Unpacking The Architecture Portfolio

The design portfolio is probably the biggest part of architecture school. Yet it’s funny that there isn’t really many resources or tutorials on the Internet about how to put together a portfolio, what to include and how to go about doing all this whilst maintaining a healthy balance between life and work. In this article, I’m going to unpack the design portfolio for those who find it difficult to keep up with the constant workload of putting together a portfolio. Architecture is quite different from other exam-based courses and we are marked and judged on the work we produce throughout the year, not just towards the end. This is why I feel it’s important to get things right from the beginning and make sure that you’re giving it your best so as to avoid re-doing the work later on.

To be clear, this portfolio is different than the one you might compile once you graduate and need to start applying for jobs. This one is usually the product of one or two modules that take up the better part of the academic year. Of course, this varies across universities, so there isn’t a universal solution I can offer but the actionable advice and tips will apply to most situations. It’s also good to note that each design studio or unit will also have a distinctive style or method of approaching the portfolio. There really isn’t any right or wrong but this can play a big factor in how your portfolio looks and the kind of aesthetic your drawings or designs have.

Structuring the Portfolio

Something I picked up whilst attending a presentation by Eric Wong on his work with Mamoru Hosoda and designing the virtual world of Belle, was the way he had structured way of working. For each meeting with the director, he put together a drawing pack to present his ideas and work in a clear and coherent manner. This is quite similar to the way things work in practice too, whether you’re putting together a design and access statement or a presentation to council members for a specific project. But surprisingly, it’s not something you see many undergraduate students do. Usually, you would present a couple of drawings or maybe a half-done model you’re working on and talk through it with your tutors. But this method of putting together a drawing pack does a few things; it helps you document your ideas each week and forces you to think about the composition of a page, how your designs are represented as well as making the narrative completely clear for your tutors.

This practice contributes a lot towards your portfolio. It’s almost as if you are pouring the foundations to construct your portfolio at a later time. The packs you compile and the pages you put together don’t even need to be the final versions, the point here is just to be totally focused on what you want to convey through your work. As you create these packs each week, through separate InDesign files (which we will talk about later on), you’ll find it a walk in the park when you’re preparing for crits or submissions. Similarly, it will let you see exactly how much work you are producing each week. During my undergrad, I often felt like I wasn’t doing as much work as I should be or that I was spending weeks on end trying to fix the same drawing. These packs will let you set some boundaries and help you know when to stop working on something or when it’s time to pull elements from something you’ve already done.

Creating a Narrative

One thing you’ll pick up on when you’re looking at successful architecture portfolios is that they all have a strong narrative. Sure, you can construct a whole world and story behind your project or why it should be built in this specific place or way, but these qualities also need to come through your work. How do you go about creating a narrative for your project? The most important thing is to think about what you’re passionate about. Being completely immersed in the desire to learn about a trade or speculate on the future will let you form the narrative in a much more organic and exciting way.

The first step is to break down the brief and identify the bits that stick out to you the most. The next part involves consistent research. This doesn’t necessarily need to be related to architecture because your precedents and references can be from literature, film and other media. Think about what kinds of things inspire you or why you find a particular project interesting. Is it the innovative use of materials or the way in which it takes the surroundings and context into account. Or perhaps it could just be the very purpose and programme of the building that appeals to you. Either way, the research you do will form a strong basis for the narrative you create.

When preparing for a crit, the first thing I always do is get out the printed pages I already have and spread them across the floor. Then I get a new page in my sketchbook and draw thumbnails of each page. Afterwards, I go through and sort them or add in pages I might need to add. This whole thing doesn’t take very long but can help with getting some clarity on what you need to work on or edit. Using a traffic light system to show you how far you’re along can really help ease the pressure too. Chances are if you are creating drawing packs each week, most of your pages are already near completion and may simply need some last-minute formatting. Which brings me on to the skill aspect of portfolio building.

Using InDesign

In my first year of architecture school I didn’t use InDesign at all so my portfolio was spread over various folders and physical drawings or collages, which often meant that the structure itself was changing or being edited. It also meant that there wasn’t a clear flow throughout the project. With InDesign you can easily move pages around and edit to your heart’s content so you never have to worry about missing pages.

I honestly can’t think of any other way of putting together a portfolio or even a simple presentation without InDesign. Although it is a bit of an awkward one to use as compared to Photoshop and Illustrator, InDesign gets the job done. There are a few different things you can do to make your life much easier as well. For starters, having a theme or even a simple colour palette combined with an apt font pairing can make all the difference. I usually download mine from Coolors or make my own in Illustrator. If you have a reference image or an initial collage or render and want to stick to that aesthetic you can also use the Colour Theme Tool to extract your own colour palette. This is great because you can then also add these as a colour swatch to use throughout the document.

Another great feature I use is Paragraph Styles. Ideally you want there to be hierarchy in the format of your text. This basically just means a different font, size and colour for headings as compared to body text or captions. You can set these out yourself and edit them whenever you wish, which will automatically change all the instances of that type of style. It also helps when creating a Table of Contents for your portfolio. If you don’t know how to do this, I recommend checking out this tutorial below.

Another great feature which I’m sure you must know about already are the Master pages. Here you can add in automatic page numbers, blank frames for headings or grids and even a background if you wish. I’d say make use of these small tools and try learning more about InDesign outside of it too because you never know when you can come across a tool that could make your life easier. If in doubt, just Google the issue or problem you think could be streamlined and see if it can be done.

What to Include in your Portfolio

I know the obvious answer here is just your work. But sometimes it goes beyond that. I think there are two extremes when it comes to the contents of a portfolio. Some students go all in and try to cram every little thing they’ve produced on every page, leaving it looking congested and messy. Others over-edit and overthink the smaller details, resulting in awkwardly abstract pages that don’t reflect the amount of hard work actually gone into the project. There is a fine balance that is achieved by having the ability to identify what is worth putting in the portfolio as well as the kinds of things you want to give importance to.

I personally think students should be able to have a little fun with their portfolio and really allow the essence of the project to shine through. For example, my project looks at the future of shopping and how in the future, physical shopping is basically non-existent. The aim is to revive a nostalgic shopping culture like looking through catalogues. Inspired by this, I used one of my 3D models to render an image that could pass as a catalogue cover and used it as the title page for my portfolio. You can absolutely play it safe and be quite minimal and pared back in terms of the design, but isn’t it more fun to experiment a little?

Precedents

In early drafts of my portfolio, I was so focused on making sure that each page had something to say or was able to represent the work I had done whether it was a collage or some research. I had totally forgotten about adding any precedents. For me, these didn’t necessarily need to take the limelight but after a conversation with my tutors I realised that it’s perfectly acceptable to include projects and references on their own pages. This will essentially give those marking your work a better idea of the origins of your ideas and allow them to understand how your ideas were formulated.

Take One Thing Off

Have you ever heard of the fashion advice, before you leave the house, take one item or accessory off? Sometimes we can overdo it or try and squeeze bits of information or drawings onto a page because we think it might need it. Most of the time that’s not true. Once you’ve put together a draft of your portfolio, give yourself some time apart from it and come back with a fine toothed comb. Think about whether there is anything you can break down into multiple pages or whether that particular pages really needs the over-the-top border around it. Keeping things extremely clear shows maturity and a better level of self-respect for your own work.

Similarly, another thing I’ve learned recently is that your portfolio doesn’t need to follow a typical structure that you see with other portfolios. My project didn’t even have a particular site for the main part of the first term. So at first, it did feel awkward not having your typical ‘site’ related pages. But it didn’t mean the project was weak because of it. All I’m saying is that it’s good to refer to examples of previous portfolios to understand the structure or narrative but it does not have to determine the trajectory of your project.

Frequently Asked Questions

Nobody expects you to come up with an entire 30-40 page portfolio in a week. In fact I think the students who see this as their only option do themselves a huge disservice. Even if you haven’t been consistently producing any work each week, it doesn’t mean that you have to start from scratch just because a deadline is coming up. My number one advice is just to keep working on it and work through chunks of time. It’s healthy to take breaks from working on your portfolio in order to give yourself a fresh set of eyes when you come back to it.

Additionally, if you split your portfolio into sections or phases of work, it can help you to split up your tasks over short periods of time. This can be sections of your project such as initial ideas and design exploration or it could be according to the timeline of the project.

Something that helped me keep organised and have a space to interact with references I had collected is Notion. Notion has been an immensly powerful tool (as I knew it would be) for all aspects of university. You can not only track the progress of your portfolio by creating a bespoke table to plan and organise each page but you can also link references and update as you go. It has also been a great way to compile the research I have done or projects that I am inspired by. Being able to look at this whenver I wish, through whichever device may I add, is also a convenient factor.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, quality does matter over quantity. But you can’t dismiss the quantity completely either. Good ideas are born out of new ones which means that iteration plays a key role in the progression and evolution of your portfolio. Keep working at it, keep refining your work and make sure that whatever you end up putting on the page, is a result of having fun with your work and experimenting till something clicks.

Research plays a huge role in making sure that your portfolio represents the narrative of your project. I think that is something I’ve taken away from putting together a system to work on this throughout the last few months. As always, if you have any questions or would like to have a chat, feel free to message me on Instagram or join the community on Discord.

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