If your’e just starting out, or at a relatively early stage in your career as a designer, the commonly perceived evidence of potential ability & quality is your portfolio, the body of work you’ve done for clients & teams. This is certainly still true as you develop a significant career path with 10, 15, even 20 years worth of hard-fought experience. As a former mentor once said to me (I think quoting Hollywood agents), “you are only as good as your last project”. Hmm. Fair enough, but as I’ve recently taken a somewhat long view towards the ongoing evolution of my own career path, I can’t help but look back at all the work I’ve done and felt…well, rather overwhelmed. I mean, 15+ years, dozens of clients and companies, with lots of side projects — how should I package and present that to my next client or employer? (or perhaps more likely, to an executive-level recruiter placing for senior design leadership positions)

Yes, the sage advice about selecting your best & most relevant work to a certain role still applies — think of it as a design problem, as I’ve argued before.

But I’ve also begun noticing some common themes that permeate across my work, signaling strengths of expertise and pursuits of passion that exemplify some sweet spot of my design ability and quality. Let me explain…

I noticed these themes emerging when I asked myself the following, as I pored over literally thousands of folders and files (Thanks, Apple Time Machine!):

– Which problem spaces captivated my interest, that I found intellectually stimulating and creatively rewarding? 

– What kinds of design activities excited me, thus brought out my best attitude and highest quality outputs?

– What kind of projects challenged me and compelled me to tackle them, staying up late into the night or weekends, regardless of the incentives I got or reputation/brand of the client?

For myself, I discovered 4 themes that summarize the arc of my design career thus far:

Sketching: I’m an artist at heart and thrive on pen/paper sketching — fast and gestural — as my primary mode of problem space exploration and solution generation. Sketching is how I interpret situations and express myself, full stop.

Systems Thinking: No matter what kind of problem I’m given, I always seek to understand the parts and wholes, the pathways and elements, how they interconnect. Drawing maps and diagrams to visualize such systems, while thinking through ripple effects throughout, is key for me.

Enterprise UX: The nature of my career path moved across various companies bent towards large-scale software rife with complexity and ambiguity, deep into business productivity solutions — aka, “enterprise”. Tough challenges with big impact! 

Next-Gen Concepts: I admit I’m somewhat the creative rebel, fearlessly pushing the envelope, the bar, the constraints, with risky thinking. Naturally provoking speculative concepts to shift the design direction and motivate new business models, that’s a vital theme as well in my work.

As I stand back I realize these themes capture who I am as a designer, quite accurately and succinctly. And now I’ve found a way to encapsulate my work and anchor discussions with prospective clients or employers, based upon points of view literally embodied by my “outputs”, which suggest future possibilities — as variations upon those themes. How can I adapt, modify, or simply pivot as I look towards the future evolution of my career? Themes provide a higher order analysis, yet useful basis for that kind of discussion, with your self and your future collaborators.