI Design Portfolio


Writer’s Note: This is the 2nd of a series of portfolio guides that aims to help those among our readers with the skill set that is featured.

Before We Begin

Professionals who work in the creative industry need portfolios to showcase their skills to attract clients and peers. Once upon a time this was solved by creating stunning printed pieces. However, no matter how you look at it, times have changed and designers are no longer just designers. We’ve got different specialties that cover many different fields within design. It’s important that you identify your strengths before starting to build your own portfolio.

Today we will cover all the bases that lead to the creation of an amazing User Interface Portfolio, so if this happens to be your specialization, keep reading!

Quality and Quantity

Take the creation of your portfolio as any other important project you would work on and start by picking the number of products or projects you would like to showcase. Think of a number that can cover all of what you can do from the point of view of a UI designer, that can be enough to represent you as the perfect candidate for the next big contract and not a lot to turn your portfolio into an overwhelming and never ending trip for your future clients. Edit your selection with a sharp eye, as you will be judged by your worst piece.

Picking up to 9 projects is more than enough to show a variety of pieces, however, if that would be too many for what you would like to show in your portfolio then don’t worry, as 6 is also an acceptable number of projects to offer.

We all know working on a portfolio can feel endless because it’s hard for us as designers to objectively select the best work. However, the sooner you publish your portfolio, the faster your work will be ready for potential clients to see. Set realistic deadlines for every step of the process: from the very beginning, to when you pick your projects, through to its publication.

What About the Target?

This will mainly depend on you: are you a UI designer focusing on gaming? How about a UI designer specialized in designing mobile apps? Maybe you do both plus more! Each of them has a different solution but these tips are applicable to all UI cases.

Benchmark

A little research has never truly hurt anyone and it’s useful to see what kinds of portfolios are out there, what trends you should avoid for your portfolio to not look the same as everyone else’s, and what details are definitely worth exploring to apply to your own presentation. Inspiration is your best friend when you’re starting to build something from scratch.

Awwwards is a good place to look for web-based portfolios and some users at Dribbble offer more on their profiles to a web portfolio than you might think.

Of course, learning from your fellow colleagues on Toptal is always a good idea, there are stunning portfolios out there for you to check out!

The Three Pillars

There are three things that should be kept in mind throughout the process of building a UI portfolio: remember the importance of the visuals, have a solid process and show the result of each project by telling a story. Be as specific as you want yet keep an equilibrium between all three of them.

While it’s important to pay attention to details and UI designers focus mainly on those, it’s vital for your pieces to be “more than just a pretty face.” UI designers mostly work with UX designers to achieve incredible products, or sometimes hybrid designers do both UX and UI at the same time. Therefore it’s key to keep the essence of your designs by having some storytelling on every single page and by dodging the commonly known “Dribbblisation of Design” which will differentiate you from regular designers.

Layouts & Styles

The recommended size for portfolios nowadays are:

  • A4 Horizontal, the width will benefit the amount of content you can show
  • Sizes that are always larger in width and no smaller than 1280x800px

Note: Most devices nowadays allow retina images which will make your images look sharper and better. Remember to upload them twice their original size with @2x.

When thinking of the kind of layout you should design for each product, keep in mind that most of your projects will be different and will have a particular style that makes them unique: this will help you with the previously mentioned storytelling. Start from beginning to end, or backward; the possibilities are endless as long as you keep coherence on every single page.

Think of the most eye-catching cover page for each project. Whether it’s the logo of the product with a color background, a mobile product displayed in a beautiful mockup, or the interface of a video game close up, all of them can work as long as you keep the visual noise to a minimum. Clients have only a few minutes per page to spare on your portfolio so it’s important to show and tell as much as possible in a clean and organized way.

Don’t be afraid to put two or three dispositive together for a cover page as it will show how adaptable and dynamic your product is and will also tell the client beforehand how much content they can expect from a project.

Be Meticulous

We live and breathe visuals so we can’t afford to have pixelated rounded corners on a mockup, different screen sizes or slightly different alignments for the same product.

Keep in mind:

  • The alignment of your mockups or screens should be the same as not to generate a slight jump between one page and another. Make sure to check alignments on Y and X.
  • Work with vector images. If you’re using Sketch, it’s quite handy to have mockups that can be scalable and will never look pixilated; use the “scale” option instead of manually scaling your mockup, as it will lose its shape. If you happen to be using Photoshop, on the other hand, scale your mockup and use Command + Z (or Control + Z on a PC) to go back and scale again, as every time you scale your image it will get more and more pixelated.
  • Check for details once you’re done with the general alignment of your objects by working with zoom. This will help you discard any lines or shapes that are slightly out of place.
  • If you’re using mockups for mobile or tablets, there are two ways to go regarding the top bar: if you wish to keep it, make sure the battery is on a 100% charge and that the carrier shows a real company, for example, AT&T, T-Mobile, Virgin, among others, because it will give a realistic touch to your product. If you wish to take the top bar away, mobile products usually look better in a rounded container with 2px of radius, without a mockup.
  • The background should always highlight the product you’re trying to show and not turn the client’s view away from it. There are two ways to go about this: 1. either use a plain color background that can make a friendly contrast with your product (keep in mind the mock up’s color and the color scheme of your design altogether) or 2. use a pattern or picture as background but get creative with its opacity and/or add a color layer on top with some transparency. Once again, the options are endless as long as the background is always secondary.
  • For web pages or landing pages, you can go ahead and divide them into three pages to allow for a smooth tour through each portion. Making it small and placing them into a single page would make the client miss key points and details that will differentiate your product from others.

The Process

It doesn’t matter whether you do UX, UI or a complete different specialization within design: it’s always important to show that your work had a process and that it didn’t just magically appear. Don’t be shy to include rough sketches, the good old technique of paper and pencil, collage or even photography that could have helped you in the thought process of building outstanding UI for your product.

Depending how you want to go to your portfolio, there are different ways and techniques to show these sketches:

  • The simplest method is to scan your sketches and make good use of Photoshop to handle levels, contrast, and brightness before using them in the correct size (not too big nor too small). Depending what you want to show with these sketches, they can all be on the same page spread everywhere or more organized, selecting just a few of the most polished ones.
  • If you got inspired by particular objects, taking photographs from above at a 90° angle would show the object in a real size and it’s a trend that’s been quite useful as of lately (be careful of any shadows over your object!). If your object isn’t as flattering at that angle, however, using non-conventional angles like diagonals could help give the photograph more movement.
  • Other tips regarding photography: 1. make sure the photograph is not blurry and that there aren’t other items creating noise or disturbing the general picture, and 2. consider properly cutting those objects and placing them over solid color backgrounds or alternatively create a scenario that serves as context. For both cases, do check contrasts, brightness, and levels as we don’t want it to be too bright or too dark.
  • Collages, paintings or experimentation over a paper with different items like brushes, pens or watercolor pencils can also be scanned or photographed. It mostly depends on what is important to show for each project, and what experiences are important for our client to have when they’re taking a look at those pages.

Storytelling

This is your work process and the way you show it will depend on what kind of projects you’ve worked on. If your main focus is iconography, showing rough sketches and a step-by-step process through to the final form are recommended. If you’re focusing on mobile products instead, screens that are connected to one another to show a feature can also tell a story, and initial sketches of the interface itself are always helpful as well.

Consistency and coherence are important to tell a story no matter how you want to show it. And even though each product will have its own unique style there is a rhythm that will guide your client’s eyes through each page.

Recap

To summarize everything, remember to:

  1. Keep in mind your target which will probably depend on your specialization as a UI Designer.
  2. Pick reasonable numbers of pages for your portfolio that can showcase the kind of professional you are.
  3. Do some benchmark; research has never hurt anyone.
  4. Set realistic deadlines, and treat your portfolio building as another project.
  5. Whatever you do, don’t forget about visuals, including written details and your work process. If there’s something a UI Designer can stand out in, it is by being quite meticulous with details.
  6. You live and breathe visuals but storytelling is just as important to differentiate you from regular designers who fall into the “Dribbblisation of Design” category.
  7. Be coherent and consistent with your style through every part of your portfolio.

Last but not least: have fun! Your portfolio, whether UI, UX or any other kind, should show not only how capable you are as a professional but also part of your personality and that you have a unique voice and style to offer.

Source: Toptal

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The 5 Most Common UI Design Mistakes


Although the title UI Designer suggests a sort of departure from the traditional graphic designer, UI design is still a part of the historical trajectory of the visual design discipline.

With each movement or medium, the discipline has introduced new graphic languages, layouts, and design processes. Between generations, the designer has straddled the transition from press to xerox, or paper to pixel. Across these generations, graphic design has carried out the responsibility of representing the visual language of each era respectively.

Therefore, as UI Design makes the transition out of its infancy, what sort of graphic world can we expect to develop? Unfortunately, based on the current trajectory, the future may look bleak. Much of UI Design today has become standardized and repeatable. Design discussions online involve learning the rules to get designs to safely work, rather than push the envelope, or imagine new things. The tendency for UI Designers to resort to patterns and trends has not only created a bland visual environment, but also diminished the value of the designer as processes become more and more formulaic. The issue is precisely not one of technicalities, but of impending visual boredom.

Thus, the Top Five Common UI Design mistakes are:

  • Following Design Rules
  • Abusing the Grid
  • Misunderstanding Typefaces
  • Patterns and the Standardization of UI Design
  • Finding Safety in Contrast

UI Design Rule Book

Understand principles and be creative within their properties. Following the rules will only take your where others have been.

Common Mistake #1: UI Designers Follow the Rules

The world of graphic design has always followed sets of rules and standards. Quite often in any design discipline, the common mistakes that are made can closely coincide with a standard rule that has been broken. Thus, from this perspective the design rules seem to be pretty trustworthy to follow.

However, in just about any design discipline, new design movements and creative innovation has generally resulted from consciously breaking said rule book. This is possible because design is really conditional, and requires the discretion of the designer, rather than a process with any sort of finite answers. Therefore, the design rules should likely be considered as guidelines more so rather than hard and fast rules. The experienced designer knows and respects the rule book just enough to be able break the box.

Unfortunately, the way that design is often discussed online is within sets of do’s and don’ts. Top mistakes and practices for design in 10 easy steps! Design isn’t so straightforward, and requires a much more robust understanding of principles and tendencies, rather than checklists to systematically carry out.

The concern is that if designers were to cease ‘breaking the rules’, then nothing new creatively would ever be made. If UI designers only develop their ability to follow guidelines, rather than make their own decisions, then they may quickly become irrelevant. How else will we argue a value greater than off the shelf templates?

Be Wary of Top Ten Design Rules

The issue with design rules in today’s UI design community is they are so abundant. In the interest of solving any problem, the designer can look to the existing UI community and their set of solutions, rather than solve an issue on their own. However, the abundance of these guides and rules have made themselves less credible.

A google search for “Top UI Design Mistakes” yields a half million search results. So, what are the chances that most, if any of these authors of various articles agree with one another? Or, will each design tip that is discussed coincide accurately with the design problems of a reader?

Often the educational articles online discuss acute problems, rather than the guiding design principles behind the issue. The result is that new designers will never learn why design works the way that it does. Instead, they only become able to copy what has come before. Isn’t it concerning that in none of these sorts of articles is something like play encouraged?

The designer should have a tool kit of principles to guide them, rather than a book of rules to follow predetermined designs. Press x for parallax scrolling and y for carousels. Before choosing, refer to most recent blog post on which navigational tool is trending. Boring!

Trends are like junk food for designers. Following trends produces cheap designs that may offer some initial pay back, but little worth in the long run. This means that not only may trendy designers become dated, or ineffective quickly. But, for you the designer, don’t expect to experience any sense of reward when designing in this way. Although working to invent your own styles and systems is a lot of work, it’s so worth it day in and day out. There’s just something about copying that never seems to feed the soul.

Common Mistake #2: Allowing the Grid to Restrict UI Design

Despite my treatise against rules – here’s a rule: there is no way for a UI Designer to design without a grid. The web or mobile interface is fundamentally based on a pixel by pixel organization – there’s no way around it. However, this does not necessarily mean that the interface has to restrict designers to gridded appearances, or even gridded processes.

Using the Grid as a Trendy Tool

Generally, making any design moves as a response to trends can easily lead to poor design. Perhaps what results is a satisfactory, mostly functional product. But it will almost certainly be boring or uninteresting. To be trendy is to be commonplace. Therefore, when employing the grid in a design, understand what the grid has to offer as a tool, and what it might convey. Grids generally represent neutrality, as everything within the restraints of a grid appear equal. Grids also allow for a neutral navigational experience. Users can jump from item to item without any interference from the designer’s curatorial hand. Whereas, with other navigational structures, the designer may be able to group content, or establish desired sequences.

UI Design Rule Book

Although a useful tool, the grid can be very limiting to designers.

Defaulting to the Grid as a Work Flow

Dylan Fracareta, faculty of RISD and director of PIN-UP Magazine, points out that “most people start off with a 12 – column grid…because you can get 3 and 4 off of that”. The danger here is that immediately the designer predetermines anything that they might come up with. Alternatively, Fracareta resides to only using the move tool with set quantities, rather than physically placing things against a grid line. Although this establishes order, it opens up more potential for unexpected outcomes. Although designing for the browser used to mean that we would input some code, wait, and see what happens. Now, web design has returned to a more traditional form of layout designer that’s “more like adjusting two sheets of transparent paper”. How can we as designers benefit from this process? Working Without a Grid Although grids can be restricting, they are one of our most traditional forms of organization. The grid is intuitive. The grid is neutral and unassuming. Therefore, grids allow content to speak for itself, and for users to navigate at their will and with ease. Despite my warnings towards the restrictiveness of grids, different arrays allow for different levels of guidance or freedom.

Common Mistake #3:The Standardization of UI Design with Patterns

The concept of standardized design elements predates UI design. Architectural details have been frequently repeated in practice for typical conditions for centuries. Generally this practice makes sense for certain parts of a building that are rarely perceived by a user. However, once architects began to standardize common elements like furniture dimensions, or handrails heights, people eventually expressed disinterest in the boring, beige physical environment that resulted. Not only this, but standardized dimensions were proven to be ineffective, as although generated as an average, they didn’t really apply to the majority of the population. Thus, although repeatable detail have their place, they should be used critically.

If we as designers choose to automate, what value are we providing?

If we as designers choose to automate, what value are we providing?

Designers Using the Pattern as Product

Many UI designers don’t view the pattern as a time saving tool, but rather an off the shelf solution to design problems. Patterns are intended to take recurring tasks or artefacts and standardize them in order to make the designer’s job easier. Instead, certain patterns like F Pattern Layouts, Carousels or Pagination have become the entire structure of many of our interfaces.

Justification for the Pattern is Skewed

Designers tell themselves that the F shaped pattern exists as a result of the way that people read on the web.Espen Brunborg points out that perhaps people read this way as a result of us designing for that pattern. “What’s the point of having web designers if all they do is follow the recipe,” Brunborg asks.

Common Mistake #4: Misunderstanding Typefaces

Many designer’s quick tips suggest hard and fast rules about fonts as well. Each rule is shouted religiously, “One font family only! Monospaced fonts are dead! Avoid thin fonts at all costs!”. But really, the only legitimate rules on type, text and fonts should be to enforce legibility, and convey meaning. As long as type is legible, there may very well be an appropriate opportunity for all sorts of typefaces. The UI Designer must take on the responsibility of knowing the history, uses, and designed intentions for each font that they implement in a UI.

Consider a Typeface Only for Legibility

Typefaces convey meaning as well as affect legibility. With all of the discussion surrounding rules for proper legibility on devices etc, designers are forgetting that type is designed to augment a body of text with a sensibility, as much as it is meant to be legible. Legibility is critical, I do not dispute this – but my point is that legibility really should be an obvious goal. Otherwise, why wouldn’t we have just stopped at Helvetica, or maybe Highway Gothic. However, the important thing to remember is that fonts are not just designed for different contexts of legibility. Typefaces are also essential for conveying meaning or giving a body of text a mood.

Typefaces are each designed for their own uses. Don’t allow narrow minded rules to restrict an exploration of the world of type.

Avoiding Thin Fonts At All Costs

Now that the trend has come (and almost gone?), a common design criticism is to avoid thin fonts entirely. In the same way thin fonts came as a trend, they may leave as one also. However, the hope should be to understand the principles of the typefaces rather than follow trends at all.

Some say that they’re impossible to read or untrustworthy between devices. All legitimate points. Yet, this represents a condition in the current discussion of UI design. The font choice is only understood by designers as technical choice in regards to legibility, rather than also understanding the meaning and value of typefaces. The concern is that if legibility is the only concern that a designer carried, would thin fonts be done away with entirely?

Understand why you are using a thin font, and within what contexts. Bold, thick text is actually much more difficult to read at length than thinner fonts. Yet, as bold fonts carry more visual weight they’re more appropriate for headings, or content with little text. As thin fonts are often serifs, its suitability for body text is entirely objective. As serif characters flow together when read in rapid succession, they make for much more comfortable long reading.

As well, thin fonts are often chosen because they convey elegance. So, if a designer was working on an interface for a client whose mandate was to convey elegance, they might find themselves hard pressed to find a heavy typeface to do the job.

Not Enough Variation

A common mistake is to not provide enough variation between fonts in an interface. Changing fonts is a good navigational tool to establish visual hierarchy, or potentially different functions within an interface. A crash course on hierarchy will teach you that generally the largest items, or boldest fonts, should be the most important, and carry the most visual weight. Visual importance can convey content headings, or perhaps frequently used functions.

Too Much Variation

A common UI Design mistake is to load in several different typefaces from different families that each denote a unique function. The issue with making every font choice special, when there is many fonts, is that no font stands out. Changing fonts is a good navigational tool to establish visual hierarchy, or potentially different functions within an interface. Therefore, if every font is different, there is too much confusion for a user to recognize any order.

Common Mistake #5: Under/Over Estimating the Potential of Contrast

A common mistake that appears on many Top UI Design Mistake lists is that designers should avoid low contrast interfaces. There are many instances in which low contrast designs are illegible and ineffective – true. However, as with the previous points, my worry is that this use of language alternatively produces a high contrast design culture in response.

Defaulting to High Contrast

The issue is that high contrast is aesthetically easy to achieve. High contrast visuals are undeniably stimulating or exciting. However, there are many more moods in the human imagination to convey or communicate with, other than high stimulation. To be visually stimulating may also be visually safe.

The same issue is actually occurring in sci-fi film. The entire industry has resorted to black and neon blue visuals as a way to trick viewers into accepting ‘exciting’ visuals, instead of new, creative, or beautiful visuals. This article points out what the sci-fi industry is missing out on by producing safe visuals.

Functionally, if every element in an interface is in high contrast to another, then nothing stands out. This defeats the potential value of contrast as a hierarchical tool. Considering different design moves as tools, rather than rules to follow is essential in avoiding stagnant, trendy design.

Illegibly Low Contrast

The use of low contrast fonts and backgrounds is a commonly made mistake. However, rather than being a design issue. This could potentially be discussed as a beta testing mistake, rather than a design mistake.

How the design element relates as a low contrast piece to the rest of the interface is a design concern. The issue could be that the most significant item hierarchically is low in contrast to the rest of the interface. For the interface to communicate its organizational structure, the elements should contrast one another in a certain way. This is a design discussion. Whether or not it is legible is arguably a testing mistake.

The point is that in only discussing contrast as a technical issue resolvable by adjusting a value, designers miss out on the critical understanding of what contrast is principally used for.

Conclusion

As with the previous 4 mistakes, the abuse of patterns will rarely result in a dysfunctional website, but rather just a boring one. The mistake is in being safe. This overly cautious method of design may not cause the individual project to fail. However, this series of safe mistakes performed by the greater web community can mean greater failures beyond the individual UI design project. The role of the designer should be to imagine, thoughtfully experiment and create – not to responsibly follow rules and guidelines.

The original article is found on the Toptal Design Blog.

How to handle metadata for UI screens representation


Case: There are multiple graphs to be displayed, depending on a few parameters selected by user graph type, its details and other UI related stuff vary a lot, what remains common is data.
Solution 1:
Create a UI screen for each type of representation, depending on parameter supplied by the user use a particular screen will be loaded
Pros: Very simple, Client is Dubm, each screen has a datasource which gets populated by data send by the server
Cons: Lot of duplication
Solution 2:
Keep metadata, say in XML or DB, about user selection and related UI representation. With help of this metadata prepare a value object containing all information for a graph to be plotted.
Pros: Generic solution, Very flexible
Cons: More coding needed, UI is metadata driven, if UI representation changes alot, this may not be the best approach, Client and server needs to be in contract –how to parse the Metadat, this is client is not that dumb.

What I have used:
I preferred second solution fro following reason:
1. In our team, UI development and Server side development is not segregated, hence having a Smart client is not an issue.
2. Represented metadata in XML and then used JAXB to get Object representation, with help of contract, a single class at client is driving the UI
3. No duplication, all changes are limited to either or all of 1.> Metadata XML, 2.> UI class (fulfilling the contract) or 3.> UI Screen