This thought appeared in my Twitter feed the other day:
"I think people should have to mark, exceptionally clearly, when work in their portfolio is unsolicited redesign work."
My thoughts on this: unsolicited redesign work is never acceptable in a professional portfolio.
There's a trend among designers to gripe about a recent release (like, oh, I don't know, iOS7) and then begin throwing up redesigns of various UI elements or icons on Dribbble. This is bad enough, but if I saw someone's portfolio with redesign material in it, I would immediately pass on that candidate.
Why? Here's why.
1. Unsolicited redesign is not design work. It's design in a vacuum.
If you weren't on the project you're redesigning, then you weren't involved in any of the tech decisions, design discussions, user testing, or user research that is part of designing an app or a system. Design is frequently done under constraints, guidelines, and a whole structural framework that a random designer working in their apartment isn't involved in.
Anyone can redesign something awesome when they have an unlimited budget, no tech constraints, and the dream engineering team living in their head. When I'm deciding to hire you, I need to see how you work on a team. I need to see what your design process is when given a problem to solve, and how you're going to lay the groundwork to solving that problem. None of that is evident in an unsolicited redesign.
2. It's arrogant.
It's probably self-evident, but it's arrogant to redesign someone else's work. An unsolicited redesign is saying, "wow, your work is terrible. Here, let me fix it for you without knowing anything about your design decisions."
And we've all probably done it, too. I know I thought I could point out the flaws of some of my favorite apps, and I redesigned the heck out of them on my blog. And it was arrogant, the mistake of an inexperienced designer. Don't be me, or any of the designers throwing redesigned iOS7 mockups on Dribbble. Learn from our arrogance, padawan.
"But...I need portfolio material! What do I do?!"
When I retweeted the above tweet, I got this in response:
"what would you recommend for someone that only works with one company? Should i fill out with unsolicited or personal projects"
Unsolicited redesigns can be done thoughtfully, but it's a difficult line to tread. If you really want to tackle redesigns, put them up on your blog, and be sensitive to the fact that you're redoing someone else's work without the benefit of their accrued knowledge of the product. Understand that you probably are completely unaware of the tech decisions that designer had to work with. But whatever you do, don't put it in your portfolio.
As the tweeter above mentioned, personal projects are a great way to get portfolio material. The key is to find a problem to solve, and then solve it. Go through the design process from the ground up and document your entire design decision process. A personal project is one where you'll be aware of the constraints and potential pitfalls. As the person hiring you, I still won't necessarily get a sense of what you would do when faced with real design decisions and constraints, but at least I can get a better glimpse of your design process.
An example from my own work would be the knitting app that I'm working on as a personal project. I found a problem I wanted to solve: knitters have trouble remembering when they've used row counters and tend not to use them, and they have a smartphone with them that could keep track of that. I began with user research, doing surveys and collecting data, and then moved on to sketching layouts, notes, and screens based on that data. My next step will be to build a prototype of the app to test with actual knitters.
Remember that portfolio material should be your work, not someone else's. And an unsolicited redesign isn't really your work, it's just a reskinning of someone else's.