Architectural Portfolio’s and Their True Purpose

Bob Borson —  May 6, 2013 — 46 Comments

At one point or another, every architecture student or graduate has a portfolio of their work that they have agonized over creating. I had one – maintained it for several years too – it was the tool I used to land my first AND second jobs. I was convinced for years of the importance of my portfolio – it represented me and my unquestionable “genius.”

Architectural Portfolio - Bob Borson

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As I have matured (re: gotten older) I have come to realize that  a young architects portfolio is not what they think it is and it won’t be evaluated in the way you think it will. I wrote a post in September 2010 titled “Design Studio: Top 10 Things You Should Know” and for today’s purposes, I want to highlight the #4 item on that list:

4. Your portfolio has a 3 year lifespan (max)

Yes, your portfolio is important and you will use it at various points during school and your early career to leverage it into something you want. Just realize that at some point in the early future, you will be embarrassed that you thought your work was so great when it clearly sucks. Your portfolio will find a home in some closet with other items of diminishing importance because you will discover that the purpose your portfolio serves isn’t what you thought it was. It isn’t to show off some awesome creative project you designed, it’s about illustrating your proficiency in the various skills of the trade and demonstrating that you know how to think and process information. Think about it – unless you want to be the render guy, do you really want the only message your portfolio to send is how great you can render? Because guess what? You’ll be the “render guy” when you finally land a job if that’s the message you put into your portfolio.

 Most people who read this list understood what the message was – although some people got their feathers ruffled because they either are the render guy or want to be the render guy (good for them, not the point of the message). The idea of what a portfolio is was the point, the message you want to convey, the skill sets you want to highlight … create the portfolio that moves the conversation where you want it to go. If you want to be the render guy, put a lot of renderings in your portfolio. If you don’t want to be the render guy, don’t put a bunch of renderings in your portfolio. Easy.

The key to having a successful portfolio is to think about how it will be viewed, what messages you are sending based on the content you are providing, and to consider how much time someone will actually be looking at your portfolio. I can promise you it won’t even be a fraction of what you think it will be. The work you spent weeks or even months agonizing over and trying to skillfully articulate in the forms of diagrams, plans, perspectives, collages, etc. etc… won’t be looked at for more than a few moments when it crosses my desk. I’m looking for the tone, trying to see how you brain works, how you process information, how you articulate information – not the specifics of the content itself.

If you are coming out of school and all you have in your portfolio is school projects, you should reconsider how your portfolio is organized. As I look through your portfolio, I don’t know how much of the work you are presenting is of your own creation, how much came from others, what sort of hand in all of this did your professors play? The portfolios we see that resonate the best with us are the ones that pay attention to some non-studio work, or design interests. Do you like photography? Showing some of this sort of work tells me something about how you see things. Maybe you have some other sort of hobby – we had someone submit a portfolio not too long ago that had highlighted the process she went through as she restored a classic car. Nobody in my office knows anything about restoring cars but we ALL took notice of this and we walked away thinking about the dedication it takes to restore a car; the attention to detail, the research that went into solving a problem where you can’t just go down to the local store and buy the part you need. We ALL remembered that portfolio.

So as you are putting your portfolio together, think about the message you are trying to convey – what do you want to person looking at your work to know about YOU and spend less time focusing on what they think about your “Terraforming Lifestyle Pod on the Dark Side of the Moon Habitat Research Station” project.

Best of luck -

Bob signature

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  • Young

    Bob, thank you for this very encouraging post.

    The last time I put a portfolio together was when I was just out of graduate school, over 5 years ago. All the portfolio examples I am finding on the internet are either shiny student portfolios or sparkling professional architect portfolios. I’m trying to determine what is appropriate to show on a portfolio where I was neither the lead designer, but much more than a draftsman for the projects I worked on. Any advice on the following questions would be greatly appreciated.

    1. How do you present work that was completed as part of a team? Beyond clearly stating the firm where the work was performed, are there any other conventions I should be aware of. Do I list other team members, project managers, etc?

    2. Is it ok to show renderings and drawings that I did not personally produce, in order to tell the overall story of the project? Do I credit the firm or the specific authors?

    2. I worked at a 30 person firm with no job titles and my role evolved with the course of the projects. I performed drafting, modeling, renderings, my first few years. Beyond that, I was soon given project management responsibilities including consultant coordination and client / drawing reviews. My last two years were strictly CA on a large $65 million dollar multi-prime project as part of a 5 person team. I’m kind of at a loss on how to communicate CA experience in a portfolio. Any advice or examples you can steer me towards?

    Thanks again.

  • Hana

    Thank you very much for your input, it really helps me a lot. I’ve recently quit my job of 3 years and having been scanning the net for the ‘standard’ portfolio and seeing all their uber chic renderings with their really long project titles, I’ve come to realize (thanks to you) that Yes, I still have a shot at this. Yey! Thanks Bob, really appreciate this. keep it up! :)

  • Varin

    Thank you for the post. I have just found your blog and it’s fun to read and these advices make me feel better about my job application. I totally agree that the portfolio should really be about the owner as a creative person.

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  • NaFlah

    Hello, I have a question about what types of things to add to a portfolio with about a year or so of work experience outside of graduate school, and whether its OK to show projects when the design has not been released at all. I currently have my thesis work and later grad school work in my portfolio, along with some work examples from my short professional career. The main problem is that the project I have done the most work on (building models and conceptual and schematic design sets) none of the designs have been released and I signed a confidentiality agreement regarding the project. Would potential employers understand why I wouldn’t have any of that work to show for awhile? I’ve gotten a mix of answers from people ranging from who cares just show the work, to that I could be sued for showing it.

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  • arkinathon

    I don’t agree with some of the comments made in this post. For example, you need to show proficiency in renderings, drawings and all those mundane cad monkey skills, because face it, if your the new kid on the (cad) block, your potential employer aint looking to hire frank ghery, they are looking for someone who can become a door mat, and I think thats fine. We all started there, it is the model that has worked for the profession so far.
    ps- I am not the render guy.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      it’s okay that you don’t agree – the point of the entire post is that you should gear your portfolio towards the job you want. If ALL you have is renderings, you will be the render guy (again, that’s a great thin if that’s what you want.)

      As someone who reviews a great many portfolios, I can tell you that there are other skill sets I am looking for when I look through someone’s work. Mixing in other mediums (like photographs) can tell me about your how you see the existing things around you, not just how you visualize an end result.

      Variety is key.

  • Ahana

    hi i am currently an IB student and i have picked architecture as the choice of my major. A lot of universities said that i need to prepare a portfolio in order to get in.. However I do not have much experience in Art though I am very interested in learning art. I am not sure how i should prepare for my portfolio although i have many ideas but can’t put them on paper..

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      that problem is sort of the point in evaluating a student’s portfolio. Trying to figure how to express your ideas is integral to the process.

  • Ricardo A. Largaespada

    Hello, Bob:

    I am an architectural designer still searching for an internship for the last two years, which has been unsuccessful. I already have my Master’s degree and a complete portfolio. I was surprised that the lifespan of an actual portfolio is three years, something that I have not realized. Generally, my works are mostly school projects that have changed throughout my time in school.

    What do you recommend that I should do? I am struggling with this process, even in these tough economic times. I am planning to design a work sample portfolio of my projects that I have done.

    After reading this article, demonstrating my design skills should be a priority, even after graduation. But what else should take into consideration?

    I would be grateful if you can give me some advice. Thank you.

    Ricardo

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      When I said your portfolio has a three year life span, that was assuming that you are developing new work and would have grown beyond what you did in college. Since you haven’t been working, you need to find some other items that reflect what you might have been doing other the last few years, This could include drawings, sketches, photography, computer software skill development – etc.

      If you don’t have anything new to add, don’t add anything new. Just be prepare to answer the question: “So, what have you been doing the last few years?”

      Good luck

  • Helen Burnett

    Hi Bob

    I have just finished up my Masters and I am currently in the midst of the awful in between time, it also doesn’t help that I live in Northern Ireland where it seems to be even harder to get the foot through the door. So I have decided to go for a pocket book which can show off my skills to send out, to hopefully get to the stage of looking at my ‘portfolio’. Would you recommend a maximum page number for this? The aim is to be more of a flick book with images highlighting skills rather than pages of writing explaining where and why the work exists (working on the principle thats what the interview is for) Also, I was told once that including a photo of yourself is a good idea… in your opinion is that something that you would like to see? Or is it just cringeworthy?

    Any help you can give me would be great, thanks.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Interesting …
      I would keep the flick book to less than 20 pages, I’m not sure that people will really delve into the contents once you get much past 10 pages. As far as including a picture of yourself, the only reason I could see that being a benefit is if you are attractive to a point where it would be considered an asset. Since you would be an entry level person, I’m not sure that your future employers are considering how their clients will respond to your personal appearance. ON a much deeper level, I’m not sure that it should matter and working for a firm that would stress your appearance would be the right place for anybody to work.

      • Helen Burnett

        Very good point! Thanks again for your impute.

  • Angie

    Bob, I want to star a master in architecture, however I have a bachelors in business and one of the application requirements is a portfolio, would you give me some advice on how should I present it, architecture was a my dream at high school but life took me on another direction but now I quit my job in order to go back to what make me smile. But (here come the but) during these years I drift away from my artistic side so I don’t have much work to show, I’m just getting back to dust off my creative side.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Hi Angie,

      I’m the wrong person to answer this question. I graduated from college a long time ago and haven’t ever felt the need to keep up with what the current standard is for admissions or portfolio requirements. If I had to solve this problem for myself, I would target the school (or schools) that I wanted to attend and contact them directly and ask the question. They should be able to answer your question and it’s possible that there might be some sort of guidelines they’ve developed. Who knows, maybe there are even examples of portfolios they’ve received in the past that are the gold standard that they could let you see.

      Good luck!

  • Jeremy Davis

    Thanks for this post it was really insightful. I tried calling up different firms and asking architects in person about portfolios, and you have given the most concise answer yet. I will be graduating spring 2014 and now I have a little more confidence.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks Jeremy – and good luck!

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  • Joan

    So, so true. It’s useful at the beginning if your career, but not so much later when your résumé and samples of drawing sets you’ve worked on are more pertinent.
    Just a friendly note- it should be “Portfolios”, plural not possessive. And it should be “architect’s portfolio”, possessive not plural.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      yes on all accounts

      My wife pointed out that once again I have missed used an apostrophe – if it wasn’t in the title, I would have already changed it

  • http://twitter.com/UnderdogArchStu Ulysses V

    Hi Bob!

    Great post as always! And very helpful for a lot of us recent graduates (Much Thanks – I begin my full-time work tomm!) and interestingly it was my intent to publish an entry on portfolios for the Underdog Architecture Students Blog based on a portfolio review event I attended this past weekend. It’ll be up soon.

    Cheers.

  • julie

    This is so true, and so well articulated. Thanks for giving some inspiration for my next go round.

  • http://twitter.com/akdaoffice AKDA

    Hi Bob,

    Interesting post as always.
    Just wanted to ask where you took the photograph? The concrete in the background has a great buff colour to it (instagram?), especially like the little bit of exposed aggregate here and there. Are these the refurbished concrete floors in your house?

    Ak

  • off_piste

    Interesting points, thanks for the article.

    What I’ve noticed in my current job search is that many firms specifically request no web links to an online portfolio, rather they want work sample pdfs of less than 3 MB.

    I guess I view this as about 6-8 pages (3-4 projects), showcasing the best and widest variety of my work (more just skillsets – rendering, model-making, sketching, etc), while still attempting to describe each project (and leave plenty of white space).

    I’m sort of unsure of how this jibes with your post – when the first impression is so limited, I feel I have to only include architecture projects.

    Anyway, I’d love to know what you think.

  • Mark Mc Swain

    Ah, yes, the portfolio.
    In school all the faculaty sagely nodded and averred that every graduate had to have one.
    And, I did, it got me into grad school, and my second job (first was in CAD, and having used _any_ CAD in 1984 was enough /ipse dixit/).

    The portfolio seemed to fade away during the late ’80s; only to see an increase in “dead tree” Office portfolio for RFQ responses. As the ’90s came to a close, that became electronic as well–the papre coipes were really just a test to see what “skin” you’d put in the game.

    There was a facinating article 6 or 7 years ago on how IP creators’ portfoliio ought be their web page and their web pages their portfolio. Which is probably overstation the case in AEC a bit. However, an electronic “portfoilio” particularily multi-page PDF are very sensible. Expecially since flash drives are virtually sisposable at this point.

    The graphic arts community still insists on submitting portfolio with job applications. If you ask why, no one much knows, other than it’s always in the job advertisement. ( I’m pretty sure this is an ancient bit of legacy practice to limit the number of places a graphic artisr could apply to.)

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      What I would recommend is this:

      1. an online portfolio for the people you are contacting via email or outside of your immediate area

      2. A paper copy of your portfolio that you can use when sitting down at a table with someone (and when you leave, it comes with you)

      3. A digital copy of your portfolio as a leave behind. You could also have a leave-behind graphic “card” which could refer people back to your online portfolio – the later here would be my preference as the guy sitting across the table.

  • architectrunnerguy

    When I was in school, I did something completely different then anyone in my class (Va. Tech School of Architecture ’75). I didn’t have a “book”, I used a slide projector. Hey, this is 1975, no Powerpoint back then!
    I filled up a Kodak Carosel slide tray of 80 slides and made a big point (but not a spoken point) of flying through the 80 slides so it was almost like a movie. I just started off by saying “Tell me to slow down if I’m going too fast”. I remember timing it when practicing and getting down to about 4 minutes for the 80 slides with some slides like those showing the construction of a model only up for about a half second. Nothing’s worse then hearing someone explain everything in infinite detail.
    I brought a Kodak Carosel projector with me and even an extra bulb which actually came in handy once!! I could just envision me saying “Yes, I like to think I’m prepared!!” and them having the bulb blow!! So here I’m passing around 80 slides with everyone holding them up to the light!.
    I came totally prepared. I made a 18″X15″ “screen” of matt board with the vertical edges folded back 2″ for support. That size fit very well in my briefcase. It worked very well set back about 4′ on the normal desk or conference table and at that distance I didn’t have to worry about a dark room.
    It was very successful. Everybody seemed to like it. And one thing I didn’t consider is that it stood out after I had left. And I got to use it a lot because this was 1975, right smack dab in the middle of a big recession.
    I didn’t show any personal stuff and, but now that I’ve sat on the other side of the table for years, would have been well served to do so. But then it might have been “And here’s a slide of a black toenail I got from the July 4th 10k!! Would you like to see the original!!!.”…….. As I whip off my sock!!
    So it probably worked out for the best that I kept the slide show to a professional focus.
    Doug
    Doug

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      personal as in “show me your blackened toe” is probably too personal … but showing someone the moongate you built yourself would be perfect.

  • http://twitter.com/EdWhite89 EdWhite

    As someone who is putting together a portfolio right now for an upcoming interview….thanks! You make everything clear and easy to follow.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Glad it helped – good luck

  • http://twitter.com/mondo_tiki_man Jonathan Brown

    Nice post.

    On group projects – You can’t overemphasize the need to clearly call out what your role on a group project is. You might show an overall image, but have another page or section that is just your work. Otherwise we essentially throw out the work for consideration because we just don’t know if you were the spearhead leading the team or the anchor holding them back.

    On tailoring your portfolio – Definitely know your audience and have a goal for what you want out of a job. Our firm does a lot of urban residential, and if a prospect has that in their portfolio, it definitely makes them stand out from the crowd. A portfolio that can be easily modified (rearrange sheets, etc) and be customized for each firm you interview with is a really good idea.

    On unique items – In one of my studio classes we’d taken the

    Myers-Briggs personality test, and then been assigned to design a house for a person of a completely diametric disposition. I included my personality profile in my portfolio. I figured, they might as well know what they are getting. Anything like this is fun, and creates a reason to interact and get to know you better.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      rearranging pages is a pretty easy process, particularly if you want to highlight something specific (or least give it added weight). Having the good stuff up front and the boilerplate stuff in the back would allow someone to come up with a standard content portfolio that could be customized as needed.

      Good points

  • Arch Student

    Good to keep in mind for those of us just beginning at University.

  • http://janrobin.de/ Jan Robin

    Very helpful, thanks :) May I ask for an opinion though?

    I had to make a portfolio in third semester and have to do another one now again. Back then I designed it as a comic book, basically telling my “story” and embedding both my studio and non-studio work. I am now thinking about if I should hang on to the concept of a comic or abandon it and if I hang on to it, to which degree I should keep it a comic book vs. how much space I should spend on presenting my studio/non-studio work. I tend to the strict comic – ’cause it’s more fun, but it’s also more work…
    So, my question would be if such a portfolio would – like the car restoration portfolio – catch your eye and if you could/would take the time to read it more closely?

    I know, this is rather long, so don’t worryif it’s too long to answer, but if you had an opinion, I’d be thankful for it :)

    Cheers,
    Robin

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      it would probably catch me eye. Architects receive all sorts of creative license when it comes to designing their resume (and by extension their portfolios) and how you present this information simply adds another layer of information in addition to the data provided by the content.

    • http://twitter.com/mondo_tiki_man Jonathan Brown

      I agree with Bob. It would need to be a vehicle to help communicate the information, and not hinder it.

  • Lipi

    I started studying architecture in 1998, and my studies tok place about every second year (some personal stuff, some money issues). With a few exams left I started working in a studio, and since the work was so much more fun, I never finished school. Now that I moved to a different country I intend to finally finish what I started and have applied to an architectural school at a university here in Sweden.

    And of course I had to hand in a portfolio of my previous school projects. Although I was always aware that my projects back then were not the best of the best, OMG how embarrassed I was looking at them after 8 years of work, experience and skills added. I hated going through all that again and was really glad when it was done.

    Now I just hope I get in and can get the much needed closure (and the diploma) and get on with my life! :)

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      It seems that all architects (and designers) look back on their old works with a bit of pride and embarrassment. Like all things, we evolve, our skills evolve and our tastes evolve. I actually had to clean a thick layer of dust off my portfolio before I took the picture above it had been so long since I had opened it up and looked at the contents. [shudder]

      Good Luck with school (and closure)!

  • http://twitter.com/tnrkitect L. Brian Woodroof

    Excellent post, and one that is needed.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks Brian!

  • http://twitter.com/Splintergirl Amy Good

    Great post! Shared this one with the hubby!

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      I’m sure he already had some thoughts on the subject – you’ll have to let me know if he agreed or not

  • Sarune

    Thank you!

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      my pleasure!