One blog post is worth a thousand portfolio pieces.

I HIRED JASON SANTA MARIA after reading this post on his site.

The year was 2004. Douglas Bowman, one of my partners on a major project, had just injured himself and was unable to work. I needed someone talented and disciplined enough to jump into Doug’s shoes and brain—to finish Doug’s part of the project as Doug would have finished it.

I lack the ability to emulate other designers (especially classy ones like Douglas Bowman) and I was a Photoshop guy whereas Doug worked in Illustrator, so I knew I needed a freelancer. But who?

A Google search on Illustrator and web design led me to a post by a guy I’d never heard of. The post was enjoyably written and reflected a mature and coherent attitude not simply toward the technique it described, but to the practice of design itself. Yes, the blog itself was intriguingly and skillfully designed, and that certainly didn’t hurt. But what made me hire Jason was not the artistry of his website’s design nor the demonstration that he possessed the technical skill I sought, but the fact that he had an evolved point of view about web design.

Anyone can write a how-to. Not everyone thinks to write a why.

Jason had.

I offered him the thankless task of aping another designer’s style for not a ton of money under extreme time pressure, and to my pleased surprise, he accepted. He did so well, and performed so selflessly, that I hired him for another project, this time one with full creative freedom. I have never regretted those decisions.

Just about everyone I know and work with I first met online. And, although well-done portfolio services have their place, neither I nor anyone at Happy Cog has ever hired someone purely (or even largely) on the basis of their portfolio. It’s all about how you present yourself online. Before I even meet you, do I feel like I know you—or like I wish I knew you?

Have you got a point of view? Are you sharing it?

20 thoughts on “One blog post is worth a thousand portfolio pieces.

  1. A portfolio is only part of what makes a designer. It’s obviously a representation of past work but of course that work doesn’t always give a true reflection of a persons skill and because of the time based nature of web work at the moment portfolios can become dated quite quickly.

    Totally agree on looking at the person before the past work and getting to know that they’re intelligent problem solvers not just Photoshop monkeys.

    I know Jason has a huge folio of great work and history but was working with you guys a sort of stepping stone to becoming a big name in the industry?


  2. Bravo, you did the smart thing.

    I’ve long felt that companies use absurd hiring strategies, when so much can be found out about the person from their online activities.

    Of course, a person’s online activities can also work against them, which is why we need to periodically assess what we’re doing online and make sure we’re not sabotaging our own careers.

  3. Man, I totally just got choked up. :)

    I’ll always be thankful you took a chance on me, and that we’ve been collaborating on projects ever since (8 years and counting).

  4. I will be very soon.

    For many designers and firms, the portfolio is often the last thing to be worked on. It can also be a bit misleading because it only show past experience. While past experience is valuable, it cannot convey how the designer will grow or what influences them.

    Design is the execution of a thought process. Without understanding that process you are simply “making things look pretty.”

  5. Great observations. Even after doing this for 15 years, it’s easy to remember there’s more to successful talent than the talent itself. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. I maintained a blog for a few months, but never kept up with it. I think starting a blog is one of those catch-22s wherein you start with few followers so what’s the point of crafting a well-written entry, but posting well-crafted entries is what leads to an increase in followers. Being able to justify spending an hour or more on a post that gets 4 readers has been tough for me, but, on the other hand, not writing at all means no one will ever be able to read my thoughts and share their own back at me. Like so much else, it comes down to passion — if you believe in what you’re writing, it doesn’t matter how many people read it. I’m re-evaluating that with my own thoughts, and I’ll likely restart my blog once I redesign my site.

  7. I won’t be satisfied, though, until those sock monkeys get their own website. (Also: nice sketches—far neater than mine, which once had a book editor ask me for “the real drawings, to replace the scribbles”.)

  8. Well said.

    I’m recruiting at the moment for web designers/developers, and the presence of an actively maintained blog (and Twitter account) is a huge plus. In fact, any kind of community involvement is an indicator of true passion for our industry – writing blog posts or tutorials, running LinkedIn groups, local meetups, GitHub projects all give me a much more positive feeling for an applicant than yet another bland portfolio, no matter how many jQuery carousel widgets you add to it.

  9. I just started writing thoughts down in a blog in the last several months. Mostly I started it as a way to track my own thoughts and those quotes and ideas that I was intrigued by, as has been talked about by Steven Johnson, I was trying to make my own book of ideas, just digital.

    In the past two weeks I have written posts that have been well received by many, which shocked the pants off of me. I just write for me, as a way to get out the frustrations or ideas I have. After the past weeks, I now realize that it is also a way for others to get to know me and a way for me to possibly go new places, meet new people and for sure think about many new ideas as those people share them.

    The written word and ideas are important and say a lot about a person. And many times, it takes more than 140 characters, which is why I’ve found blogging to be so helpful.

    Great post Jeffrey! Thank you, for all the many posts you write that are so fantastic and make me think so often.

  10. Seeing so many talented people here is awesome, but boy/girl, do I like the fact that they’re all so kind as well…

  11. Hm, I really haven’t seen a lack of opinion, blawgz, and online personalities floating around the interwebz. They seem to be everywhere, spouting everything possible.
    I recently read on a forum thread, where people were arguing who was an accessibility “expert” or a “‘so-called’ expert”, and someone remarked something like “Nobody would call me an expert, then; I don’t write books, blogs, or articles for high-end sites. I’m busy making our sites accessible. I’ll leave the evangelism to those who are also good at talking.”

  12. In terms of Jason’s design chops I remember the first time I saw his old site’s template designed for Halloween (with its dark and gloomy colors sprinkled with blood splatters). I was blown away.

  13. A bunch of my clients have done the same. Most would rather read what you’ve written versus just seeing some portfolio pieces. Writing gives a “voice” and an attitude to a person and allows the client to easily tell what kind of person you are and whether you’d be a good fit for them. It also gauges the amount of knowledge you really have. You can always fib on what you’ve done in your portfolio, but unless you actually copy & paste articles, you can’t fake your knowledge there.

  14. Feels right to me, considering that I hired you, Douglas and Adam after reading your blogs. (And years of reading A List Apart, a mailing-list at the time.)

    Greatings from Noumea ;-)

  15. That’s really nice. Jason is an extremely talented guy and certainly deserving of his success. His blog makes me weep with the joy of viewing something lovingly crafted and his writing is witty, charming and humorous.

    I try to express my true personality in everything I do online. I’m a bit of a prankster with a dry, twisted sense of humor and I’m always trying to make the people around me laugh (most often at our own stupidity). It works great in real life, but it has certainly come back to bite me in the hindquarters online.

    It’s difficult to be funny online without coming across as wry, snarky or possibly even daft. But those who know me personally understand my silliness. Jason does a great job online of balancing his humorous side with his dedication to craftsmanship and I applaud his ability to do so.

  16. One of my few regrets is that a blog I started writing in 1999 fizzled out in a matter of weeks (I didn’t know it was a blog at the time, I thought I was writing “articles”). I tried starting again in 2001, and never made it past an initial post. What I have finally achieved in the last year is regular, relevant blog posts. The motivation this time? The fact that we get pushed so many opinionated pieces from the great and the good in web design that we are expected to take as gospel, without challenge. I thought it was time to speak up and give the view from the ‘average’ designer, albeit many years too late later.

    That, and the fact that as time went on I felt increasingly ridiculous not committing my own thoughts to some kind of permanent record. Not quite a sense of shame, but not far away from it.

  17. Ironically, Jason hasn’t shared a point of view or anything useful on his site for well over six months. Just Book Apart promotions and a toothache or two. He put all that thought into the new type of blogging engine/platform (with a unique style to each post), only to never use it. Disappointing, to say the least. I sort of expected this post to make him realize the kind of ghost town he hosts, but it has been a week now and I still don’t see any new material. If the title of this post has any merit, why does Jason never blog? Do you have anything to do with his absence?

  18. Josh Stodola: Don’t judge. As people become more successful (and therefore much more busy), they have less time to blog – and when they do blog, it’s often to announce something really cool that they’ve been working on. There’s nothing wrong with that – nobody else is going to publicize a book you publish or a website you’ve launched. I do the same thing here myself. For every “classic” post, there are five external things I need to tell my readers about, like Big Web Show podcasts, A Book Apart books, A List Apart issues, Happy Cog site launches, and so on. Hopefully people who come to my site have some interest in these things. All that said, I agree it’s important, no matter how busy you become, to find time to keep writing about the issues that matter to you – even if you can’t do this as frequently as you used to. Some people, like Daring Fireball’s John Gruber, blog full-time. That’s what they do, and they’re brilliant at it, and it keeps them in root beer and skittles. But web designers typically earn a living doing, well, web design. So for us, blogging must be a sidelight. Finding a work/work balance is not easy! :) Thanks for your feedback.

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