How to Maintain a Theme in Your Portfolio

An architectural portfolio should feel put together and professional with a theme, but for architecture students in particular, it can be hard maintaining a certain theme in about 20-50 pages. You may also think a theme isn’t necessary, but it provides a personal touch to your work as well as showing the examiner that you want to present your work in the best way possible.

Let’s clarify that by ‘theme’ we don’t mean anything extravagent. A set of fonts you’re going to use along with a clear colour palette and organisation method is all you really need. The main thing is that you need to stick to it.

As architects and designers, minimal design is probably the way to go because you want the work to speak for itself. By overflowing the pages with too much colour, unnecessary graphics and unreadable fonts, you’re just distracting from the actual work.

But the theme of your portfolio is not the only thing you will be focused on, you actually have to work on your design project as well as any essays or other courses and you might not even think about the portfolio until you’re half-way through the year.

This is a common mistake people make. Leaving the portfolio design and theme till after you have pages and pages of work just adds more tasks to your list. Ideally, by the time you have a mid-year portfolio review you want it to be as organised as possible so that it gives you time later on to work on things that matter. It can also make your work unorganised when presenting to tutors for the time being. Your work doesn’t need to be in its final form and layout but having a sense of order lifts the pressure when the deadline is near.

The first step you need to take is to prepare an Adobe InDesign file for your portfolio. Adobe InDesign is your best friend when it comes to layouts and portfolio design. If you aren’t already familiar with this software, take the time to learn the basics before you start architecture school. Keep this file accessible on your laptop or hard-drive.

You can find our article on Adobe InDesign HERE. Be sure to explore our ‘Getting Started’ series for more Adobe software as well as other 3D modelling software.

Create a portfolio document in Adobe InDesign, think about what size you want your pages to be. Usually this can be A1 or A2 for the developmental work and A1 for final images but have a chat with your tutor to figure out what’s best for you. Set the orientation and add about 10 pages to begin with. Save this file even if it’s blank for the moment.

Adobe InDesign

By doing this, you’ve already done far more than others, you have a sort of template set up where all your work will end up. This will resolve the issue of retrieving certain pages from different folders each time. At the end of the project, you can export this to many different formats and keep it all together in one place.

Remember to include those key pages in your portfolio such as a Front Cover and Contents page. You could even have a Drivers page and then individual section headers later on. These don’t need to be made immediately and can even be done at the very end but leave some space for these, so you don’t forget later on.

To look at an existing portfolio, find our portfolio walkthrough HERE.

There are many great features that you can use in Adobe InDesign, we love the Master pages as well as the rulers and guides. They help make sure the contents of your page are consistent throughout and everything is lined up in a neat way.

Make sure that your pages aren’t full of information. There are styles and layouts you can explore using Pinterest or Tumblr. Look at our board of Portfolio Layouts HERE.

Keeping things simple can be hard because you may have a lot of work you want to show. If you feel like this, try splitting work within two pages. It’s hard when you’re working online through a computer because the sizes of things can appear smaller than they actually are. When adding images and text look at the dimensions of things and refer back to your ruler to see if an image really needs to be that big. With text, you don’t want it to be in your face, so stick to a sensible size such as 10pt.

Also, too much text is unnecessary because the examiner will only spend about 3 seconds per page and if they absolutely need to, will go back and check any they are interested in so don’t waste time preparing pages of texts and instead focus on your design.

A minimal black and white portfolio can seem quite boring unless you use hand drawn textures, or your photography style is bold for example. If you want to use colour, limit this to two or three colours that compliment each other.

If you really want to go for bold and bright colours, make sure it relates to your project work and programme and then use neutral tones such as grey for your accent colours. For example, a great combination of colours can be black, grey and a deep red. The grey can be used for annotation and the red can be used for specific lines or other accents.

Adding a Colour Scheme

Regarding colours, make sure to go over your choices with your tutors and see what they think and even consider printing out a few pages in a smaller size to see how they work together. Sometimes colours can look different when on a computer screen as compared to on the page. Your paper type and weights also affect this so try and choose something complimentary.

Try not to print out too many of your pages in one go. As you may have already figured out, a lot of money is wasted in printing. Unless it’s for crits, try and stick to smaller print-outs at an A3 size. This will let ou avoid having to re-print pages each time you change something.

Small details are highly noticed in design work so try and think about ways in which you could personalise your work in some way. This doesn’t have to be anything big, in fact it can be as subtle as the North symbol on your drawings. Creating your own has some benefits, it keeps the drawings in the examiner’s minds because you didn’t use a standard North symbol that will be on all the drawings. It also adds a touch of your personality and can be tailored towards your project.

Our North Symbol


Think about small ways in which you can personalise your work, whether its through symbols or fonts. The typeface you choose can also add a sense of professionality as long as it isn’t too decorative or hard to read. Keep it modern and simple, we suggest using a Sans Serif font for your titles, subheadings and annotations. You can find these on free font websites such as Google Fonts or Dafont.

*If you are using custom fonts, make sure you don’t print directly from your editing softwares like Illustrator or InDesign. Always export as a PDF.

Now that you have your template sorted, it’s time to put in the work. The usual process we like to use is to sketch out what you want the page to show, create the elements in Illustrator or AutoCAD or any other software depending on what it is, then bring it in to Adobe InDesign to add text and annotation. We’ll go over this process in another article.

Planning your pages ahead can mean your portfolio isn’t all over the place and adds a sense of order and flow to your work. You could even split up your portfolio into different sections. This maintains the theme because you’re using the same format on most of your pages and still showing the development.

The best way to do this is to constantly review your portfolio. If you don’t already have mini deadlines throughout the year such as interim reviews or even month-end presentations, set some for yourself. Create a list or diagram of the pages you want to make by a certain date and try and stick to it by planning your time ahead. Every time you complete a page, tick it off and move on to the next. This way, you’re not spending a lot of time on one page or wondering about what to do next.

Planning your Pages

Then after each deadline – as well as reviewing your work and any changes you need to make – look at how your portfolio is doing in terms of the design and layout. You can always change around the order of pages whenever you want because everything is in one place.

A good way to edit your portfolio if you have too many pages is to look at each page individually and think about whether it conveys a certain message or stage in your project. Then, look at the pages before and after because chances are, when your portfolio is presented the pages before and after will be shown as well.

Finally, don’t stress too much about your portfolio design. As long as you put in the work at the start of the project and get it out of the way, it will help you a lot in maintaining your portfolio and then you can implement the same steps in other projects you do.

Let us know what kinds of things you do to maintain a theme within your portfolio and if you have any questions or ideas for future posts then write a comment below or get in touch on our Instagram.

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