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Design portfolios

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For many creative and design-based subjects, a portfolio of work will be required as part of the job application process. 

The purpose of this is to provide direct evidence of the candidate’s design abilities by presenting examples of their work. A strong portfolio can be critical in helping you secure an interview and land a job offer.

Because a portfolio is an expression of your personal design approach, every one will be different and there is no set or standard approach to how a portfolio should be presented or what it should look like.

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What are the different types of portfolios?

There are different types of portfolio which might be used for different purposes. It is important to consider the purpose for which you are using your portfolio and select the right format for the purpose.

  • Academic portfolios – these will be used to present your work as part of the academic assessment process (or the application process for some design courses). Generally these will provide a comprehensive level of detail and will designed to meet academic assessment / entry criteria. Therefore the content and format may not always be suitable to present to an employer to concisely demonstrate relevant professional design skills.
  • Professional portfolios – these are targeted employer (or client) facing portfolios that present a selection of design work and projects showing a broad range of design skills. They may be presented in digital and / or hard copy and will usually be looked at and discussed in detail during the interview process.
  • Online portfolios – these are web-based versions of a design portfolio, usually presented as part of a personal website or a portfolio-sharing website. The purpose of these is to allow your design work to be shared and viewed easily and widely and to raise your professional online profile.
  • ‘Mini-portfolios’ or examples of work – these will be used when making initial or speculative applications and will be more concise than a full professional portfolio. The purpose of these is to give a brief ‘taster’ of your design work by presenting key images / projects to accompany your application. The objective here is to secure an interview where you can share and discuss a more detailed professional portfolio.
 

What do I need to think about when putting my portfolio together?

  • Show your own work – this probably goes without saying, but make sure the images presented in your portfolio are your own work, or if they are part of a group project, clearly indicate what your contribution was to the design or task.
  • Show a range of design skills – employers will generally want to see evidence that you can turn your hand to a range of different design techniques, so make sure you include images which demonstrate this breadth, for example, visualisations, technical CAD drawings, sketches and photos of models. It can also help you stand out to include some examples of creative art or design work you may have done that is outside of your specific discipline.
  • Show your design thinking – how you choose to present and structure your portfolio will say a lot about your approach to design, so think about how you can best communicate your ideas and work in an effective way. Sometimes less is more. 

    Also consider how your images can help ‘tell the story’ of your design process. Employers like to be able to see how your designs have evolved and developed, and a clear visual structure can also support discussion of your work in an interview. Although you may think your images speak for themselves, it can also be helpful to include some brief text giving context to the images presented.
  • Think about ‘personal branding’ – A portfolio isn’t just a collection of images, it’s also your personal advertising brochure! Think about how companies brand and market themselves in a consistent manner – can you replicate elements of this as you ‘market’ yourself and your skills to employers?

    Consider the overall look and consistency in terms of things like font and layout throughout the document or website. Some people choose to create a personal ‘logo’ or use other design elements, which are used consistently across different platforms, for example, portfolio, website, CV or cover letter.
 

What do employers advise?

First and foremost, this is a design industry, so there is no reason for you to send out a plain looking portfolio. It should reflect your quality of work and represent who you are and what you’re passionate about. Even the greatest work can be let down by something that is poorly laid out and has no design brilliance. Be concise and informative, and sell yourself with a CV and portfolio that have some design coherency.

A PDF is usually the best format for showcasing your work, but you shouldn’t just leave it at an email. Chase up your application with a phone call and make yourself known to the company. Your application should also be an ego boost for the practice; tell them exactly what makes you want to work for them, and what makes them a standout in the industry. Generic answers and blanket statements won’t help you here.

 

Izzy Rhodes, Swain Architecture

Read Izzy's blog post - Getting experience in architecture

Don’t forget to get advice and feedback on your portfolio from academic tutors, careers advisers and any professional connections you might have within your industry.

 

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