Part III / Producing Your Epic Portfolio
This article is the third 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.
‘Producing Your Epic Portfolio,’ breaks down the strategies you can implement to finalize your epic portfolio – including how to determine the final medium for your work, how to use industry-standard software for the most successful workflows, and what details you can include in the production of your portfolio to truly make it yours.
You’ve identified what’s important to your portfolio, strategized its layout, and now you’re ready to publish the final product.
So, you’ve probably thought a bit about the medium you’d like to use. Perhaps it’s been decided for you by the requirements you’re trying to meet, imposed by your intended audience. Or maybe you have a good sense of how you want the presentation to flow.
We’ll discuss the options you have, considerations you should make for each, and common problems tha plague even the most epic of portfolios.
CHOOSING THE PERFECT MEDIUM
PHYSICAL OR DIGITAL?
Before we get into more detail, you have to make a choice – physical or digital? As you’ll come to find out, there are many variations of these two options, but there are certain paths that definitely make sense to trek over others.
FIRST PRIORITY TO PHYSICAL PUBLICATION
When you’re deciding what format to use for your portfolio, the first thing I do is determine the physical page that I’ll end up printing to. That size will be dictated heavily by how I plan to print, what service I may use to do so, and my overall goals for the portfolio’s ‘look.’
The images you have to work with are what they are for the most part, but the layout is something you have significant control over in the design of your portfolio.
As briefly discussed previously in the second part to this series, here are some basic options you’ll have to choose from when considering your page size (from Lulu).
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″
Although it’s a decision that will affect the majority of your layout moving forward, don’t take too long to pick one of the page sizes. You can make almost anything work. The important decision is the one that actually gets made so you can move forward.
If you still can’t decide, put each of your options in front of you (at real size) so that you can physically see the differences. If you don’t have that size paper, just cut it from something that’s larger. Having the true pages in front of you to pick from will make selecting a size far easier.
SECOND PRIORITY TO DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION
Like I mentioned earlier, the graphics you have are what they are. You can make the digital version of your portfolio work with whatever online publication you need to. Whether it’s a pdf that you send to someone or a digital version that lives on a service like Issuu or LinkedIn, the digital copy of your portfolio should be just that.
Remember, if your portfolio is well composed and edited to work with a physical copy, it will be fine digitally as well.
Physical copies don’t have zoom functionality (as cool as that would be). They are meant to be viewed by people, under real-world constraints. Digital, when made at a high enough resolution and quality, can be pulled, stretched and altered in more than one way from a single file.
Treating the digital copy as though it is physical will help you identify overarching issues with scale.
REFINING YOUR FORMAT OPTIONS
FORMAT 1 / ‘OLD SCHOOL’ PORTFOLIO
My first portfolio was a fragile thing. It was basically a fancy version of a plastic binder with acetate sleeves. I didn’t really know what I was making and just went with the first product I found. Tisk, tisk, tisk, says present me.
While there are better versions of this physical portfolio for sure, they all function in the same, basic way. There’s an outer cover, usually some kind of material deemed to be ‘professional.’ Inside, there are either a fixed number of sleeves or sleeves that can be removed as desired. The pieces you present must then be inserted into these sleeves.
This presents a few pros and cons. The simplicity of this format does allow you to focus primarily on the pieces first and foremost. However, it doesn’t allow you to present your abilities as a designer when the format is fixed. A physical portfolio like this is more often found in art disciplines where it’s impractical to bring all of your pieces with you (sculpture, painting, etc.).
If you’re pressed for time or don’t want to focus on the overall presentation too much, this might be the right format for you. You can typically find this type of portfolio in 8.5″x11″ and 11″x17″ sizes at local arts and crafts stores.
FORMAT 2 / ‘NEW SCHOOL’ PORTFOLIO
The latest portfolio I’ve made for myself (and the one that is gaining the most momentum in the last few years) is the self-published printing option. On websites like Lulu, Blurb, and Createspace, you can basically upload final versions of your digital portfolio, wait a few days, and “voila!,” a brand, new portfolio!
This has the most potential in some ways because once you have the initial setup done, you can mass produce copies of your portfolio for several job prospects, your friends, your family, your neighbor, yourself, and anyone else you feel should have a copy.
The downside is that this requires you to plan ahead from the beginning how to get here. The upside is that the planning you’ll do to make this a reality could actually help you make quick decisions about overall size, layout, and composition that you might otherwise agonize over.
Remember that as long as you carry through with your decisions to completion, you can make almost any size work. Pick something and just keep moving
If you’ve been following along so far, you should naturally end up with a digital copy of the portfolio that you’ve created. Rather than just emailing it to every one of your potential audience members individually, you can also begin to integrate it with other channels.
Have you been waiting to update that LinkedIn page lately? Why not add a copy of your portfolio so that you open up the potential for inquiries. Add it to your Facebook, Twitter, and other online profiles for people to view when they want to. You can extend the reach of who sees your portfolio with fairly minimal effort.
If you really want to ‘wow’ someone, create an entire website dedicated to your personal brand and portfolio. This is absolutely not to be taken lightly, nor is it something that I would suggest unless you feel comfortable with it (and have a bunch of time to kill).
But if you can make this work, it could be a fantastic way to showcase your design abilities beyond architecture and reveal another side of your personality.
Websites can be interactive and playful.
Do you have videos, audio files, or other formats that just don’t work with printed media? A website may be the perfect place for you to display that type of work.
This is the most advanced kind of portfolio that you can create. Please don’t take the endeavor lightly. If you’ve never written a piece of code in your life, but you really want a website, I’d recommend using a service like Squarespace, Wix, or Carbonmade. Each of these services has its own quirks, but will be able to get you off the ground with minimal effort compared to learning HTML (aka internet coding) over a few months.
I know you’re probably gifted, but don’t get ahead of yourself. One task at a time. You don’t need to do this as your first portfolio. After you’ve created the primary design, you could re-purpose everything for a website after.
So, you may have thought your portfolio was all you could make to set you apart, didn’t you? Well, if you’re looking to take your audience’s experience up a notch, there are additional items that you can create that can showcase your brand and supplement your portfolio.
Since you’ve already created the overall format for the portfolio, including graphic look, font types, etc., just repurpose those qualities and consider making one of the following:
A mini-portfolio is a simpler version of your primary portfolio that you can send as a teaser to your meeting or use as a leave-behind after you’ve met. This isn’t necessarily the portfolio itself, but a nice representation of it, boiled down to either a single project or theme. This could be an easy way to save costs by printing several of these mini-versions of your full portfolio, while still captivating your audience.
2. Thank You Postcard
After an important meeting or interview, it is absolutely essential to say ‘thank you.’ A postcard that’s been designed by you personally and was physically mailed to who you met with can really leave a great impression. Think of your most captivating image from your entire portfolio and just slap it onto a piece of cardstock. Write a personal message on the back, add a stamp, and mail it out. Done and done.
3. Business Card
As you began developing your portfolio, did you use consistent branding graphics, colors, fonts, etc. throughout? If the answer is ‘yes,’ you might just have the right assets to create a business card that adds another detail of care to your presentation. A business card is not only practical and easy to keep track of, it can provide yet another vehicle to showcase your design ability.
Printing your name and return address directly onto your envelopes can also add another level of quality. It’s also probably one of the extras on this list that people will expect the least. Surprise can be a good thing here. Make it clean and simple.
One word of caution here – craft. Do NOT attempt to make any of the above if you cannot take the time to make your craft exceptional with each. It will end up hurting you in the long run if you just create a bunch of stuff without putting real thought behind them.
And don’t feel like you need to do ALL of these. They’re just suggestions to support your portfolio. In the end, who you are, what you’ve experienced, and what you’ve accomplished will weigh more in the minds of your audience. These are simply ways to accentuate how awesome you really are.
Unless you’re printing single-sided, you must absolutely print on a heavier stock than say your average computer paper. A heavier paper (40lbs) will feel better in your hands, likely have a brighter white to it, and allow you to print on both sides.
If you’re printing single-sided and using a physical binder with sleeves, you could use a cardstock (90lbs+). The thickness of the paper will give the portfolio some much needed rigidity in the sleeves.
GLOSS / SEMI-GLOSS / MATTE
When you have a choice of sheen, almost always go for the matte finish. A gloss and semi-gloss will both create a level of glare that doesn’t blend well with an architecture portfolio.
Gloss tends to work better with photography and art, especially when there is only a single image printed. Because you’re likely formatting entire spreads to include multiple variables (color bars, text, images, etc.), matte will be a much better fit overall.
COLOR / BLACK AND WHITE
Unless you’re going for some kind of specialized look, this should be a no-brainer. Color. Color. Color.
Your renderings will be crisper, the overall print quality will be better, and the colors you use to create a sense of branding can begin to tell your story all on their own. The price to print will be higher of course, but we’re only talking a few dollars per print for most runs of small to medium-sized portfolios.
Depending on what service you use or don’t, your options could be completely varied. Here’s a list of the most common binding types as well as their pros and cons (from worst to best in my opinion).
1. Plastic Comb
This binding is the least desirable for a portfolio because it screams ‘boring office report.’ While I’m actually a fan of this binding for just that type of document, a personal portfolio should not use one under any circumstance. It’s just downright unprofessional. You can do better.
– Easy to cut (if necessary)
– It comes in many sizes
– It looks cheap
– It’s meant for business reports
– Fancy machine required
– Almost anything else looks better (other than a binder clip)
2. Plastic Coil
This binding is slightly better just because it’s better made than the plastic comb and looks like you cared a bit more. Beyond that, it still looks like it should be binding a business report more than a portfolio. Depending upon the thickness of the coil, it can also be rather bulky. You can still do better.
– Cut to size
– It looks cheap
– Fancy machine required
3. Saddle Stitch
This binding is a step in the right direction. If you’re in a bind (haha, puns) and need to turn around a portfolio quickly, using saddle stitch could be a great way to help your portfolio stand out. The simplest version of this technique relies upon you having a small amount of spreads that you fold in half and then staple along the creased edge between the pages. Depending on how big your portfolio is, you may only need two staples or you could require more.
– It’s super easy to do
– No fancy machine required
– This only works with small amounts of spreads (because of the staples)
– You have to plan out your staples first
Classy. Metal wire binding is one of my favorite types because it almost always looks amazing. You don’t have to do much other than find someone who can actually bind it this way. Your best bet is to find a local printer who does binding for a small fee.
– It looks amazing
– Relatively cost effective
– Not all printers support this type of binding
Extra Classy. In my opinion, this is the best type of binding because it establishes your portfolio as a ‘real’ publication. This is the kind of binding you’ll find on magazines and books. While it does require some additional effort to set up, it’s probably the most professional-looking overall.
– It looks freaking amazing
– Clean edges
– Format people are used to (books, magazines)
– Additional steps in formatting required
– Most expensive of the options in many cases
COMMON PORTFOLIO PROBLEMS
If you walk away from this series having learned only one thing, I hope that you realize consistency is the most important theme to carry through all of your portfolio. It’s the feature that will be seamless if you do it right and blatantly obvious if you don’t. Inconsistency will begin to work against you as your audience starts to fixate on the oddities of your formatting over the content of your work.
2. NO ‘STORY’
Your portfolio is a document meant to showcase who you are and what you’re about. If you present a run-of-the-mill portfolio to an institution or potential employer, it will become just another layer of the stack they’ve accumulated. Use your portfolio to tell your story, not just any story.
3. POOR CRAFT
Regardless of the formatting choices you make, please make sure that you’re doing everything to the best of your ability. Did you tear a page? Print it again. Did you drop your portfolio in a puddle and try to wipe it off. Print it again. Poor craft speaks volumes about the care you give to what you do. Craft also speaks to spelling and grammar.
4. TOO MANY IMAGES
Everyone loves a great set of graphics, but it’s also helpful to describe those from time to time as well. Depending on who your audience is, you may need more or less text to describe your process. You need to find the balance that works for you and your situation. The wrong answer though is to just haphazardly throw together a bunch of great imagery with no explanation whatsoever.
5. NO WHITE SPACE
It’s not all about the text and images. You need to think about white space and the negative zones of your pages as a third component of your overall layout. The content you display to others has to have space to breathe. Let it. If you don’t, the composition you’re creating will actually begin to feel overbearing and suffocating.
6. NO HIERARCHY
Hierarchy can provide a dynamism to your layouts that guides your audience’s attention to flow from one piece to the next. If everything is given equal weight or is not purposefully organized, your portfolio can seem either too boring or too messy.
7. POOR FONT CHOICE
Now, Comic Sans may be your favorite font ever, but it’s not appropriate for an architecture portfolio. Stick to clean, legible font styles. Sans-serif or serif, you can do a lot with the right font without relying upon something with too many quirks.
8. UNNECESSARY FLOURISHES AND GRAPHICS
It may be difficult for you to help yourself from adding some stamps, graphics, glyphs, and other unnecessary designs to your portfolio to ‘fill it out.’ Your layouts need to have personality, but be careful not to add things that just don’t belong. Less really is more.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
PRODUCING YOUR EPIC PORTFOLIO
Hey, look at you! If you’ve followed along to this point, I bet you have a lot of ideas of how to create the portfolio that speaks exactly to who you are, what your intentions are, and what your experiences have been.
Now you need to get to work.
I hope that this overview has been insightful and will help you establish one hell of a portfolio.
GOOD LUCK TO YOU ON YOUR JOURNEY!
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.