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Part I / Finding Your Purpose
By Michael LaValley
This article is the first entry in a special three-part series entitled, ‘The Definitive Guide to an Epic Architecture Portfolio.’ These posts have been written by guest writer, Michael LaValley of Evolving Architect. Each part will take you through the process of how to successfully build your portfolio from the ground up.
“Definitive Guide to an Epic Architecture Portfolio”
Part I / Finding Your Purpose (this post)
‘Finding Your Purpose,’ focuses specifically on laying the foundation, defining the reasons why you’re creating the portfolio in the first place, and the initial steps you can follow to make sure your portfolio is a triumph.
Whether you’re looking for a new job, a new college, or a career change within the profession of architecture, your portfolio is one of, if not the most important, devices you have to establish yourself to others.
But don’t let that scare you.
An Architecture Portfolio is simply a document that conveys your professional story through imagery, text, composition, and format. You can learn a lot about yourself in the process of creating a portfolio, just as you can understand more about your peers if know how to ‘read’ theirs.
A portfolio is nothing if not personal.
A good portfolio will justify why it exists, but a great portfolio will introduce someone to who you are.
Like people, portfolios come in all shapes and sizes. They can be completely digital, completely analog, or some combination of the two. The requirements you have for your portfolio may change between purposes entirely. A human resources department at a firm may require digital only submissions that you provide through an online portal. At the same time, an advisory board at a University may insist upon a physical binder with copies of your work inside.
Here we’ll take a closer look at just what it means to build a portfolio that matters. If you’re seeking the path to an epic portfolio, you’ve come to the right place.
STEP 1 / IDENTIFY YOUR WHY
WHY DO YOU NEED A PORTFOLIO?
It may seem like a simple question, but the reason you actually need to create a portfolio is probably the most important question you must understand above all. The answer will provide the foundation for everything you do moving forward. Every image, every line, every word will be dictated by your purpose. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a portfolio that is disjointed and clumsy – something that will be more than apparent to your audience.
So, what’s your answer?
If you’re not sure, here are the top 4 reasons you might have to create a portfolio.
Whether you’re looking for a new job or establishing a body of work for new opportunities in your career, a portfolio can establish your skill set, professional interests, and extracurricular endeavors. The portfolio can quickly identify for an employer if you have the necessary skills they require you to have for the position in question.
- First Job
- Changing Jobs
- Job in Academia
- Annual Review
- LinkedIn Integration
Especially in the architectural profession, a portfolio is almost always a requirement when starting a new program at a college or university. Depending upon the level you’re applying for (undergraduate, graduate, PhD), the specific requirements may vary. However, a portfolio of work is a key document that will establish for an academic institution whether or not you present a good fit for that program.
- Undergraduate Applications
- Graduate School Applications
- PhD Program Applications
Even though you’re fairly confident that all of your work is as clear in your head as the day you created it, a portfolio can be a fantastic way to catalogue your projects from time to time. This can work in your benefit for two key reasons: 1. the portfolio creation process pushes you to organize your work in a coherent way and 2. the very fact that you have a portfolio will allow you to adapt to unforeseen situations (job loss, award submission, or recommendation) as they present themselves.
- Archive of Past Work
- Format Current School Work
- Experiment with Presentation
- Learn How to Make a Portfolio
- Present a Single, Important Project
Does your Grandma know what you do? I bet she does, but she likely doesn’t have the technical background that you do as an architect and a designer. Your portfolio can be the simplest way to explain to others outside the profession what you actually do. Think coffee table book. This type of portfolio can provide a straightforward look at work. It relies primarily upon photographs, diagrams, and sketches to explain basic ideas to others.
- Something to Show Relatives and Friends
- Coffee Table Version of Your Work
- Record of Your Career Achievements to Date
While there are undoubtedly more reasons for you to create a portfolio, these are likely the most relevant.
However, do NOT go any further in this process until you’ve at least identified what your own reason for creating a portfolio is. It may be a mix of some of the reasons above, but a clear purpose will be the one thing that you’ll need to remind yourself of most as you move forward.
STEP 2 / TARGET THE RIGHT AUDIENCE
WHO ARE YOU CREATING THIS FOR?
If you think about it, the audience you’re gearing the portfolio towards is most likely a direct corollary to your purpose for making it in the first place. A future boss might look at a professional portfolio, a professor may look at an academic one, you may be only person interested in the portfolio for your records, and your friends and family may be wow’d by your personal portfolio.
So if it’s that simple, why do we even need to talk about this? It’s straightforward enough, right?
No. No, it’s not.
ALL AUDIENCES ARE NOT CREATED EQUALLY
Take a look at your options again. If you were to say, interview for a job at a small, boutique firm that specializes in high end residential work, you probably wouldn’t use that same portfolio for an interview with a commercial developer looking to build up their in-house architecture staff.
See what I mean?
We can’t generalize when it comes to the audience. In fact, it’s quite possible that you may end up with entirely different versions of your portfolio when you’re done. Now, that doesn’t mean that you will, just that you could.
Another example. Say that you’re just starting your career. You need a portfolio for admission to a college/university.
But wait, you haven’t even spent a day in studio yet!
Don’t worry, your portfolio doesn’t have to be at the same level as a recent graduate of that program (Hint: that’s why you’re going to school!) It’s more likely to focus on the work you did in High School, with an emphasis on your ability to draw.
That type of academic portfolio is nothing like something you’d submit to a PhD program. You would need research work, projects that speak to your intended specialized study. I doubt that you’ll find an academic board in the world holding you to those types of standards before you’ve obtained an Undergraduate degree.
SO HOW DO I KNOW WHO THE AUDIENCE IS?
As a way to establish your audience, imagine a person (as best you can) that represents who you’ll be speaking to. If you know of the actual person in real life, think of them.
Identify an actual human-being that will review your work. In the end, they could be very different in personality, tastes, and preferences, but they’ll be more apt to understand how you’re speaking to them because it’s a manner they are familiar with.
Knowing who you will gear your portfolio to is the next step you need to complete before moving forward. Take some time and write down their description noting details related to their position and influence. After you’ve done that, you can begin to think about how to talk to them.
STEP 3 / ESTABLISHING TONE
YOU ARE YOU, NOT SOMEONE ELSE
At the end of the process, your portfolio must still reflect who you are. Now that you’ve established who you are writing to, begin to consider how you will address them. Just because there are general rules and suggestions regarding how to build your portfolio, that doesn’t mean that your personality should be brushed aside for something robotic and emotionless.
What kind of person are you? Or better yet, what kind of personality are you trying to convey through the presentation of your work?
Here’s an example.
THE SUMMER THAT YIELDED A FANTASTIC PORTFOLIO
The summer before I submitted applications to Undergraduate architecture programs, I knew that I hadn’t really been one of the ‘artistic’ kids in High School. I loved sketching and drawing, but it wasn’t something I pursued in formal classes. Rather, they were usually just sketches in the corners of my notes from math, science, or history.
When it dawned on me that the doodles from calculus probably didn’t scream ‘future architect,’ I had a minor panic attack.
At the same time, I knew then that my best bet was to present my personality. I wasn’t going to have elaborate watercolor paintings, anatomy sketches, or sculptures to add to my portfolio. Instead, I experimented with my skills and ended up with pieces that represented my favorite things at the time – Star Wars, Video Games, Rock Music, Cartoons, and History. I know, quite the eclectic set of themes.
I didn’t worry about what wouldn’t be in my portfolio. Instead, I made sure that every piece spoke to something about me. Each was in a style that tested my abilities and even helped me get better. By the end of the summer, I not only had a fantastic portfolio (for a High School student), I had a portfolio that could only be mine.
In the early Fall, I was required to meet for interviews at some of the schools I was applying to. I distinctly remember walking one of the professors I met with through each piece. I didn’t hesitate. I could explain each with great detail because I had considered what they had meant to me and my reasoning for including them.
Shortly thereafter, I ended up going to that program for 5 years, in part, because I created something that proved I had a voice that was mine. I would bet it wasn’t the usual fair they were used to seeing. But then again, that might be why it was so successful.
TONE AND PERSONALITY WILL HELP YOU STAND OUT
Establishing the tone of your work begins with knowing who you are. Do you have certain design tastes? Is there a word or a phrase that can describe your personality succinctly?
If you’re worried that you can’t be yourself, think about your portfolio in more abstract terms for a moment. You should still maintain things like good grammar, spelling, and the absence of swearing, but your portfolio should speak to the type of person you are beyond just the work.
Treat your portfolio as an extension of yourself. In many cases, the person on the other end will not be able to meet you in person beforehand or begin to grasp the nuances that speak to who you are.
“The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live only as you can.”
You have the opportunity through design to explain to someone else what you’re all about, what is important to you, and why they should care.
Give them that reason to care.
You are you.
STEP 4 / RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH
FINDING PRECEDENTS THAT SPEAK TO YOU
After you’ve established what the portfolio is for, who it’s for, and what makes you unique, it’s time to search for precedents that speak to your intentions. I wouldn’t recommend researching prior to this step because it will confuse the message you’re trying to send to your audience.
WHERE TO FIND DESIGN PRECEDENTS
You may have noticed that it can be difficult to find exactly what you’re looking for. There’s a really good reason for that.
It actually doesn’t exist.
It doesn’t exist because you haven’t created it yet. Even so, you can look for precedents that mildly work with your intended tone and overall purpose. Here are a few places to search for precedents that could help you understand your options for your own portfolio.
A company of Adobe, Behance is a portfolio site that lists individual projects by creatives in everything from architecture to graphic design, animation, drawing, advertising, and more. If it’s a profession based primarily in creative work, you’ll be able to find it here. I would recommend this as a first place to start because it allows you to search by categories and can get you to very specific results quickly.
Issuu is an online publication service that is geared towards the open syndication of online magazines and similar formats. You can easily perform search for ‘architecture portfolios’ and come up with some immediate results.
Somewhere you may not have thought to look is LinkedIn. LinkedIn is a professional social networking platform that allows you to connect with other professionals inside and out of your profession. Its modular profile builder also allows you to incorporate your own portfolio directly into your profile.
If you’re looking to compare your own portfolio to someone else’s, you should consider researching your peers’ profiles to see if they’ve already uploaded their own. You could also look to professionals who are a bit more experienced for their portfolios as well.
Image Background via Metropolis / July-August 2016
Architecture Books / Magazines
As a designer, I’m fairly certain that you have accumulated a lot of architecture publications over the years (probably more than you’d care to admit). Dust off those books, those magazines you only flipped through once or twice because they were cool and really try to understand the big-picture composition styles and layouts. Some great examples that come to mind are Dwell, Architect, Architectural Record, and Metropolis. If you’re searching for books, often the ones that catalogue an architect or firm’s overall body of work will be filled with great examples as well.
College Career Services
When I was in my Undergrad, I had a fantastic, career services department at my disposal. Some physical copies of portfolios and thesis books were archived in the architecture department’s library. As a requirement in the program, all students were also able to create resumes and portfolios with the help of faculty. Resumes and sample pages were then compiled online for reference and for possible job interviews held at the school.
Reaching out to your alma mater and finding out what they might have as reference could be invaluable to your own process.
Your Peers / Colleagues
You could know a lot of people in your situation. Why not find out if they have a portfolio of their own that you could look at? You could even offer to show them yours once it’s been complete or even have that cup of coffee you’ve been meaning to with an old friend who could give you feedback.
WHAT YOU SHOULD BE LOOKING FOR
…SOMETHING THAT GOES ‘VRRROOOM!’
This may surprise you, but in many ways, you’ll actually be better off not looking for an ‘architecture’ precedent at all. I know, you might be a bit confused right now. Why would I give you a bunch of resources only to suggest not looking for architecture portfolios?
It comes down to something fairly simple. If you look too hard at what everyone else is doing, you could end up on someone else’s path. Remember, this is about your portfolio. You want every detail to feel like it’s your own.
Now, that doesn’t mean forget research altogether. Instead, take a look outside the industry. A professor I had in college used to love gathering car brochures from local dealerships and use them as inspiration for composition, tone, and layout. I always thought that was a clever way to look at precedents without overloading yourself.
Think about it for a second. Car manufacturers spend ungodly amounts of money every year, every quarter, every month to sell you their cars, their trucks, their SUV’s, their services. And I’m not talking about those cheesy-as-hell advertisements that you see on the highway or on your T.V. I’m thinking of the brochures and handouts they won’t let you leave without.
Their advertising agencies have graphic designers lining up to wow you. Let them. Take what you can from their brochures, their pamphlets, their postcards. Imagine that each car they want to sell you is another project from your archive. They can’t wait for you to test drive the latest dream on four wheels and you should feel the same way about the work you present when it appears in your own portfolio.
If you’re looking for more inspiration, try searching for these key terms:
- Editorial Design
- Brochure Design
- Pamphlet Design
- Portfolio Design (emphasizing non-architecture results)
STEP 5 / WHAT’S THE PLAN?
SET YOUR PORTFOLIO GOALS
So now that you’ve established what and who you’re portfolio is for, defined your intended tone, and begun to understand your options, you need to start laying out the goals you want for the final product.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU?
If you could put into words what this portfolio would mean for you, what would they be?
Assuming you’ve gotten this far, you probably have a strong reason to create the portfolio, but what do you want it to do for you specifically?
- Are you expecting it to tell your story without you being in the room
- Does it need to speak to a side of yourself that is difficult for you to convey?
- Should it explain ideas you’ve yet to realize in previous projects?
- Is it simply a record of what you’ve done?
- Is it more?
HOW LONG DO YOU HAVE TO MAKE IT?
Have you thought about the time it will actually take to create a portfolio? As Architects, we tend to assume a given amount of time it will take to perform a task. We’ve done things like this before and deem ourselves as the keepers of time. I don’t know why we assume that the time will be what it is, but somewhere along the line, most of us gave in to this mindset.
So, what will it take you to make one portfolio? It can’t be that long, right?
Well, ever since my last portfolio expedition, I’ve always thought up a reasonable number… then I doubled it. 30 hours you say? No, now it’s 60! Ha!
It’s difficult to say for sure. Unfortunately, it all depends upon three factors:
- When do you need it by?
- How good do you want the overall quality to be?
- How much content do you have to work with?
If you’ve planned ahead, then the first factor becomes fairly irrelevant. But I’d guess if you’re making a portfolio like most people, you only have a limited amount of time to work with here. Your quality may suffer, but you could still get the job done efficiently.
If you have a lot of content to work with, the time it will take you to construct a decent portfolio will go down. If you’ve only got a single project to work with, but it’s well-realized, you could still be okay.
If you have no time, no work to speak of, and you don’t care about the quality, you may want to re-evaluate. Otherwise, everything is probably manageable.
If you still feel the need to assign a value to it, I would recommend at minimum assuming 30 hours (aka 60 hours) from start to finish for a decent portfolio that is digitally based. You need to assume time for brainstorming, research, layout, copywriting, publishing, as well as time that will inevitably go to nothing more than that good ol’ time sink, loss of focus.
Plan out your intended schedule ahead of time and block out specific periods of time (2-3 hours minimum) that you can completely dedicate yourself to the task at hand. If you need it immediately, the final result may not be quite what you dreamed of, but listing out your actual time will at the very least help you deal with the looming deadline.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
FINDING YOUR PURPOSE
By now, you’ve gone through all of the initial steps you need to so that your portfolio’s foundation will be strong. If you consider each of the steps in the order they’ve been presented, each building upon the last, you have the tools at your disposal to succeed in the second phase of this process, the actual design and layout of your portfolio.
Finding the purpose in your portfolio should allow you to do great things moving forward. Without that crucial planning, your portfolio could still be interesting, but it won’t be yours.
I hope that you were able to not only determine a trajectory for your work, but also to learn a bit about yourself in the process.
Join me in the next phase where we’ll pick it up a notch and get you thinking about the framework of your portfolio, the structure it will need to stand out above all the rest.
NOW, LET’S GO AND BUILD THE REST OF YOUR EPIC PORTFOLIO!
Make sure you check out the other posts in this special three-part series that will take you through the process of how to successfully build your portfolio from the ground up.
“Definitive Guide to an Epic Architecture Portfolio”
Part I / Finding Your Purpose (this post)
A sincere thank you to Michael Riscica for allowing me the opportunity to write this guest series. Michael has been an inspiration to my career and my writing for the past couple years. I couldn’t think of a better way to repay his generous outpouring of content that has moved me, made me laugh, and helped me pass the ARE with his posts for all the fantastic Young Architects out there.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael LaValley, AIA, LEED AP
A native of Buffalo, NY, Mike is the registered architect, career strategist, and entrepreneur behind the blog, Evolving Architect. For the past few years, he has helped many creative professionals evolve their passion for architecture and design into successful, epic careers. His E-Newsletter, ‘Evolution Weekly’ provides actionable insight every Sunday to help you take your architecture career to the next level. You can learn more about Mike here and connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter.