Creating a Modern Portfolio

The job market for Architecture and Interior Design talent is heating up.  Firms across the globe are hiring and have set a very high bar for the people they make an offer to.  For better or for worse, much of those hiring decisions are made on the strength of the portfolio.  It is no exaggeration that the portfolio can make or break a job search.

DBI has worked with tens of thousands of candidates and has seen as many portfolios.  We have also seen the portfolio change.  The portfolio is more than your history, it is your story.  No longer does it sit in a dusty binder.  Today’s portfolio lives on-line, on your phone, and in paper.  It is also not a stagnate document.  Truly exceptional portfolios are living documents that change and update to reflect the candidate as they change and grow.

Because the form and function of the portfolio has changed in the last five years, DBI wants to share some keys to getting your portfolio noticed and some ideas on how to build a modern, dynamic portfolio.

Who is looking at your portfolio?

In today’s reality, everyone is looking at your portfolio.  It is the designer’s business card.  Your portfolio is not just what you did, but how you did it.  It is what you are doing, and how you are doing it.  Everyone, from peers to hiring managers, are looking for the story of your design.

This documents needs to mirror your own evolution as a designer.  It needs to be grounded in your inspirations and aspire to your own personal design goals.  It needs to tell everyone, in a clear voice, where you have been, who you are and where you are going.

What should be in your Portfolio?

While the portfolio should be created in your own voice, there are a few common factors that help others understand your design story.

  1. Recent, professional images of work you were involved in.  The important thing to remember when adding imagines to your portfolio is to also write about the project.  Describe the project, the team that worked on it, the client, and most importantly, your role on the project.
  2. Hand sketching or schematic renderings you have created.  To stand out, think about adding hand sketching or schematic renderings you have created.  This will display your creative process in a way the helps to tell your story.  Combining your sketching with the final product is the best use of these images and gives everyone a clear understanding of how you approach a design problem, and solve it.
  1. Your personality.  This may be the most important aspect of your portfolio.  Ensure that the portfolio is infused with who you are, your passions and interests.  Hiring managers and firm leaders don’t hire on skill alone, but personality fit.  Showing yours in a professional way is critical.

Where should you have your portfolio?

Here is the great debate!  Purist would opine that the portfolio be in paper form only, with all the gilded edges, and thick stock paper one can afford.  The modernist would scoff at the idea and insist that a website with their work be the only viable option to share works.   The right answer is that you need both!  In fact, there are a few more places it needs to be as well.

  1. Physical Portfolios-  Tried, true, and tested.  The physical portfolio is a must.  In the past the physical portfolio was a lush object with themes, boarders, and were superfluous.  Today’s physical portfolios need to be cleaner and more focused on relevant work while including your personality.
  1. On-line Portfolios- Here is where you can be creative.  Your online space can be what you want it to be.  And the on-line portfolio can house all of your work.  The key here is to be thoughtful about how you present your work.   Do you group by project type, specific firm work?  The how is up to you. Just remember to keep it professional and interesting.
  1. Mobile Portfolios- Every designer should have a few images of their best work on their phone.  The mobile portfolio is the most utilitarian of the group.  A few images on your phone that can be shared with a seat mate on a plane, or over coffee.  It is important that the images are easy to find and that you have a story to tell about each image.
  1. Traveling Portfolios- The traveling portfolio is the little sister to your physical portfolio.  Utilizing an on-line photo service, have a few relevant pages of your portfolio printed as a leave behind after your interview.  This will help you stand out and give you a physical presence in the debrief meetings.

When should you update your portfolio?

The brief answer is always and often.  Not only should you add to your portfolio after each project, it is important to save the hand sketches and other peripheral drawings that help to tell the story of the projects.  It is impossible to reach back through time and remember all the images you created, the sketches are long gone.

How can you make your portfolio stand out? 

Now that you understand the structure of a portfolio, how can you make yours stand out?  Below are a few ideas that DBI has seen used to great effect.

  1. Story boards- Story boards are a great way to show your work’s progression from inspiration, to idea and on to sketch and finished product.
  1. Quotes- Quotes can be impactful if done right.  A comment from a client on the work you have done or a note from a principal outlining your role on a project can be invaluable when a new firm is reviewing your portfolio.  Quotes that are not relevant, on the other hand, will sink you fast.
  1. Process- Different than a story board, this speaks to how you work.  Collaboration, delegation, independent thinking.  Being able to visually demonstrate these abilities will make you really stand out from the rest.
  1. Inspirations- Who is your favorite architect?  What is your favorite interior space?  What do you do that feeds your creativity?   The answers to these questions give anyone viewing your portfolio insight into who you are, as a designer and a person.

In the end, your portfolio is about you.  Regardless of what is included, how it looks, or where it lives, it has to be an honest representation of you and your work.  This honesty and insight into you is the true purpose of the portfolio.