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What Architecture firms really look for in your portfolio?
January 8, 2021 at 9:00 AM
by Sagar Oke
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For architecture offices that receive hundreds of applications every week, making the right hire is a difficult task. Most offices may not have the time or resources to go through each application in depth. The screening process is usually fast paced. The recruiters may skim through your portfolio once or twice before even reading your name. Once they get a sense of what they’re looking for, they dive into the details of your portfolio. As an applicant your goal is to make sure your portfolio appeals to the recruiter in the first go. If you understand what it is that Architecture firms are really looking for, you have a much higher chance of being shortlisted. Before digging deeper into the subject, let me give you a peek behind the scenes of the hiring process.

How to make an outstanding Architectural portfolio in 2020

  1. Make your portfolio engaging and relevant
  2. The cover page is your hook
  3. Selecting your projects carefully is key
  4. Focus On An Engaging Narrative
  5. Keep Consistency In Visual Communication
  6. Reflect On What You Will Bring To The Table

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Lets get started!

1. Make your portfolio engaging and relevant

When I was working at an office in Bengaluru, it was my job to review the 70-80 portfolios we received weekly. During the peak application months i.e. April - May and November - December, this number increased significantly. I assigned myself a weekly time slot to go through each application, to label them under ‘shortlisted’ or ‘rejected’, forward the shortlisted emails to the principals, coordinate and set up interviews with most of them and for the rejected bunch; send out standardized (yet polite) responses.

As we were significantly understaffed (hence the hiring) I could spare at most 2 hours per week for the entire process if my workload permitted. I wouldn’t get into the minutes-per-portfolio calculation. However, we managed to hire some brilliant people in those couple of years who were taken aback when I showed them the speed at which their portfolios were being reviewed. A common thread between all the shortlisted portfolios, apart from their amazing projects was that they had made a conscious effort to make their portfolios more engaging and relevant. Judging a portfolio is a layered process. The recruiters look for some key aspects on top of good design that tells them more about your professional self. Here are the qualities, from my experience and research, that make a positive impact on your application.

2. The cover page is your hook

Image by Architect-US.com

The role of your cover page is to set the tone for your portfolio. You may choose to keep it minimal, with ample white space or place a snippet of one of your drawings.

You may even choose to name your portfolio instead of the conventional ‘Architecture Portfolio’. The aim here is to ensure the cover is in line with what comes later in the portfolio. Believe it or not, when I look back at some of the best portfolios I’ve seen, I vividly remember most of their cover pages. If you’re telling a story through your portfolio, the cover page is your hook. Recruiters learn more about you from your intro than what they do from your CV. Alongside your CV, you must include a brief bio of about 50-100 words. This bio should speak about your personality. Avoid repeating any information that you have already written in your CV. This is a section where your background, interests and aspirations could be highlighted in an informal way.

3. Selecting your projects carefully is key

When you apply to a specific office, you would want to include certain projects in your portfolio based on the kind of work they undertake. But there may be instances when you don’t have much work in that particular domain. For example, if you really want to work at an office that designs luxury residential apartments, but you have designed institutional buildings so far, should you be worried? The answer is no. As long as all projects are in line with your overall narrative and you're able to explain the design process clearly, you’re good. Architecture firms are more interested in how you are able to identify issues and how your design is able to tackle them effectively.

If you do have projects from the same domain, prioritise them by placing them before others and explaining them in a bit more detail compared to the rest of your work. For the recruiter, it is then easy to understand your process of design specific to the domain. The selection of projects should also be based on the position you’re applying for. If you’re applying for the position of a senior architect, your professional projects should be given priority over academic work. If you want a job as research assistant, your independent research, writings hold good value.

4. Focus on an engaging narrative

A portfolio with a few good projects but an engaging storyline ranks much higher than one with better projects but a missing narrative. The key word here is ‘engaging’. The most effective way to achieve this is to find a common thread that binds your selected projects together. As I mentioned before, the cover page acts as the hook for your storyline. For example, I once received a portfolio titled ‘S/M/L/XL’. The portfolio had 7 projects, ranging from a small house extension all the way to a city-wide masterplan. Right from the beginning, it was clear that the work was being presented through the lens of increasing scale and complexity.

This instantly piqued my curiosity and took me deeper into the details of each project.

Another way is to find a design decision that is common to all your projects, such as biophilia. If you highlight how green space and urban gardens are at the core of each of your projects, the reader already has something to look forward to. On the contrary, if a portfolio has 5-6 great projects with little or no link between them, it fails to create a lasting impression on the mind of the reader.

5. Keep consistency in visual communication

Consistency is a fundamental design principle. It applies as much to architecture as it does to UX design, product design, graphic design and even your portfolio. The visual language of your portfolio is a combination of font style, font sizes, colour scheme, page layouts, image sizes, white space etc. If these things are all in place, but still not consistent, it takes away from the focus that you want to bring to your work.

To begin with, try and maintain a consistent proportion of space occupied by text vs. images throughout your portfolio. Drawings and images are the primary mode of communication and must follow a similar visual language. The text is secondary and must be brief, to the point and legible. As a reader I would rather move on to the next page than zoom in to try and read microscopic words. Your titles and subtitles should clearly explain in simple words what the project is. The body text should be precise and specific to your design interventions. The fact that you are able to communicate ideas clearly through simple writing plays a crucial role in getting you hired.

6. Reflect on What you will bring to the table

Your portfolio gives the recruiters touchpoints to judge not just your design process but also your work ethic. You must hence present a broader picture of your professional self by highlighting things that set you apart such as specific skills, accomplishments and team work experience.

I was reviewing a portfolio where the applicant had showcased an urban design competition entry which he had worked on with 7 other urban designers. He had never studied urban design, so as a recruiter I was a bit concerned about the choice of this project. However, he clearly stated that his role was to only work on human-scale interventions. His role was the most crucial as the proposal gained value from a bottom-up approach. From a recruiter’s point of view this was enough validation of the applicant’s design sensibility.

To conclude...

Your portfolio is a reflection of your professional self. A portfolio that has a strong narrative, exhibits clarity of thought and visual coherence is hard to miss by any recruiter. Your awareness of the hiring process will only help you refine it further so that it speaks to your skills in an assertive and focussed narration to a specific audience. Always remember that alongside all the projects in your portfolio, the portfolio too is a design project that gets you hired.