The Process Behind a Successful Architecture Portfolio

Types of Portfolios

Depending on the year you are studying in, you will see different kinds of portfolios and you may not be able to judge for yourself which are successful, and which aren’t. We don’t want to focus on a specific style or type of portfolio, the possibilities are dependent on your project and the amount of work you put in.

In this article, we want to guide you on some of the necessary things you need in your portfolio as well as the extra details that can make it stand out to the examiners. By putting in a bit of extra effort, you can take your portfolio to a much higher level. First, we would suggest for you to look at as many portfolios and projects as possible. This might be in your own university or in other ones which you can usually find online through specific unit websites or at the end of year exhibitions. Ask the other students around university or even someone in your year who’s work you admire or seems to be popular with the tutors.

When you think about it, regardless of which year you’re in, putting a portfolio takes up the entire year and most students will work on it till the last second. We definitely don’t advise doing this, it not only puts pressure on you as a person but can give you a lot of stress that you could avoid by doing work in advance. If you’re in first year, you might not know where to start – this is why we’ve put together this article. But whatever the case, if you want to improve your portfolio then keep reading.

We’re going to divide this into two parts: the layout and presentation of your portfolio and the actual work you’ll be putting into your portfolio. We’ve covered some of the design part in our article ‘How to Maintain a Theme in Your Portfolio’ and we’ll be referring to it often, so if you haven’t read it yet, definitely give it a read.

What to Include in Your Portfolio

There are no real guidelines or a handbook on what you exactly need in your portfolio. This is because every university is different, the way they handle things or teach or examine your work. The following ‘pages’ or work to include are just a general idea. If, for example, you’re designing a pottery factory or workshop, you might want to experiment with various shapes in the form of physical models. This can go as in-depth as you want and is a great way to show your tutors and examiners that you’ve really thought about the materials in your project. This whole idea would require a few pages to explain what you’re going to do, images of the models you make etc.

Some units may also have smaller projects they do before the main design project. This is usually to give you an anchor point to get you inspired for your project. It has to link to the design project in some way and may even be a section of your portfolio at the beginning. Make sure that if you do have a project at the beginning that is supposed to link to your design, by the end of the project there should be a clear path of how you got there from the start. There may also be a section at the end for the final part of the design which includes plans, sections, model photographs and final perspective images or illustrations. This could be submitted separately if the university requires in which case you might want to change the size of the pages, orientation or paper quality to make it stand out as it’s the final design.

Having sections in your portfolio isn’t necessary but can break down your project into groups of work that each have some kind of purpose. For example a generic order would consist of a site study, then development, then any technical focuses followed by design experiments and finally a series of images to complete the project. This is a natural order that is simply organised well so that the examiner understands the entire process. Having 30+ pages means there is a lot to look at and remember about the project within just a couple of minutes. But if you have sections, it makes it easier for you, your tutors and the examiner to understand. The best bit is that once you finish with the first couple of sections, you can present these in crits to get feedback and improve it until it doesn’t need to be improved anymore. By the end of the year, you won’t have to work on your entire portfolio, just the areas you’re currently working on.

Let’s get down to the basics:

Title Page



Design Drivers

Mini Project (if any)

Section 1 – Brief / Site Analysis

  • Breakdown of the brief
  • Initial ideas
  • Site map 1:1000
  • Site map and route 1:500
  • Interesting areas within the site, analysing a site (can take the form of a map, collage, photographs or illustrations)
  • Site study (3D modelled, fragment, image)
  • Sun path diagram
  • Opportunities and constraints

Section 2 – Design Development

  • Initial sketches / ideas
  • Research (desktop research; articles, interviews etc. or physical research)
  • Design drivers
  • Massing studies / massing diagram (tutorial coming soon)
  • Breakdown of the building function via sketches, initial models, 3D models
  • Case studies
  • Initial plan / section

Section 3 – Initial Iteration

  • Site map with building overlay 1:200
  • Building development (depends on what you’re looking at in your project. Could be to do with the layout of the building, materials, structure, technical aspects etc)
  • Models + photographs
  • Plans and sections (these are your first iteration, so it doesn’t need to be perfect, but some annotation or sketches might help the examiner understand what you need to work on)
  • 3D model renders / physical model prototypes

Section 4 – (Optional – if you have more development to do / another iteration of drawings that are important to include. Essentially the same as section 3)

Section 5 – Resolution

  • Building Summary
  • Site plan 1:500
  • Plans (well annotated, proper line weights)
  • OPTIONAL – perspective plans, sections or axonometric views
  • Sectional drawings (showing where the section has been taken from)
  • Elevations (North, east, south, west)
  • Collages
  • Renders (if any)
  • Illustrations / perspective images (if any)
  • Hand-drawings (if any)

As we said, some of the things listed might not apply to your project depending on what kind of building you’re designing or the sort of style your prefer. There is also scope to add much more and work on certain parts in much more detail if it applies  to your project. For example, if you’re looking into a public building that is catered towards a certain community, you might want to do more research in that area or interview people. If your building revolves around a trade or craft that you don’t know about, you can explore this as models or further research.

You will also need to remember to cut down as you go. Yes, your portfolio pages need space and clarity and you really shouldn’t bombard the pages with too much text or images but at the same time, having an entire page for each of the 10 sketches you have drawn might be too much. Remember, the examiner will spend less than a few seconds on each page and will eventually focus more on the last section. If your tutors can help you to go through portfolios (extremely helpful before and after a portfolio review or crit) and go through each page, add on sticky notes or remove pages entirely so that you’re constantly editing and improving the flow of work. You can absolutely do this yourself but just make sure you’re not printing the ‘final’ version each time until you’re absolutely sure that a page is fully complete, fits well and is understood better with the pages before and after it.

Portfolio Design

We’ve covered a bit of portfolio design and the importance of having a theme or structure in your portfolio in the article ‘How to Maintain a Theme in Your Portfolio’ which I’m sure you’ve read by now. The things we covered there included a colour scheme, setting out your pages in advance and planning your pages. We’ve already given you the basic structure, so at the start of your project all you have to do is set up your portfolio on Adobe InDesign.

Usually, at the beginning of the year it takes a couple of weeks before you actually get the brief for your project or even speak to your tutors. Add in the generic introductory lectures and ‘site walks’ and you’ve pretty much wasted 3 weeks. After my first year, I realised we need to get ahead of the game. Students were often surprised to hear how my portfolio was done a couple of days before the deadline, giving me time to finalise the last few images or make sure everything works in a cohesive manner.

Setting aside an hour a day during that weird start of the year period could help you plan out your portfolio. Think about it aesthetically or practically. If you want inspiration on different layouts or themes, you can have a look at our Pinterest board. If you’re thinking budget wise, maybe moving from an A1 portfolio to an A2 portfolio seems like a wiser and lighter option. Make all these decisions now instead of getting frazzled later on when the work really begins.

If you’ve been given the brief ahead of time, definitely research the hell out of it. Make a mood board, sketches, a Pinterest board and brainstorm the different routes you could take with the brief. Look at past projects or some of the reading material you might have been recommended. Ask students in other units to see what their brief is like – anything can create a boost of inspiration as long as you’re not waiting for your tutors to tell you what to do next. Take control and stay ahead as much as possible.

Portfolio Organisation Methods

We don’t have to tell you repeatedly. Organisation is KEY. Organising your portfolio can get a bit hectic once there are other projects or essays or crits to prepare for. We would suggest keeping an online version and obviously a physical copy. For the pages you’re currently working on, it could be a good idea to print them out unfinished at a smaller scale like A3. Then, whenever you have a tutorial or crit, you can hand your tutors the page and explain what you’re doing and why. This is way better than showing them something on a computer screen because they can physically write or draw on it and give you advice that helps.

Similarly, if you’re completing your portfolio by hand, you’ll realise just how much time it’s taking up. If you’re thinking about saving money for title pages or pages with just images on them, that’s reasonable. Whenever you finish a page though, scan it in and add it to your InDesign file so you can re-order if needed or edit and actually be able to see the pages without having to take out your huge portfolio and search for the page.

Lastly, every couple of months, or even every month, sit down and go through your portfolio and see if anything can be improved. We get too stuck in the work we are presently doing that we might forget about the work we’ve already done. The entire project needs to make sense and be successful. Look for any ideas that didn’t work out and go back and edit this or comment on it at a later stage. I like to plan the pages I’ll be putting up for my crits the night before by drawing them out in my sketchbook. It saves some time because you can have a think and re-order on your sketchbook, then actually go and pick out those pages and keep them ready for the next day. Your portfolio order won’t be messed up either because you have a digital copy that reflects the physical one.

Knowing Your Portfolio

Lastly, we want to emphasise on the importance of actually knowing your portfolio, it’s something to take pride in but it also needs to be memorable in some way. At the end of the day, you know your project best, and by the time the year is over you’d have presented or explained your ideas so many times that it’s stuck in your head – which is a great thing! Write an awesome summary that is short yet descriptive and intrigues the other person to know more about it.

The decisions you made regarding the look or contents are definitely your own, but a bit of guidance never hurts and could actually lead you to better results. Studying architecture is all about getting better as you progress till you’re happy with your work and designs. If you want to see more tutorials catered towards specific portfolio pages, leave your suggestions below in the comments. Have a look at our other related topics as well. Good luck!


Getting Started: Adobe Photoshop for Architecture Students

Adobe Photoshop may very well be one of the most well-known software out there and it’s not just for architects. Photographers, artists, designers all use Adobe Photoshop in some way. Hence, there are plenty of tutorials, guides and courses out there to teach you the ins and outs of this software.

But in this article we want to focus on why it is such an incredible resource to use and delve into some of the things you should definitely start working on. For students and beginners, the interface and range of options can seem overwhelming to say the least. This isn’t a full-fledged guide but if you are looking for something like that, here’s a few guides we love.

Click HERE.

We’re going to breakdown in detail, what Adobe Photoshop is used for during your architectural studies. This itself gives you many routes and uses so to follow we go further into setting up a document, playing with images and then looking at some of the basic yet important tools.

What is Adobe Photoshop Used For?

Although Photoshop was created as a photo-editing program, it has evolved into a bigger and all-purpose software for most projects. For architecture students, it can be used for a variety of purposes. Editing photographs of a site, prototype models, finished models or general research.

A good photograph can make all the difference on a portfolio page. Even if your models are rubbish, they can be altered in such a way that it look’s like a completely different and new model by the time you’re done. So, try and take photographs of all the models you make even if they look bad. We’ll discuss this more in the future. If Photoshop doesn’t have all the features you want, you can also try using Adobe Lightroom for even more in-depth editing.

Adding ‘people’ to your drawings can also be created in Photoshop especially if you want to create your own custom ones that can be used in any drawings. Having these pre-made not only saves time but can be really fun. You can also create textures by importing images and editing them to use later on in your illustrations or perspectives.

Probably the most common way architects use Photoshop is by creating illustrations and perspectives or edit renderings for your design project. Depending on your style or the kind of qualities you are looking for in the final outcome, creating such images have different paths. There are quite a lot of examples already out there and some even come with tutorials if you’re lucky.

We’re letting you know now; this isn’t a tutorial on how to create beautiful and stunning images (we have stuff planned for that in due time). This is basically a breakdown of some of the tools that are handy for students and beginners. Let’s get started.

Basic Rules + Setting Up a Document

After you open up Adobe Photoshop, go to File > New. The dialogue box that comes up will have several options to customise your file. File size, Resolution, Colour mode and other options that you don’t need to worry about.

File Size

Measurements are in cm, mm, px, points, inches, picas or columns. The ones you will be using predominantly are mm/cm and pixels. A pixel is a single dot in your image and a large amount of pixels make up your image. Don’t worry too much about it at this stage. Photoshop is a raster image editor (as compared to Adobe Illustrator – a vector-based program) so working in pixels is better for high quality prints. Using standard dimensions such as mm/cm is better when you want to create a page for printing.


Image resolution is measured/described in PPI (pixels per inch). This is a measure of how many pixels are displayed per inch of an image which is its pixel density. Higher PPI creates a high-quality image. By default, it’s set to 72 PPI (pixels per inch) as that is the common resolution for monitors but most of your work – assuming it’s for printing – should be set at 300PPI or higher. There are options to change this after you have already created your work, but it’s good to make this a habit beforehand.

Colour Mode

RGB and CMYK are the two modes in Photoshop. You don’t need to know too much apart from if you’re planning on printing your artwork at some stage, it’s a good idea to use CMYK because those are the colours a printer is familiar with. If you accidentally use RGB, the colours many come out slightly different which can become an issue if you’re paying a large amount for a high-quality print or if colour is a key part of the project.


Layer’s aren’t a part of setting up the document but essentially they are the backbone to any project, big or small. There are many features within the layers panel itself which we will discuss further. You can think of layers similar to sheets of tracing paper. If you did all your work on the same layer, then wanted to go back and delete an element or change something slightly, it would be much harder to do if everything was on the same layer.

By using of layers, you not only make it easier for yourself, but sometimes you can get some amazing effects in your projects. Over time, you will find that for larger images or renders and illustrations, you will end up using a lot of layers. Here, organisation is key. We suggest two important things; naming your layers and grouping your layers.

Layers are where you can stack images, change blend modes, add filters and effects, etc. The order of layers determines which image will in front or behind. This is also something to note when you are experimenting with blend modes. You can create folders and ‘group’ layers so that some parts of the design are in the same place but also to apply an effect to a large amount of elements.

Let’s break down the panel. To add and delete a layer it’s pretty simple.


To name a layer, double click and replace with whatever you want to name it. After you have 5 or more layers, it can get hard to keep track of. To create a folder of layers, click on the Folder icon next to the ‘New Layer’ icon. Then, to add into the group, select all the layers by using the Shift button and either select specific ones or click on the top-most and then the bottom layer to select all of them at once.


The blend modes are located in the drop-down menu that as set to default as ‘Normal’. The opacity is located next to that. The eye icon next to each layer simply turns the layer on or off. This is pretty useful so you can work on specific elements without have other stuff cluttered around. To lock the layer, click on the lock icon – simple right?


There are so many tools in Photoshop sometimes it’s hard to keep track of. You definitely won’t be using them all in one go so don’t worry about knowing what each one does. To begin, we suggest you check out the tools yourself. Some are pretty straightforward whereas others can be a little trickier to understand.

The Rectangle Marquee Tool is a great selection tool. There are other ways of selecting areas such as the Polygonal Lasso Tool and the Magic Wand or Quick Selection Tool. Each of these have different methods and results, so depending on the use, any is great.

Also keep in mind that most tools have a shortcut key. If you think about it, you’re going to be using Photoshop is some way or another and since there are always a number of things you need to be doing, cutting down time while using Photoshop is basically a hack. It makes you faster and it’s definitely much easier. Another thing to note is to keep the panels and toolbars how you prefer. You don’t have to stick to the default setup and over time you’re going to realise which tools and panels you use the most.

The Eyedropper Tool is for picking colours from images our from a colour palette you have created. If you’re using the shortcut it’ll cut down time and make the whole process much faster. If you happen to have a graphics tablet; doesn’t have to be a fancy, expensive one, then the Brush Tool can come in very handy. It gives you that hand-drawn quality and you can also experiment with different brush packs made for architecture.

Of course, this is only a handful of tools. As you start using Adobe Photoshop you might need to use some of the other tools depending on what you want to do. Don’t worry, we will have future tutorials going into detail on how to create perspectives or edit photographs.

Some advice for first year students and beginners; don’t feel the pressure to learn everything about Adobe Photoshop in one go. It takes a lot more time then that and even when you feel confident you might not know every single thing. Here at :scale, we’re constantly learning something new and you can do this by watching YouTube videos, finding free courses online or even something simple as searching up what you want to do.

For example, if you want a certain effect or you need to know how to create an element but don’t know how to go about doing it, search it up in Google. Most of the time, you can find the answers online if you know what you’re looking for. Once you learn something, you’ll get quicker and won’t have to search things up each time.

Just remember, it takes patience to learn a software in general. You can’t be an expert in a day, and we aren’t experts either! For more of our Getting Started series and to learn other Adobe programs, click HERE.


Getting Started: 5 Key Skills You Need in Adobe InDesign

This guide is aimed at those starting out with Adobe InDesign. It covers 5 key aspects in detail for absolute beginners. For architecture students, it can be a great way to organise your portfolio or design projects. It can even help with layout for essays and reports. InDesign is a key part of the process for creating great portfolio pages.

But first, what is InDesign?

Adobe InDesign is a document publishing tool, part of the Adobe Suite, it lets you create documents that you can publish online as well as set up for printing. What sets it apart from software’s such as Illustrator or Photoshop is that its sole purpose is for composition.

We’re going to learn about the basic features of Adobe InDesign and some key tips that will help you in the long run creating any kind of document. Organisation is key, as we’ve said in many of our other articles. Architecture is a type of subject where you need to manage your time carefully and sensibly. Saving time can make a lot of the difference.

You might have already heard about the culture that is staying up all night to complete your work or finish those drawings, edit that render. Software like Adobe InDesign are made to help up for these tasks and actually better our work. It’s all well and good having great work but the quality of your work can depend on its presentation. After all, designers are visual thinkers.

Composition, page layout and other small things like text or colours might seem like an afterthought and rightfully won’t be a priority on your list. But setting up habits early on can definitely help you later on in life with any kind of task. This article isn’t a full guide, there are plenty of those out there that we think are great. This article is just showing you the absolute key and important tools that we think students will benefit from. It’s a step in the right direction to get you going.

  1. Document Set Up
  2. Master Pages
  3. Swatches and Themes
  4. Images
  5. Text Options

Document Set Up

When you first open Adobe InDesign, the first thing you need to do is create a new document and although it can be easy to click ‘Create’ without giving a thought to your document properties, this is really where the tutorial begins.

In this example, we’re going to create a small portfolio of around 10 A4 Pages that are portrait. Make sure to name your document as well.

creating a document

We’ve turned facing pages on for this instance. It basically lets you see the document as if it were a book. This will come handy later on for double-spread pages and threading texts across one or more pages.

Don’t worry at this point if you feel like you might not stick to these options because you can always add pages or edit these parameters.

To do this you can go to File > Document Set Up (Ctrl + Alt + P).

For printing purposes, usually a 3mm bleed is necessary. You can also choose to have this in your document and make sure your artwork goes beyond these dimensions to avoid white borders.

Master Pages

Master pages. Probably haven’t heard that since using Microsoft PowerPoint? But we’re sure you must have some idea of what a master page does. If not, then to cut it short, a master page is sort of a live template for your document.

Usually you can use the master page for formatting and adding template boxes or to mark out specific areas of a page where you want a certain text, image or colour to be.

This page doesn’t count as a final page in your document and therefore doesn’t interfere with publishing and printing. You can essentially create your own headers, footers and other standard details on these pages that will update accordingly in your InDesign document.

Adobe has its own tutorial on using master pages:

But I bet you prefer our short version. To get started, in your right toolbar click on the Pages panel. If you can’t see this yet, go to Window > Pages (F12) to show the panel. At the top you can see the options for ‘None’ and ‘A-Master’. Double click on ‘A-Master’.

master pages

Now we can add our features. Let’s start off by adding page numbers. Using the Type Tool (T) click and drag to create a textbox.

adding page numbers

Now, whilst inside the text box, Right-Click and select Insert Special Characters > Markers > Current Page Number.

This will automatically add the letter ‘A’ to the page. You can edit this to add any text before or after the A such as ‘page A’ or ‘0A’.

page numbering

Now we can copy this to the other page by using Ctrl + C > Ctrl + V and position it in the same way.

page numbers

If we go back to our document pages by Double-Clicking on the first page, we can see the outcome of our master pages.

automatic page numbering

Now, we want to add a specific frame for our logo, but perhaps we don’t want this on every page. Go back to the master page. On the right page, in the upper-left-hand corner use the Rectangle Frame Tool (F) to draw a box where we want the logo to go.

adding a frame box

Earlier, the text box was only specific for text details whereas the frame tool allows you to create an area for text, images etc.

By Single-Clicking you can also set the dimensions of said box.

Now we are going to place our logo, or any image by going to File > Place. We can then adjust this to fit the frame box. To learn more about images in Adobe InDesign, read ahead in our Images section.

add in your image

If the image is blurry, you can Right-click > Display Performance > High Quality to get it back to a high quality. InDesign does this so that pages don’t take a long time to load and it doesn’t make InDesign slower.

But we don’t want this to appear on the 5th page for example. To not apply it to that particular page, drag the ‘None’ page onto the 5th page. Then Double-Click to see the difference.

exclude a page

There are many more options and features of the master pages that we will break down in a future post.


Images should ideally be edited in whichever way needed before bringing it into InDesign. As it is not a photo-editing software, it is harder to apply any effects to photos in this software. These can be imported as their .psd and .ai files respectively so that it can update as changes are made.

To add an image to the document, go to File > Place and select your image. Here I’ve placed one and turned on the High-Quality display performance.

placing an image

But my image is too big and if I try to use the anchor points it seems to crop the image. To affect the size of the image directly you will need to Double-Click on the image so that it shows the brown outline.

Now holding the Shift key and dragging, we can change the size. Then, Double-Click the corner points of the blue box to adjust this as well.

changing the size of an image

Another way to do this is to use the Scale features in the top toolbar. This adjusts the size by percentage and is really the quickest way of making an image smaller or bigger. Make sure the Constrain Proportions lock is ON.

using the scale tool

Those are the basic features of adding an image in Adobe InDesign.


Swatches can be an overlooked feature of the Adobe Suite overall. We used this in Illustrator and Photoshop (check out our articles HERE). Swatches let you keep a record of the colours you use within your document.

This can be extremely vital when creating long documents that have a colour scheme or theme. It helps manage the number of colours you use so that your document doesn’t look unorganised and so you don’t end up with different versions and shades of the ‘same’ colour.

For example, for an architecture portfolio or design project, we suggest keeping the colour scheme minimal, yet unique to you. Having too much colour can distract from the actual work and drawings, and eventually gets hard to keep up with.

On the other hand, keeping it too minimal may come across as boring and plain. With a palette of colours, you can use it in different scenarios. Adding a key or legend to diagrams, having subheadings or even using them in your final images to pull it all together.

Creating a swatch isn’t hard and you can do this from scratch or download a swatch online. We like to use Adobe Colour:

Perhaps 4 or 5 colours might be too much for an architectural project, so we recommend sticking to 3. Black should be your main text colour; another colour can be your accent colour and a neutral tone for other diagrams or shapes. This makes everything look much more cohesive and can actually help to understand the whole project as one.

For this example, we’re going to show you how to add colours to swatches and turn it into a group. First open the Swatches Panel by going to Window > Swatches.

swatches panel

Next, we’re going to create a shape with a teal colour. At the bottom of the Swatches panel, click on the New Swatch button to add it as a swatch.

new swatch please

Add another shape of a different colour. Now click on one swatch and hold the Shift key and click on the other swatch. Now, both should be selected.

swatches added

Next, click on New Colour Group, the icon next to New Swatch. Now we’ve made a specialist group for our swatches. You can have as many swatches as you want in your document.

swatches group

Text Options

Typography is essential for graphic design of any sort. You could say it’s a key pillar. Text is something you can explore better in Adobe InDesign compared to Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop. The following are small tips and tricks that can make designing easier.

Text threading is when you have multiple text boxes and you want your large text to carry on to the next text box. It can be a long process to edit your text or repeatedly copy and paste chunks into their own text boxes, so this method allows for easier editing.

Let’s say you have text you are going to copy in from your text document. First, create a text box the rough dimensions you want on one page.

Go to the Type Tool (T) on the left toolbar and Click and Drag to create a text box. Then, select the text box using the Selection Tool (V) and Copy (Ctrl + C) > Paste (Ctrl + V) and move the second text box to the other page.

adding text boxes

To position the text boxes evenly, make sure Smart Guides are turned on. You can do this by going to View > Grids and Guides > Smart Guides (Ctrl + U).

Now, Double-Click inside your first text box and Paste (Ctrl + V) your text in. We’ve pasted in some filler text. As you can see, at the bottom of the text box, there is a Red Plus Icon. This means the text does not fit inside the text box.

overflowing text

To carry on the text to the other text box, use the Direct Selection Tool (V) and click on the Red Plus Icon. This gives you a short preview of your text. Then, click inside your other text box.

threading a text

There isn’t much text carried forward so increase the font size to 14pt. You can select all the text by Clicking and Dragging over both text boxes.

adjust the text box however you wish

Now, if we change the size of either text box it will adjust the text accordingly.

Another annoying feature of Adobe InDesign can be the auto-hyphenate. To turn this off, go to Window > Type and Tools > Paragraph (Ctrl + Alt + T). This opens the Paragraph panel. Then, select all your text using the Direct Selection Tool (V) and uncheck the Hyphenate box.

un-hyphenated text

To export your document, go to File > Export and select the file type you want to export as.

Of course, there are plenty of other tools to learn in Adobe InDesign, but with these basics, you can get started on creating stunning documents. There are many more things you can do with Adobe InDesign. You have to see it as an organisational tool that will help you in the long run. You don’t just need to create a portfolio in InDesign, it can also apply for small or big projects.

The other alternative would be to compile all your pages in Illustrator or Photoshop, which is fine but can make things seem a bit disjointed. A benefit of creating your projects in Adobe InDesign is that it makes the exporting process quite flexible.

The next article of this series is going to be focused on Adobe Photoshop. Probably one of the well-known ones out of the suite, we’re going to show you the basic tools you might need and suggest some uses of the program that may not be so obvious.

As usual, we’ve linked below some resources we often go back to when using InDesign.

And check out our other Getting Started articles HERE. We’re going to be expanding this series soon to include 3D modelling software such as 3DS Max, Rhino and Sketchup. Let us know below which programs you might want to learn and tell us if there is anything specific you don’t understand in any of these programs.


Getting Started: 10 Essential Tools to Master in Adobe Illustrator

Adobe Illustrator can be daunting for beginners. The variety of tools and panels – as amazing as they are – need some time getting used to. But where do you start? The following 10 essential tools are for anyone starting out with Illustrator.

But first, what is Adobe Illustrator and why should I use it?

Adobe Illustrator is a graphics design software specially for vector graphics. Vectors are a type of image that are created using paths rather than pixels. This means they are quite different from a standard JPEG file type. A benefit of using a vector image is the scalability. Re-sizing and editing can be done easily and doesn’t leave you with blurry, pixelated images.

This is why Adobe Illustrator is preferred for logo design, illustrations and typography. For architecture students and alike, this software can be great for creating effective diagrams, maps and even simple perspective images.

  1. The pen tool
  2. Type tool – and it’s extra bits
  3. Paintbrush Tool
  4. Layers are your best friend
  5. Live Paint
  6. Swatches
  7. Pathfinder Tool
  8. Image Trace
  9. Patterns
  10. Exporting

1. The pen tool

The pen tool is a versatile feature in Illustrator and can not only be used to create all sorts of shapes but also to trace hand-drawn sketches and effectively create quick and editable drawings. By using the Direct Selection Tool (a.k.a. the white mouse) you can easily edit the anchor points and any Bezier curves.

Here are some examples of ways to use the pen tool:

Using the Pen Tool (P) hold down Shift to create straight lines at 0, 45 and 90 angles.

creating straight lines

Using the Pen Tool (P) click to start a point, then click, hold and drag to create a curve.

creating a bezier curve

If aligning points, make sure to turn on Smart Guides by going to View > Smart Guides.

using smart guides to align

To edit shapes after they are closed, use the Direct Selection Tool (A) and click on one point to isolate, or drag over more and move to the desired position.

adjusting anchor points

2. Type tool – and it’s extra bits

Many people use the type tool to simply add text to an illustration or drawing, but Illustrator allows you to do much more. This is particularly useful for typography and logo designers but can be a useful tool overall.

By holding down on the type tool, you can see the list of different options such as Type on a Path Tool and Vertical Type Tool.

type tool and its extra bits

Creating text around a shape or path can be done by holding down the Type Tool (T) > Type on a Path Tool.

Then make sure to click on a path that has no fill or stroke. This can be done for the standard shapes or by making one of your own. It’s also not limited to lines and curves.

*Make sure to click exactly where you want the text to start on the path.

creating text around a path

Another great feature is to convert a text into outlines. Illustrator allows you to treat a letter or word as a group of shapes rather than text which can then be modified.

First type out the word or letters in the desired font (don’t worry about the size) and then go to Type > Create Outlines. To separate each letter, you can select everything using the Selection Tool (V) and go to Object > Ungroup (Shift + Ctrl + G)

turning text into shapes
ungrouping shapes

3. The Paintbrush Tool

This tool is quite effective for those with a graphics tablet. It allows your strokes to be vectorised and used as shapes to essentially create amazing illustrations. With pressure sensitivity turned on you can create a varied line in a matter of seconds.

changing the pressure sensitivity of a brush
using a graphics tablet

4. Layers are your best friend

The layers panel is probably the glue that holds Adobe Illustrator together. It is extremely essential when creating any kind of graphic. There are many small features within this panel that are important to unpack.

For example, let’s say you forget to create your layers, but want to separate each shape or object on to its own layer. Select the shape, and in the layers panel click on the small square on the right-hand side. Then drag this up to move the shape on to its own layer without affecting the artwork.

moving shapes to their own layers

You can also drag and drop layers to move shapes in front or behind one another. It is a good habit to name all your layers so that they are easily accessible.

naming layers is key

To lock or hide layers you can click on the lock shaped icon and the eye icon respectively. This can be useful when you don’t want to mess up a specific layer and work on top or when you want to try things out and not have other layers interfering.

locking or hiding layers can be useful

5. Live paint

Although this may seem like one of the more complicated tools in Adobe Illustrator, it is a highly useful one for adding colour to images quickly.

Have your line work art or shape ready. Use the Selection Tool (V) to select everything you want to colour and go to Object > Live Paint > Make.

live paint

Then use the Live Paint Bucket Tool (K) which is hidden under the Shape Builder Tool and choose a colour. The areas highlighted in red are ones you can colour in. If you try to colour elsewhere you get an error box.

live paint bucket

At the end, make sure to Expand everything. This can be done by selecting everything using the Selection Tool (V) and clicking on the expand button or going to Object > Live Paint > Expand. If you missed any areas that cannot be used with the Live paint tool, you can always select and Merge by going to Object > Live Paint > Merge and go back and paint them.

expand – always

You can also get rid of the strokes to get a clean, line-less finish.

et fin

6. Swatches

Swatches are useful when you have a certain colour palette you want to stick to. Incredibly useful in logo designing or to create a tone within your artwork. To create a swatch, you can go to Window > Swatches and create a new swatch with the colour you have already selected.

creating a swatch

This can also be sorted into groups. Simply create a new group by clicking on the upper right-hand side options and choosing New Colour Group.

creating a swatch group

You can name your swatches for a project and edit these as you go. You can also download or create swatches you find online. We like to use Adobe Colour ( to look at new colour swatches or groups of swatches that you can easily re-create or download without having to enter the Hex code.

7. Pathfinder Tool

The pathfinder tool is a simple one in Adobe Illustrator, but it lets you play around with different shapes and basically creates either cut-outs or merges two or more shapes to become one. You can find the pathfinder panel by going to Window > Pathfinder.

Next, with two shapes as an example, we can use the different options to create completely new shapes:

pathfinder panel

The first is to merge the two shapes. You can do this by placing one on top of each other and clicking on the merge tool.

merging two shapes

To cut out the front-most shape, click on the second option Minus Front.

pathfinder minus tool

This tool is something you can play around with and figure out which options best suit your project.

8. Image Trace

Image trace is a good illustrative tool for artists or design students. It can turn sketches and images into a vectorised format making it easy to edit. Here we show you two examples of the ways in which image trace can be used.

This photo of a man can be turned into a vector with a few easy steps. We’ve used an image from Freepik for this example.

Hand photo created by luis_molinero.

 To get your saved or scanned photo you can go to File > Place to add the image in Adobe Illustrator.

Re-scale your image and hold down the Shift key to make sure you don’t lose the proportions.

Next, on the top toolbar you can see the option to Image Trace. When you click on this, don’t be alarmed if your image disappears or becomes a hideous mess.

image trace panel

Click on the Image Trace Panel to display more options. Our photo has been turned into a silhouette image which we can further alter. We can now change the level of detail and magically get rid of the white background.

Click on the Advanced arrow and make sure the ‘Ignore White’ box is checked.

check this magic box

But what if you wanted to keep the colours? Or make the image not so detailed?

To do this, simply choose ‘Colour’ in the Mode drop down list. You can use the slider below to change the number of colours you want present. Essentially, the smaller number of colours means less detail.

*This is extremely helpful when creating vector people to use for architectural illustrations

colour image trace

Here we have 5 colours selected as well as the Ignore White box checked. However, the colours are seemingly dull and too similar. Don’t fear, we can change this too.

Click on the Expand button in the toolbar or go to Object > Live Paint > Expand. Next, using the Direct Selection Tool (A) we can click on one of the areas that we want to change.

selecting the same colour

But selecting each and every area of that colour can be difficult and long. To make this easier, go to Select > Same > Fill Colour. Now all those areas are selected we can choose a new colour to replace this.

image traced

What if you wanted to Image Trace a scanned image or document? Place your image and start the Image Trace process like before.

In the Preset drop down menu, you can choose a range of different presets with different setting to suit the outcome.

Here we’ve used the ‘sketched art’ preset to get a simple plan outline.

scanned images work well too

9. Patterns

Patterns are an easy tool in Adobe Illustrator and making your own pattern allows you to fill larger areas with the same shape rather than copying and pasting it again and again.

Here we have a hexagon with the letter ‘S’ cut out (Remember creating outlines and pathfinder cut out?) which we want to make into a pattern to fill a rectangular shape.

Select your shape with the Selection Tool (V) and go to Object > Pattern > Make.

making a pattern

Now we can adjust the size, spacing and angle of the pattern you want to create. You can name your pattern to use in the future as this gets saved as a Swatch.

Use the Pattern Tile Tool in the top left to adjust the spacing manually.

adjusting the size

You can also use the presets to change the style of the pattern. We’re going to select ‘Brick by Column’.

brick by column

Now, you can click Done to save this as a pattern. Basically, we can use the pattern as we would any fill colour. Since it has been added to swatches, we can create a rectangle and select the swatch to fill it with our pattern.

using the swatch to fill a shape
pattern made

10. Exporting

You’re all done and dusted testing out these handful of features and actually managed to create something along the way. But what now? Saving and exporting is just as important as the actual outcome.

The ‘Save As’ feature allows you to save your document as an Illustrator file (.Ai) and an Adobe PDF whereas the ‘Export’ feature lets you save in a large number of formats, the most common being .png or .jpeg.

You can also save your artboards as separate images or pages in a PDF.

These 10 tools and features are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Illustrator but now that you’ve covered the basics we hope you turned from a newbie to someone who knows some of the ins and outs of this particular software and don’t worry if it takes a while or if along the way you make some happy accidents and reveal even more features.

Which other tools, tips and tricks do you like using in Adobe Illustrator? Comment below or head over to our Instagram to let us know your favourite feature in Illustrator. We love to see architectural perspectives and drawings that have a simple and illustrative style to don’t forget to tag us @to.scale or use the hashtag #toscalearch.