How to Create the Perfect Architecture Portfolio

When preparing for a job interview or a pitch meeting with a prospective client, your portfolio plays a key role in telling your story and demonstrating why you are the best choice for the opportunity.

We interviewed five industry professionals to get their perspective on the most effective portfolio media. Plus, they share the best ways to organize and present your portfolio, given the new design and presentation technology available in today’s workplace.

Paper Versus PDF

There seems to be an even split between preference for a hard copy portfolio and a digital one. “I actually dislike when a candidate tries to present their work on an iPad—or worse yet, an iPad Mini,” said Robert L. Holzbach, AIA, LEED AP, Associate Principal, Director of Staff Operations at Hickok Cole Architects.

“Tablets are too small and they make the interview awkward as we try to crowd around a tiny screen,” agreed Brian Earle, AIA, Senior Associate at KGD Architecture. “We’re seeing more iPads used [in interviews], but we still prefer hard copies.”

On the other side of the debate, Cristina Tudor, AIA, Project Manager at DLR Group and NCARB committee member, prefers the flexibility of a website-based portfolio. “A website showcases different facets of my personality and portfolio, such as projects I’ve designed or managed, along with creative interests such as photography and product design.”

Jeremy Welu, AIA, Partner at DELV Design and also an NCARB committee member, sees more students setting up websites that include studio projects, bios, sketchbooks, and narratives explaining each sample. “This format can be very effective in choreographing the story the [applicant] is trying to tell.”

Organizing Your Portfolio

In most cases, your portfolio is the first contact that a prospective client or employer will have with you. Portfolios should be simple and clear, with logical section breaks and lots of white space. “Try not to cram too much information on a page, but have legible plans, site plans, sections, etc.,” said Eric Jenkins, AIA, Associate Professor at The Catholic University of America School of Architecture and Planning. For inspiration, he recommended looking at online portfolios on Flickr “as an employer might do—quickly and with a critical eye.”

The portfolio should include a broad range of skills, said Earle. “We want to understand how proficient you are with various design media; not just digital, but hand media, like sketching and model making.” Another tip from Earle is “using unbound card stock for your portfolio. This allows multiple sheets to be spread out on a table or handed around [during an interview].”

Holzbach added that candidates should focus on key points or skills and “use the portfolio to hammer those points. For example, are you (1) a strong designer with (2) great graphic and (3) computer modeling skills? Make sure that your portfolio has images [and examples] that support those points.”

Tools for Effective Portfolios

New design and presentation tools are being introduced every year. Our panel of experts recommended the following programs and apps:

  • iBooks Author: Creates a book with images, animation, slides, presentations, and more that can be displayed on a Mac or iPad
  • Prezi: Cloud-based presentation tool, a virtual canvas
  • GoodReader: App similar to Dropbox for file management and sharing
  • Weebly: Free Web page design and hosting service

Tell your Story

In summary, while our experts might disagree about the best media for portfolios, they all believe that it is a candidate’s best tool for “telling their story.” “Whether the portfolio is physical printouts or digital, most important is hearing them talk through their projects, their personality, how well they communicate design, what they are passionate about,” says Welu. “It always comes down to their work. Don’t let technology get in the way of that.”

About the Author

Susan C. Rink is principal of Rink Strategic Communications, LLC, which specializes in providing workplace advice and strategic employee communications counsel to executives in marketing, public relations, and human resources. Rink launched her consulting practice in 2007 after nearly 20 years in corporate internal communications leadership positions at Marriott International, Nextel Communications, and Sprint Nextel. Rink Strategic Communications clients range from large, multinational companies to small nonprofit organizations, representing a variety of industries including information technology, retail, and the performing arts.