What do clients look for in a portfolio?
Here at BlackSofa, we try to work on fewer jobs so that we can spend more time with our clients and candidates to provide them with a more personal and higher quality service. We pride ourselves on meeting ALL of our candidates on a personal level and take our time to look and talk through portfolios with candidates and spend as much time as it takes to understand you and your work, giving feedback and advice on what is a very personal subject, your portfolio (Your greatest hits album!)
We ask all candidates to present their portfolios to us, as:
a) This gives us a much clearer understanding of your work and allows us to help you find suitable studios to match your requirements and passions
b) It allows us to provide constructive feedback on your presentations and help improve presenting skills as most design interviews will involve presenting your portfolio. Presenting projects is also an important skill to have when presenting to clients or pitching for new business, and will become more prevalent as you rise through the ranks.
I specialise in landscape architecture, urban design and planning so my advice will be particularly aimed at those fields but the examples will be interchangeable and apply equally to other architecture and design specialisms.
What do you want to convey in your portfolio?
Designers are rightfully very proud and protective of their portfolios as it should encapsulate your career to date. A good portfolio should display as broad a range of experience, designs, sectors and software’s as possible, and should also demonstrate an evolution of your experience and career. I am often asked: “Should I include university work in my portfolio? and Should I include projects or graphics that were collaborative or outsourced?” The short answer to both questions is YES!
I still work with some leading directors in the industry who are still proud of projects they completed at university and include these in their portfolio today to show the evolution of their work. As with explaining any design process (which I will come to later) it is not about where you end up that clients want to see but how you got there, and showing the evolution of yourself through your work and projects is a useful way of explaining who you are through your experiences.
A portfolio should also mirror in some ways a development brochure/report i.e have a professional mixture of images, technical details, renders and text supporting and explaining your design process and concept, whilst simultaneously telling the story of the project. it should not be a selection of unrelated images! Though not all of the images or text on the page need to be your own.
Almost all professional projects are collaborative processes; this should not stop you including outsourced renders or other people’s contributions if they add to the overall aesthetic and objective. Just be honest when explaining your contribution to the interviewer, for example: “ I was responsible for the conceptual design with directorial supervision, the renders were outsourced and I led on the design code while my colleague led on the technical detailing”
An easy way to give the reader or interviewer a brief overview of each project, is having a corner box or header laying out the client, sub consultants, location, project brief i.e Residential masterplan for 250 units in Sevenoaks, Kent for Barrett homes (fictional example of course!). This sounds obvious but will save you time explaining to your interviewers the basic overview of every project, giving you more time to explain your design process and responsibilities on the project. It also adds to the impression of clarity and a professional layout.
Who is your audience?
The key to any interview is understanding your audience i.e the studio and role you are interviewing for. I will always give you a detailed briefing on any studio prior to interview, and provide links to the studios projects, who you will be meeting, and what they will look for from you. However personal research is also important to get a better understanding of the studio for yourself and to evaluate: What skill sets/experience are they looking for from you? What are their specialities/key project areas? It is often a good idea to have a few projects that you can interchange into your portfolio to demonstrate various skill sets, sector experience, project stages worked on and software used.
Interviews and portfolios rely on the interviewers or readers perceptions, so if you do not demonstrate various skill sets, stages, sectors etc how is the interviewer meant to know you have that experience? So always try and demonstrate a broad selection but also tailor your samples to the specific client/role. For instance if the job spec is looking for a senior landscape architect to lead on technical detailing and you know the studio predominantly works on residential projects using Revit. If you have experience in these areas, it stands to reason that your chances of securing the role increase exponentially if you include and highlight projects that demonstrate these skill sets.
Some candidate’s work on very similar projects due to the nature of the studio they work for. However if this is the case, for example an urban designer who has predominantly worked on greenfield residential masterplans. It is beneficial to include as much diversity as possible to showcase the range of your abilities. This might mean displaying any other projects in different sectors that you have worked on at previous studios such as health, residential, mixed use etc, different RIBA stages worked on (clients like to see experience in as many RIBA stages as possible) so it is always good to highlight this when you are presenting in an interview.
Another question I get asked a lot is by candidates working on predominantly international projects is “How do I make my portfolio more attractive to studios working on primarily or solely UK projects?” The answer to this is to highlight the UK projects you have worked on in your portfolio and spend more time presenting these in an interview to demonstrate you understand the differences between working on International projects vs UK projects. It is easy to get pigeon holed by employers as you could have an incredible portfolio of doing ground breaking projects that you would never get the scope to work on in the UK such as masterplanning a new city for 50,000 people in Africa or landscaping a Middle Eastern Princes palace. But the reality is that the scale, scope and differences in working on these projects have little relevance to most UK projects which are mostly on a completely different scale.
If you are looking for a new role and it is likely you will be interviewing at maybe a few studios, it is worthwhile practicing presenting your portfolio. As with anything in life, the more times you do it, the better you become at it. Not everyone is naturally comfortable or confident standing up and presenting to strangers in an interview, this is only natural and can be easily improved! I say to all candidates who are interviewing, ask your partner or house mate if you can pour them a drink and sit them down for 20 minutes whilst you present your portfolio to them, the more you do it the more comfortable you become doing it and start to build up a flow, you will find the words will come more easily when under pressure in an interview.
You will probably not have time to present your entire portfolio in depth at an interview so it is best to pick out maybe 3-4 projects which are the most relevant to that specific client as explained above, and present those projects in a good level of detail. Luckily the vast majority of candidates I work with are incredibly passionate about what they do and this really shines through when they present. This is one of the most attractive qualities to display for a candidate. However sometimes with incredible passion (which is definitely a good thing) it can be easy to “waffle” in these situations and end up not getting your point across concisely, so try and approach every project with a structure. For example for each project break it down into 4 stages:
- Brief overview of the project: Listing Client, collaborations with other studios/sub consultants, project brief and objective.
- Responsibilities: Discus the stage or stages your studio and you personally worked on and what your personal responsibilities were in each stage, highlighting particular images/reports in the portfolio that you were directly responsible for
- Explain your design process: outlining parameters and breaking the process down; explaining site constraints, influencing factors such as client demands to increase profits vs planning issues, how did you go about solving these issues?
- Current project update: for example: I/we completed conceptual design, then passed it on to XYZ who developed our concept in this way, the project is now in phase 2 of construction, was there anything you learned or would have done differently? (You may have to look this up if you were involved in an earlier stage and the project is still on-going, but it is nice to finish the story in any presentation, and shows you took an interest and pride in the wider project, not just your bit)