Portfolios are possibly the single most important part of getting a job in Interior Design. Yes it matters who you know, yes it matters where you have worked, but a good portfolio will get you farther than either of those things combined. This post is a round up of everything I have learned from experience, in class, and online about putting together a professional portfolio. There are a lot of great articles to be read on this subject, but a lot of them are written for graphic or web designers. For further reading, this one from Fast Company is especially helpful.
Disclaimer: This post is for students and designers who are looking to get hired at a professional Interior Design or Architecture firm. Some of these ideas might apply to freelancers or self employed sole practitioners, but I have no experience in that area so I'm not the best person to talk to. Also, it goes without saying that there are a lot of good ways to present yourself in this format. If something I say here doesn't align with you or your goals, feel free to disregard. This post outlines my approach to putting together a portfolio, which means that it won't apply to everyone. And that's okay!
What is a Portfolio?
A document or presentation that showcases your best work. It is composed of a collection of projects that communicate who you are as a designer and show off your technical skills. Designed to be viewed by prospective employers or clients, portfolios are the key to landing your dream job and getting more work!
Who Needs A Portfolio?
Anyone seeking employment in a creative or architectural field.
Why Do You Need One?
Short Answer: Because you can't get a job without one. But more importantly, portfolios communicate your identity as a designer. Employers want to know what you can do, but they also want to know who you are. Portfolios are the best way to introduce yourself before they actually meet you.
Who Looks at a Portfolio? When do they look at it?
Prospective employers or clients. Most firms will require a digital copy when you send in your Cover Letter and Resume, and ask you to walk them through it at some point during the interview.
Digital vs Print?
Both. When you email a portfolio to an employer, it needs to be able to stand on it's own and tell a story without you being there to explain it. I have had interviews where digital presentation was available, but I have also had to present the hard copy (we were at a coffee shop). I prefer to prepare for both. There is a lot to be said about having a website, especially if you are a graphic or web designer...but I rarely used mine when looking for jobs after college. Everywhere I applied asked for a PDF at some point, so it just seemed silly to keep paying for the domain name.
Step 1: Gather Your Content
Figuring out what to put in a portfolio is both the easiest an hardest part of this process. On one hand, it isn't too hard to pull your best projects. We all have our favorites. On the other hand, it can be difficult to figure out which projects show the breadth of your skills the best. In general I follow two rules:
Rule Number 1: Quality over Quantity. A good portfolio has about 6-10 projects in it. My current portfolio has 8 projects: 4 professional projects, 2 from school, and 2 "one pagers" that highlight a particular skill that isn't shown anywhere else. It is better to go in depth for a few projects than barely grace the surface on many. You don't want to be judged on your weakest work.
Rule Number 2: Show process. Sexy, photo-realistic renderings of beautiful spaces are a dime a dozen. Sure, they are fun to look at, but your portfolio should have more than just finished renderings. Show at least a few sketches, bubble diagrams, floor plans, elevations, etc. to showcase your thought process and prove that you are a designer who solves real problems, not just a masterful Photoshop queen.
When selecting projects, be really careful about ownership. Quick turnaround solo projects are pretty easy to present, but when you start working on larger projects with larger teams, things get complicated. A few things to watch out for are:
Most firms require you to sign a confidentiality agreement when you get hired in to protect themselves and the client. I never thought twice about it until I updated my portfolio (routine maintenance) and realized that of the nine projects I had worked on, only one of them was actually completed. The rest were either in construction or still in Design Development. This meant that everything I had worked on for the past year and a half was still classified and could not be shown outside the company. How are you supposed to communicate what you can do if you can't show the work?
At the end of the day, signing a contract means giving your word, and that word must be kept. I talked to a few designers to see how they handled this issue and the group was divided. A few said to not worry about it, and a few said to uphold the contract and omit the projects. I ended up doing both. I created a "Past Work" infographic page that lists the job name, location, square footage, and my role in the project, with a disclaimer stating that in order to uphold client confidentiality, all plans and renderings have been withheld. So far it has been well received by those who have seen it.
It's a tough conundrum, but after a lot of going back and forth I realized that if a company disqualifies me because I chose to uphold an agreement made to a previous employer, it is not a company I want to work for.
Renderings You Didn't Do
Our office is big enough to have two "rendering guys." These guys are artists and know everything there is to know about 3D Max, Lumion, Photoshop, Vray, you name it. Sometimes in a large project, your role is to select furniture and do floor plans, and send the info to someone else to render. If this happens, be sure to be honest about it in the interview and clearly state your role in the project somewhere on the page.
Projects You Didn't Really Design
As discussed above, sometimes your role in a large project is completely behind the scenes. Sometimes you spend your first few months on the job in a Construction Administration role for a project who's Design Development phase you were not present for. In general, it's best to avoid putting these projects in a portfolio, but if you don't have a choice you can try to do what I did.
Using a two page spread, I used a sexy, wide angle shot of the completed project with a description of the job and project goals on the first page. On the second page I used four close up shots of the details that I worked on specifically with a keyed description of exactly what I did and the intent behind it. One was a custom light fixture, one was a seating area, you get the idea.
Eventually this issue goes away as you advance in your career, but this can be tricky when you're just starting out. Right now, I don't specifically state what is from school and what isn't (even though it's kind of obvious), but in the interview I am very up front about it and use it as a story-telling opportunity.
Once again, it is really important to be up front about what your role in the project was. You don't have to write "group project" on the page, but I always mention it in the interview for full disclosure.
Step 2: Decide on a Page Size
This is controversial, but I just don't have time for fancy page sizes. Some people will tell you that in order to stand out, you need to have a square or uniquely shaped portfolio, but I disagree. You want the interviewer to remember the content, not the shape of the portfolio. Plus, cutting each individual page to a different size takes a ridiculous amount of time and yields very little impact. Clearly the people who have square shaped portfolios have never gotten a last minute interview, stayed up all night making updates/final edits, gone to work the next morning, and printed it out at FedEx during lunch before making it to the interview at 2pm. No time to cut new pages.
My best advice is to make it 8.5 x 11 or 11 x 17 and be done with it. Mine is 8.5 x 11 so I can slip it into a tote bag and bring it places easily. It's travel sized if you will. At the end of the day, your work is what is going to get you the job. Not the shape of your portfolio.
Step 3: Pick an an Order
Chronological makes the most sense because your employers want to see what you have done recently, but ideally it should go from strongest to weakest. Aim to make it a mixture of the two. You want to grab their attention while they're fresh, and put the project that you want to spend the most time on first. That being said, people tend to remember the last thing that is presented, so try not to end with a weak project. If you can, hide the clunkers (um...less strong projects) in the middle and don't spend too much time on them when presenting.
Step 4: Gather Inspiration
Pinterest and Behance are obvious helpers here. Try searching for editorial and graphic design spreads to find inspiration. Pay attention to different layouts, fonts, sizes, and the amount of white space. Definitely pay attention to the amount of white space. Find a few options that you like and use them as a jumping off point. I really like the example below because it is clean, simple, and impeccably laid out. It looks editorial and professional, which is the look that I generally go for.
Another good tip is to look at the websites of firms you would love to work at. What types of fonts do they use and what is the composition like? Is it black, white, and minimal? Or is their style more maximalist? Take notes. Chances are that they will be looking for a designer who understands their brand, so using a website can be a good idea starter.
But don't over-do it. To me, when applying to an interior design position, your portfolio should highlight your interior design work, not your illustration or graphic design skills. Unless it's relevant to the position. Remember, graphic designers are selling a different product than interior designers are, and an architecture firm will be looking for something different than an ad agency. Most firms will be interested in your interiors work first, therefore it should be the most prominent. You never want the design of the portfolio to distract or take away from the work itself.
When browsing Pinterest, it's easy to get starry eyed and go overboard. For example, you might see the image below and think it would be cool to make all your photos hexagon shaped. But is that really the best way to display your renderings? Or will the interviewer have to look past the graphics to see the work? Whatever design or aesthetic you choose, the sole purpose of a portfolio is to showcase your skills as an interior designer. As you are looking for inspiration, do not lose sight of that objective.
Step 5: Storyboard/Layout Tips
After you have decided on an aesthetic, storyboard how you want the portfolio to read. Grab a pen and a roll of trace paper and start experimenting. Do you want the layout to stay the same on each page or do you want it to read like a magazine? This diagram (originally created to understand the layout patterns of Kinfolk magazine) is incredibly helpful. Remember, a spread is two pages wide and each page needs to read like one composition. Play around with a couple of ideas and see what works.
Step 6: Put It All Together
Most designers I know used InDesign to put their portfolio together, myself included. This stage, very similar to putting together a finish board, is pure experimentation. Check your spacing, fuss with the sizing, and move everything around until it works. Use your knowledge of design principles to guide you.
Also, make sure each project has enough context so whoever is reading it can understand clearly if you are not there to explain it. Beyond the project name and location, consider talking about the goals and constraints of the project. If you worked with a project team, make sure to list your exact role and special contributions. Highlight special details that make the design special or creatively met the clients needs. Don't skimp on the written portion of each project. Remember, photos are fun to look at, but employers want to see how you think, how you solve problems, and what makes your process different than the other candidates. Tell a story.
Once you have got the meat of the portfolio finished, add in the extras. My portfolio includes the following:
- Cover - This is pretty obvious, but it makes a design statement and gives the portfolio cohesive, professional look.
- Table of Contents - For organizational purposes; don't forget to number the pages inside!
- Resume/Meet __________ Page - A more graphic and detailed resume. This is where I go into more depth about my accomplishments and projects in past jobs.
- "Past Work" Infographic - My way of discussing projects I have worked on at my most recent job without violating Confidentiality Agreements.
- Ending Page - Something to flip to at the end of your presentation so it doesn't end abruptly with a "So...yeah...that's it." Mine says "Thank You" with the little logo I made for myself.
Step 7: Get It Made
Young Architect has a really fantastic article about this here, but I wanted to throw in my two cents. While it is always an option to get it professionally printed or bound, I don't personally do this. Instead, I print out the pages on high quality paper and slip them into the plastic sleeves of a presentation portfolio. Why? Because in the past three years I have changed jobs three times! I interned during my senior year of college, interned somewhere else after moving across the state, and landed my first real (non internship) job shortly after. I can't afford to keep reprinting it! At this point in my life, flexibility and changeability are really important to me, and being able to update and tailor my portfolio is a top priority.
That being said, there are a lot of articles on the internet telling designers to do whatever they possibly can to stand out and make their portfolio memorable. To me, it is more important that an interviewer remember your work, not the package it comes in. If it's not realistic to get a new portfolio bound and printed every time you decide to go on an interview, I can tell you from experience that the world won't end. If you keep it sophisticated and professional, there is no need to stress out about it.
Tailor Your Portfolio to the Job Posting This is only possible if your portfolio has removable pages, but if you are applying to a residential design firm, it might not be the best idea to have a portfolio full of commercial projects. Not saying you won't get the job, but it will make you look like you didn't do much research before going in for the interview. I currently have 8 projects (mostly retail and offices) in my portfolio, but I keep both a hospitality and education project ready to go if it is relevant to the firm I am interviewing at.
Update it Frequently Even if you're not job searching, this is a good habit to get into. It's better to add projects while they are fresh in your mind instead of trying to remember the details five years later. Similarly, it's a good idea to update little by little instead of attempting to overhaul the whole thing when it becomes necessary. That being said, some jobs are more stable than others. I know people who have been at the same firm for twenty years, and people who have jumped around every four years for their entire career. Update your portfolio based on your circumstances. Because I am still in the process of replacing school projects with finished professional projects, I update mine once a year at the minimum.
Make it Easy to Change I have said it before, but a portfolio is a living, evolving document. It is not a "one and done" body of work, and should adapt and change as you do. As you grow as a designer, your tastes will change, you will have more work to add, and you will want to stay current with graphic trends. Do yourself a favor and choose a design that is simple and easy to add/take away from.
Archive Your Past Work Hopefully you have already been doing this, but take special care to archive your past work so it's easy to find whenever you need it.
So there you have it.
Oversimplified? Maybe. Helpful? Hopefully. As with anything, there are a lot of good ways to do this. What works for me might not work for you, and that's okay. You know your strengths and preferences, so trust your gut. At the end of the day it's your portfolio, and it should look like you. Don't over complicate it and let your work be the focus, not the fancy fonts or layout.
Like I said before, there is so much discourse about doing whatever you possibly can to stand out in this job market, and I don't know if I buy it. I don't think I want to work for a company that hires based on who screams the loudest. I want to work for a company that values good work. My portfolio reflects that.