Part II / Developing Your Content Strategy
This article is the second 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.
‘Developing Your Content Strategy,’ defines in detail the ways in which you can build the framework of your portfolio – including options for how to organize your content, how to determine its overall composition, and ways in which you can streamline your story through your portfolio.
If you remember from the first part in this series, we discussed the importance of defining your portfolio’s purpose. You can’t be successful without a thorough understanding of who your audience is, what they expect, and how to relate to them as yourself.
But, that’s only the beginning of your epic portfolio. You still need the rest of the framework to give it life and substance.
With a strong foundation to work from, you can move forward and strategize exactly how every component should come together to create something wonderful.
Here we’ll establish the overall look of your portfolio, choose the specific content you will use, and determine best practices for how to organize it all into a coherent package.
This is the fun part (not that the first section wasn’t fun). Rather, it’s the ‘meat and potatoes’ of how to build an epic portfolio. We’re going to discuss at length the content, layout, and graphic choices you should be aware of as you work towards a final product.
Here we go.
STEP 1 / GATHER ALL OF YOUR WORK
REACHING INTO THE ARCHIVES
Before you can actually start working on your portfolio strategy, you need to bring together everything you can from your past work. Remember that project you did four years ago? It might be good to see if you even have it still. Hopefully you’ve been more than diligent in your archiving so that locating it won’t be an issue at all.
I’ve learned the hard way a few times in my life that a good archive is one of the most difficult things to maintain, but also one of the most important. Aside from the knowledge you gain in the process of working through a design problem, the record of that process is the only thing you have to show for all of your work.
Especially when you’re still in school, it’s extremely easy to crash after the long push toward a final review. You forget to take photos and realize later that the model you poured over 60 hours into is sitting atop a huge landfill somewhere downstate. Not that I speak from experience or anything.
Don’t be that guy.
So, regardless of how organized you are, get what you have together digitally or otherwise. Then, sit down with a piece of paper and something to write with. Just start listing each project you have something to show for. Simple right?
Don’t worry too much about what you don’t have. This quick exercise is only meant to identify what you do.
As you go, try and keep these three ideas in the back of your mind:
- The completeness of the project
- The effort required to bring so-so projects up to par
- The project(s) that speak the most to who you are
Now that you’ve scoured through a backlog of past projects, you can begin the vetting process.
STEP 2 / DECIDE THE PORTFOLIO THEME
WHAT TYPES OF PROJECTS SHOULD I SHOW?
Ideally, you want to show the projects that speak the most to your intentions. If you’re trying to work for a high-end residential firm, you’ll want to show the best home designs you have. If you’re trying to get into a graduate program, you’ll want to show academic projects that reflect a level of investigation that will ‘wow’ reviewers.
In general, there are three primary types of projects that you can show in your portfolio:
1. The Star
This is the best, most complete project you’ve ever done. As you move through your career, this project will undoubtedly change with experience, but it will always represent the very peak of your overall skill-level and innovation.
2. The Support
This type of project varies and is meant as another look into the experience you’ve had as a designer. It could be a ‘good’ project that has the potential to be ‘great,’ but doesn’t quite meet the mark. It’s important to have a few of these in your archive to fill out the rest of your portfolio. With a little bit of help, you could even add some more diagrams, sketches, or even renderings to increase its importance.
3. The Surprise
This project is often the most revealing of a person’s identity because it tends to be something that relates partially to architecture and partially to some other kind of interest. An example of this could be a piece of furniture that you designed and fabricated, a book you designed as a side project, or work you did for a local community effort.
Note that these three types don’t necessarily imply a level of technical ability persay, but rather levels of importance to your career thus far.
STEP 3 / DETERMINE YOUR PORTFOLIO LENGTH
HOW MANY PROJECTS DO I NEED TO SHOW?
Like everything discussed to this point, planning how many projects you should show in your portfolio depends entirely upon the type of portfolio you’re creating and for whom.
While that may seem fairly obvious, you must use the best projects you have to convey your intent. If you only have one available, then use that single project to the fullest extent possible. It may be more than enough to do so and here’s why.
ONE PROJECT TO RULE THEM ALL
Now, in early 2015, I began looking for a new position. I had been at my then firm for about 7 years and needed a change of scenery.
A few years prior, I had been given the reigns to a shiny new project when the original project manger suddenly left for a job at another firm. I had been working on that project with him as a designer and then took over as project manager shortly after he departed. This shift was a turning point in my career.
Up until that point, I had been in the trenches, working with the design team and the client to develop a multi-million dollar renovation at a local college. When the chance was given to me to take over, I jumped at the opportunity.
Over the next several months, I helped develop the project into something fantastic. I was able to exponentially increase my experience level, while at the same time, contribute to both the design quality and success of the project overall.
This one project is a significant reason why I was able to soon receive offers from other firms in the community. It represented all of the management, design, and detailing skills I needed to succeed in a new position. I could talk about it at length and be proud of what I had accomplished. That kind of confidence, oozing out of every pore, really shows when you convey it to your audience.
In June 2015, I started at my now current firm, forever grateful for that single, epic project.
KNOWLEDGE OVER SEVERAL PROJECTS
Now, not everyone has that breakout project ‘to rule them all,’ but your portfolio as a whole should still strive to prove a similar level of confidence in your abilities (with a touch of humility, please). In many ways, the right number of projects depends entirely upon how many it takes you to convince your audience of your purpose. It could be one project. It could be several projects that tell the story from different points of view.
On average, you shouldn’t have more than five projects if you can help it because too many could cause your audience to lose focus.
Knowing exactly how many projects to show will depend upon three factors:
- How much content you have
- What you are trying to convey
- Your personal style
If you can say everything you need to in three projects, do it in three. If you feel that you need to show six because that last project will really help you stand out, consider it, but don’t force projects into your portfolio.
Just because you have lots of stuff, that doesn’t mean you need to (or even should) show it all. At some point, adding projects for the sake of adding them can come across as vain and self-serving. Your goal should be to send a clear, confident message that doesn’t make your audience feel uncomfortable.
STEP 4 / DEVELOP AN OVERALL HIERARCHY
WHAT ORDER DO I USE FOR MY PROJECTS?
You have to tell the story of who you are through your portfolio. How you accomplish that is entirely up to you.
Think of how story structure from your favorite books, movies, and T.V. shows. How do they pull it off? They pull you into and through the story, guiding your attention until the credits roll.
There is almost always a three act structure to this kind o story-telling: a beginning, a middle, an end.
It’s your job to captivate your audience from the first moments they experience your work. You will guide them through other explorations and then leave them with both a sense of who you are and why they should care.
When you hand off your portfolio to someone else, how does it read?
- Is it in chronological order?
- Is there a clear link between projects based on typology, level of completion, or some other factor?
- What is the balance between your work?
- Does your work build up toward the last project?
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE STAR PROJECT
Regardless if you have one or several projects, there will be at least one that stands out above the rest. In almost every scenario, this should be the project that you lead with.
It’s simple. You want to ‘wow’ your audience right out of the gate. Whether you’re presenting your work in front of them or they are reviewing it separately, your portfolio has to grab their attention immediately in order to prevent your work from seeming stale or the same as everyone else’s.
If you think about it, your audience is most likely looking at other portfolios than just yours (I know, I’m sorry, but it’s true). Do you want to present just another portfolio to them? Or do you want to impress them to the point where you’re their only, possible choice?
Don’t worry if some of your other projects are a bit less developed. The first impression you leave with your audience is key to the success of your overall portfolio. You can use the ‘support’ projects to fill out the rest of your portfolio or add a ‘surprise’ project to supplement and reinforce that initial success.
STEP 5 / DEVELOP AN OVERALL LOOK TO YOUR COMPOSITION
HOW SHOULD I FORMAT MY PAGES?
To start, there are really only a handful fundamental shapes that your portfolio can be if it’s to relate at all to known standards. Square and rectangular. Not oval, not triangular (haha, rhyme time). You may think I’m crazy when I say that, but believe me, those oddities do exist.
RECTANGLES ARE THE NORM
If you’ve created portfolios before, or at least seen a few, you’ll know that rectangles provide the basic form for most portfolios. This is due in part to the standardization of paper. In the U.S., the big two are ‘Letter’ (8.5″x11″) and ‘Tabloid’ (11″x17″) Other paper sizes vary, but are similar to these. Prior to recent advancements in printing efficiency and costs, using standard sizes of paper for your portfolio allowed you to quickly modify and reproduce your portfolio with relative ease.
Rectangular formatting can be oriented vertically or horizontally, although the overall spread (or sets of pages when opened) will naturally create horizontal compositions anyway. Even so, vertical formatting should be used sparingly and, in most cases, only when your portfolio requires you to emphasize tall drawings throughout. Even then, I’d recommend not using a vertical layout.
When you consider what most of your work looks like, it probably either has a square or horizontal aspect to itself already. You should take advantage of that and use the overall portfolio shape to emphasize the proportions of the work.
BUT IT’S HIP TO BE SQUARE
This format sounds just like you’d imagine. It’s a perfect square that allows you to frame your work in an aspect ratio that is clean, easy to understand, and somewhat different from a standard 8.5”x11”.
I personally love this style because it’s not as common, but still a shape that everyone can relate to. It’s simple when unopened, but becomes a larger rectangle when opened.
The only time you ever have to see the ‘squareness’ is when the portfolio is closed. Since that’s most likely when you’ll be making a first impression, it could be worth it to consider this format as an option. If done well, the square format could set your work apart immediately in a good way.
This format, however, requires you to almost definitely have the portfolio printed. Having tried myself to print this format, trim it down from larger paper, and then assemble it, I would highly recommend leaving the production to someone with experience and equipment. It takes forever without the right tools and that time can be better spent elsewhere.
The only reason you may want to stay away from this entirely is because of production time. If you need to have something printed and bound somewhere else, you’ll be at the mercy of the printer and possibly the mail service that gets it back to you. Even then, it’s within reason to expect that you may have made a mistake or two. In that case you’d probably want to reprint.
It can take some time, but it can really be worth the added polish that having it printed will bring.
SELECT A PAGE SIZE
When it comes to actually selecting a real page size, I think about the above factors and then list my options based on actual dimensions I’ve found elsewhere.
Without getting ahead of myself (specific publication options to be reviewed in part three of this series), here are some basic options you’ll have to choose from when considering your page size (from lulu.com).
8.5″ x 11″
11″ x 17″
9″ x 7″
7.5″ x 7.5″
8.5″ x 8.5″
8.26″ x 11.69″
STEP 6 / SOLIDIFY YOUR OVERALL PLAN BEFORE YOU PRODUCE IT
THE IMPORTANCE OF STORYBOARDING
Simply put, if you’re not storyboarding, you’re wasting time. Storyboarding is the process by which you sketch out your idea in a diagrammed state, articulating the overall organization, composition, and information you intend to include.
Storyboarding will give you the ability to see your portfolio design from 10,000 feet up rather than just 10. You can spot the holes in your logic and begin to mend them before you’ve even put your portfolio into the computer.
Think of this process in the same way you would for any other design project at studio or the office. You need to work through the big picture items before you start drafting. If you simply went straight into drawing lines, adding walls, and composing final layouts in a project, you’d miss the fact that half of your program doesn’t really fit, that you need to consider building codes, and that you’re designing for the wrong climate conditions.
On the other hand, if you take the time to sketch out your ideas first, you can understand everything in general terms, establish conceptual parameters for yourself, and then work within those parameters once you transition to digital drafting.
The same goes for portfolios. If you compose directly in the computer first, you’ll only be thinking in terms of geometry (lines, rectangles, and squares). You want to lead the design of the portfolio, not be lead astray by it.
STEP 7 / UNDERSTAND THE IMPORTANCE OF COMPOSITION RULES
THINKING IN SPREADS, NOT PAGES
Possibly one of the most difficult things to consider for someone who hasn’t created a portfolio before is that you’re not designing each page individually, you’re designing ‘spreads.’ Spreads are basically the full layout when your portfolio is open and you can see both pages at the same time.
If you were to design your portfolio a page at a time, you’d be doing yourself a disservice. You can use the spreads to your advantage and create interesting compositions that draw your eye naturally across the pages rather than restrict your view to one page at a time.
Your audience won’t go out of their way to tell you an approach is successful, but you can bet they’ll let you know when it’s not. Let’s avoid that altogether and think in spreads instead.
THE RULE OF THIRDS
In the world of photography, the rule of thirds is a simple composition framework for organizing the subject of a given shot. All you need to do is divide an image into either three parts or a nine-square grid. After you’ve set up this frame, you can either allow your layout to run up against these guides or pass by them.
The key here is a consistency throughout your portfolio. You can begin to analyze the possible patterns within your storyboarding efforts and choose the templates that make sense for your content.
Start by drawing your pages side by side, and then split them into three areas. Diagram a series of zones that you’re comfortable with for your text. Once you have a few ideas for your text, add another layer for your images. It’s about building the layers over and adjacent to one another in very particular ways.
I personally draw all of my images as rectangles with an “X” through them and the text as a series of horizontal lines. You could also generically draw them as different colored blocks, but I find that the first method allows you to imagine a much better product in the end.
THE IMPORTANCE OF WHITE SPACE
As you’re working through your overall design, you might begin to get a bit ‘text crazy’ or ‘image happy.’ There’s no shame in it. You should absolutely be proud of your work, but maybe you could go about it a little differently than flooding every square inch of the spread with information.
In editorial design, white space can be just as, if not more important, than the text and images themselves. White space can create moments for your eye to rest and slowly pass between other objects in the composition. White space can also objectify your work and showcase your ability to organize information clearly.
At the end of the day, your portfolio has to be straight-forward and legible. You could have one of the most interesting projects ever, but if you cram all of the information you have into a single spread, you’ll likely do more harm than good to the impression you’re leaving with your audience.
THE IMPORTANCE OF FONT CHOICE
Just like white space, actually choosing fonts for your portfolio is a very important decision to make. There are two types of fonts: ‘serif’ and ‘sans serif’ fonts.
Serifs are basically the little articulations you’ll see at the ends of letters in fonts like ‘Times New Roman.’ They are more traditional and can be found often in physical printings like magazines and newspapers.
Sans serif fonts are the modern sibling of serif fonts that basically don’t have those extra flourishes. Fonts such as ‘Arial’ are considered cleaner and easier to read on a screen.
While you can really choose to go with either type of fonts, you definitely should avoid the basic fonts that everyone has seen a million times before, especially the ones that can make your work feel dated. Whatever you do, do not, under any circumstance, use the following fonts:
Times New Roman
These fonts have been used to death and will downgrade your portfolio for the astute eye immediately.
Pairing two dissimilar font choices can be an interesting contrast to consider as well. Sans serif fonts and serif fonts tend to balance each other when used in consistent situations. For example, you could use a sans serif font for all of your headings and titles, but use a sans serif font for all of your normal text throughout.
Whatever you end up choosing to do, pick two (no more than three) and use them in the same ways. Consistency is critical. If you use a ‘Montserrat’ font as a heading, don’t just use a ‘Roboto Slab’ font for the same thing a page later.
Don’t overthink it. Most fonts, as long as they’re ‘professional’ fonts, can work to capture your audience’s interest.
If you’re still stuck, take a look at some of your favorite magazines and publications for inspiration. You don’t need to find the exact font they’re using, just something that emulates the style. Understand how they pair fonts to great effect.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
DEFINING YOUR CONTENT STRATEGY
Well, look at you go! You’ve identified why you’re creating a portfolio, who it’s for, and developed a strategy for how to lay out all of your projects.
Join me in the next phase where we’ll discuss all of the options you have for the final product you’ll end up with. We’ll also go over some typical issues that plague portfolio design, items of note that you’ll want to pay attention to as you work through your own.
NOW, LET’S GET THIS PORTFOLIO MADE!
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.
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.