Part 2 - Composing a Personal Narrative
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I. The Search for Employment: Preparing a Professional Resume and Portfolio Sample
From the distribution of resumes to the performance at personal interviews, the search for employment is entirely about maintaining a positive attitude and learning how to effectively market your talent, skills and professional experience. In today’s economic climate, job seekers who exhibit high levels of endurance, keep their spirits elevated and stay active in the profession will be the most successful in securing new employment. The following article will provide guidance on organizing the job search, building positive professional relationships, introducing yourself to an employer through a carefully composed resume and cover letter, and effectively marketing your design talent and visual presentation skills with an impressive portfolio sample.
A. Overcoming the Ghost of Recessions Past
For those designers who fear a replay of the early 1990’s recession and the “lost generation” that followed, rest assured that there is evidence the design world has changed significantly enough in the last two decades to make this highly unlikely. For many architects, this recession is proving to be a test of endurance and commitment to the profession. With an extremely high unemployment rate among our peers, the question, “Do I really want to pursue a career in architecture?” is foremost on everyone’s mind. Many senior architects will recall the recession of the early 1990’s where we essentially lost an entire generation of architects who were either just emerging from design school and unable to find jobs or were forced out of high profile design positions and needed to pursue a different career path for survival. Stories from this time period quickly became legendary, such as the “Halloween Massacre of 1991” where SOM laid off 150 employees from their Chicago office the day after Halloween. (Source Chicago Sun Times, Building on Tradition, September 24, 2006). Dark humor also developed as a coping mechanism, with such jokes as: How do you call an architect in New York City?....Yell Taxi! For those designers who fear a replay of the early 1990’s recession and the “lost generation” that followed, rest assured that there is evidence the design world has changed significantly enough in the last two decades to make this highly unlikely. In response to the wave of technological advancements that have transformed the architectural profession in recent years, design education has expanded to include instruction in complex digital software utilized by both architects and members of other industries including: graphic design, aeronautical engineering, computer animation and video game development, web design and cinematography. This type of comprehensive training and cross fertilization with other industries may allow young designers to branch out into other professions, slipping in and out of architecture during an economic downturn, without straying too far from the tools of our industry.
As an evolving profession, architecture has also been subject to the forces of globalization which has linked our collective future with that of the international market. The process of globalization has been accelerated by advancements in communications and digital technology, the emergence of international and virtual offices and the ambitious plans of emerging world powers such as China, India, and the United Arab Emirates who are still financing large scale development. By plugging into the global economy with the ease of communication and digital advancement, architects now work to satisfy the needs of multiple nations simultaneously with revenue and development contingent upon factors such as energy prices in the middle east and government stimulus spending in China. Within an expanded marketplace, our profession has effectively linked its future with that of international finance, industry and commerce, and as they rise again, so shall we.
Architecture is an extremely close knit and interconnected profession. Job seekers are often most successful in securing employment through personal referrals, positive professional relationships and interaction with a diverse pool of professionals through involvement in design groups and networking activities. The search for employment should include a balance of both proactive and reactive strategies.
When seeking employment, it is important to proactively reach out to everyone you know and keep your finger on the pulse of the job market to maintain a sense of who is busy and who may be hiring in the future. Although re-actively applying to jobs posted on industry-standard job boards like Archinect Jobs can sometimes yield an offer of employment, once a position is publicly advertised it may already be too late to capture it. With each advertised position drawing hundreds of resumes, the formation of personal relationships with professionals in the field has become indispensable. Individuals who get to know you as a talented person first and an applicant second, are more inclined to contact you when a position becomes available. Whether currently employed or seeking employment, always work to create positive relationships with clients, peers, professors, professional contacts and those you meet from other firms and industries, as you never know who will be instrumental in securing the next position. Architects who are currently unemployed should stay involved in the profession by taking continuing education courses (some of which are offered for free or at a reduced rate), preparing for licensing exams, serving on community boards and academic design juries, marketing your work via website, starting a blog and volunteering with civic or architectural organizations.
When seeking employment, it is important to proactively reach out to everyone you know and keep your finger on the pulse of the job market to maintain a sense of who is busy and who may be hiring in the future. These leads can be extremely valuable in securing both part time and full time work. Former clients with whom you have built a positive professional relationship may need an owner’s representative, contractors may require construction management services, home owners and real estate brokers may need design or visualization services for the creation of marketing materials and teaching positions may become available at a local university. In addition, professional networking websites such as Guru.com and Linkedin are excellent tools for creating an online profile to present your resume and market freelance services. Clients can easily contact you through these sites.
Those designers who are still engaged in academia should begin the search for summer or full time employment in early March, as many firms will begin to evaluate staffing needs at this time. In addition to social networking and professional involvement, it is also necessary to keep your application materials current and proactively distribute your resume. Those designers who are still engaged in academia should begin the search for summer or full time employment in early March, as many firms will begin to evaluate staffing needs at this time. Distribute resumes to firms who are both actively advertising positions or remaining silent. Most architectural firms have an extensive list of potential applicants which eliminates the need for publicizing a position, even if they are actively hiring. Furthermore, a sudden influx of design work may require rapid hiring at firms who are not currently advertising positions. In addition, all full time applicants should contact several recruiters for assistance in the search for employment. While some firms have recently discontinued the use of professional recruiters to cut costs, others will still employ these individuals to quickly secure qualified applicants as they do not want to go through the arduous process of posting job advertisements and sifting through hundreds of resumes. Compile a list of professional references and always have it readily available for recruiters and potential employers. Maintain a friendly relationship with all references and keep in touch periodically to let them know how you are doing. Former supervisors and coworkers will often be able to provide insight on market trends, advice on resume preparation and where to apply, personal referrals and may even offer you a position if conditions are favorable at their respective office. Finally, keep a finger on the pulse of the profession by browsing websites of design firms in your region and keeping track of who is winning projects. Even if no position is advertised, you should proactively send resumes to firms who appear to be receiving new work as they may require staff in the near future. A successful job search requires a balance between obtaining referrals through personal networking and marketing your professional experience through direct application.
C. Preparing for Layoffs
In today’s turbulent economy, everyone should work hard to secure their professional position while simultaneously preparing for the possibility of being laid off. Taking proactive measures such as constantly updating your resume, references and work samples, collecting materials from completed projects, gathering email addresses of potentially valuable contacts and solidifying positive relationships with coworkers and managers will enable you to quickly transition into the search for a new position. Those who fall victim to layoffs should negotiate severance packages and ensure that everything is in place for collecting unemployment and receiving extended benefits such as health insurance coverage. The average severance package is roughly two weeks salary for every year an employee has been with the company. Always leave on good terms as you will need the positive references of supervisors and coworkers to secure future employment. Before leaving, try to secure a recommendation letter from a supervisor or partner for future use in the search for new employment.
D. Experience vs. Employment Duration
Architecture is an extremely fluid profession where many designers change jobs frequently to increase salary and obtain a wide range of diverse experiences. A study released by NCARB in 2003 indicated that the average intern switches jobs every 1.5 – 2 years. In addition, the current recession has put many architects out of work and consequently punched significant holes in what are otherwise very strong design resumes. Economic factors aside, an employment history which shows consistent migration from one employer to the next after only a few months to a year of employment may reflect poorly on your application. While some potential employers may appreciate the diverse experience the applicant gains by jumping from firm to firm and project to project, many will view such a candidate as a flight risk. Therefore, when searching for an architectural position, it is important to look for a firm where you can envision yourself staying for at least 2 to 3 years to develop a strong relationship with partners and key players, play an important role in the firm’s operation, and see more projects through to completion. In the current economic climate, where designers are falling victim to mass layoffs (sometimes twice in the same year) and are forced to jump from one employer to the next for survival, this type of employment migration is usually excused. However, when searching for the next position, it is still important to develop a personal list of criteria that make a professional environment desirable enough to stay for an extended period of time.
E. Unpaid Internships
The United States Department of Labor requires any employee whose efforts benefit the employer both directly and indirectly to be compensated under the laws governing minimum wage. Unpaid internships have been the target of much debate, especially in a weak economy and within a volatile profession such as architecture, where staffing practices are often subject to cycles of bingeing and purging. According to the United States Department of Labor, unpaid internships are illegal. Furthermore, NCARB and the AIA do not allow unpaid interns to receive IDP credit for any work that is not compensated under the laws governing minimum wage. If an employee is doing something that directly benefits the firm or contributes to revenue, it is considered work and working to benefit any corporate entity without adequate compensation (minimum wage) is illegal in the United States.
The illegal practice of failing to compensate interns has eaten through the architectural profession like a cancer. In addition to the ethical and moral considerations inherent with the failure to compensate employees and effectively transforming them into slaves, there are monetary consequences which have a far reaching impact on the profession as a whole. Employers who utilize unpaid labor are able to keep their fees lower and have an unfair advantage over those firms who are abiding by the law. This practice has the potential to create a chain reaction where more employers may be forced to either use unpaid labor or reduce the salary of full time employees. The inevitable result is salary erosion which can cut across the entire profession affecting all designers at all levels. If a large number of skilled or unskilled interns are willing to work for free, there is little incentive for employers to adequately compensate other skilled designers of the same level.
Furthermore, this practice may not be the “gateway to the profession”, “right of passage” or “foot in the door” that many young designers believe it to be. Many reputable firms who abide by legal employment guidelines frown upon those who exploit unpaid interns as well as the interns themselves. While reviewing resumes, studio managers may choose to bypass those applicants who work for firms who are known for employing unpaid interns. By working for free, these employees are showing that they do not value their education, talent, skills, work ethic, experience or personal integrity enough to demand monetary compensation for professional efforts. As one such reputable firm’s principle explained to me, “We just throw those resumes in the trash.”
The United States Department of Labor requires any employee whose efforts benefit the employer both directly and indirectly to be compensated under the laws governing minimum wage. They maintain the following position as outlined. In order to qualify as an unpaid internship, the requirement is simple: no work can be performed that is of any benefit at all to the company. That is, you can not deliver mail, sort files, file papers, organize a person’s calendar, conduct market research, write reports, watch television shows and report on them, read scripts, schedule interviews, or any other job that assists the employer in any way in running their business.
Examples of internships that have been legal are where the job is a “dummy” job. For example, there was a case of an internship for working on a train. The company had the interns driving trains from one end of their yard to the other under close supervision. The moving of the trains was completely unnecessary and was just being done to train the potential employees. As such, no “work” was being performed, so the internship was legal. On the other hand, if the workers were moving the trains as part of the regular re-positioning of the trains, but were still performing it under close supervision, they would be required to be paid for the work.
The U.S. Department of Labor has outlined a list of criteria that ALL must be met in order for an internship to be unpaid.
www.dol.gov ; http://laborlaw.typepad.com/labor_and_employment_law_/2007/11/unpaid-internsh.html .
Under the FLSA, employees may not volunteer services to for-profit private sector employers.
The AIA’s official position on unpaid internships and IDP credit is outlined in the following statement: Employment opportunities are limited for recent architecture graduates who want to fulfill their Intern Development Program (IDP) training requirement. Some firms may be wondering if they can “do good” by giving intern architects work experience in unpaid positions. Generally speaking, federal employment law dictates that the answer is “no.”
F. Organizing the Search
The application process can be fast paced and chaotic as many applicants send out dozens or even hundreds of resumes in a relatively short amount of time. Organizing your job search and maintaining a record of which firms you have contacted has never been more important than it is in today’s job market. In the past, the practice of rapidly sending out resumes to multiple targets at one time usually yielded quick responses from employers who were eager to hire new talent. However, in an economic climate where most firms are either slow to respond or do not currently have open positions, most resumes are filed for future review with little or no response sent to the applicant. It is very important to keep track of every firm you have contacted. Create a spreadsheet that lists all the offices where your resume has been sent. Include the contact information for each firm, date the application material was sent and an original copy of the job ad. Unless the advertisement specifically advises against phone calls, it is a good idea to follow up with someone at the office to make sure your resume was received and determine if they have secured a candidate for the position. It may be days, weeks, months or even years before you get a formal response for an interview and it is critical that you keep track of all correspondence with the firm for future reference. Furthermore, if you are granted an interview it is wise to review the original job ad and prepare to explain how your talent and abilities best fit the advertised position.
II. Preparing a Cover Letter
The cover letter occupies a very unique position in the application package as it is usually the first thing an employer will view and ultimately shapes the initial impression of the candidate. It has the power to either elevate the candidate to the next phase of vetting if written well or sink the application entirely if poorly constructed. Most employers are looking for applicants who can communicate their ideas in a clear, intelligent manner. The cover letter should open up a dialogue which shows how you as the applicant have the ability to communicate clearly and speak intelligently about your experience, achievements and qualifications. It is the opening of a persuasive conversation about why they should hire you over another candidate and it must be constructed carefully.
A. Personalize Each Letter
Personalize the opening of the letter by including the firm name and the position to which you are applying in the first line. Research each firm and identify why you would be a good fit for that specific office. Generic cover letters are a big turnoff, especially in a competitive job market where a well written personal narrative may distinguish your application from 700 other candidates all vying for the same position. Therefore, it is wise to construct a general cover letter which outlines all of your qualifications and professional experience while allowing room for personalization. All your personal contact information, such as name, address, phone number and email should appear at the top of the page and each letter should be dated with the current date. Be sure to address the letter to the firm at which you are applying with their complete address and contact information. For clarity, include two lines above the body of the letter which indicates the intended recipient (name of contact on the job advertisement or if no contact name is given Director of Human Resources or Hiring Manager is acceptable), and the position to which you are applying (Architectural Designer, Intermediate Architect, ect.). Begin the letter by addressing a specific party or, if no contact name is given, use the commonly accepted greeting: “Dear Sir or Madam”. Never write, “To whom it may concern”, as this is a very impersonal greeting.
Personalize the opening of the letter by including the firm name and the position to which you are applying in the first line. Research each firm and identify why you would be a good fit for that specific office. You may cite specific projects they have completed that are in line with your interests, how their portfolio aligns with your previous work experience, or how you believe their work will provide you with an opportunity to grow within a certain market sector, i.e. retail, commercial development, institutional design, interior architecture, ect. In addition, be sure to mention if you have been recommended for the position by someone who either works at the office to which you are applying or who knows someone in that firm. For example, you may write, “John Smith felt I would be a good fit for your office because of my design ability and extensive experience with (something specific to that firm).”
B. Introductory Narrative
Introduce yourself as a designer with diverse interests and proficiency in multiple areas. You may decide to include a short statement explaining the personal qualities that make you an ideal employee and/or your aspirations as a designer. Include enough detail to communicate your intensions and summarize all qualifications, listing degrees earned, certifications and licensures, types of projects completed, general or specialized skills, highest position attained and role in significant projects (such as job captain, project manager, assistant to the partners, ect.), any special training you have received (technical or software) and overall experience level. It is important to address the letter to specific skills or experiences listed in the job advertisement and show how your background best fits the position. The body of the letter should be no longer than 3 or 4 paragraphs and should not exceed one page. The cover letter will represent you by proxy and should directly support your resume by elaborating on important achievements and professional experiences as they relate to the position to which you are applying.
C. Conclude with Appreciation
The conclusion of the cover letter should include a sentence or two thanking the reviewer for his or her time and consideration during the review process. This will leave the potential employer with a good impression.
After constructing a general cover letter which can be easily personalized for each firm, it is advisable to have someone else proofread the letter for formatting, grammar and sentence structure. There is nothing more toxic to a job application than a personal narrative that contains grammatical errors or bad sentence structure from someone who has had 4 to 7 years of professional education. Practicing architecture and other forms of design is about persuasion and coherent communication of ideas through visual stimuli and a spoken or written narrative. Employers want to see that you are a good communicator and this is your opening act.
III. Preparing a Resume
A resume is a living document, forever in flux and should be updated frequently with the transition to each newly acquired job, the acquisition of any new professional skill or the honor of every important award you receive. The professional resume is the most important part of your application package as it opens up a provocative dialogue with a potential employer by presenting your academic background, professional experience and personal achievements. An impressive resume can take years to build and it is never too early to start preparing this important document. In this section I will share what I have learned about resume building from personal experience, conversations with employers and years of professional development.
A resume is a living document, forever in flux and should be updated frequently with the transition to each newly acquired job, the acquisition of any new professional skill or the honor of every important award you receive. Young designers who are seeking professional internships should begin writing a resume during the first year at the undergraduate level. Even though there may be little to no professional experience to list, your current and past education, personal and academic achievements, and newly acquired skills will begin to form a framework to build upon. Over time, things that become less important will drop off the page, leaving room for more recent academic achievements and professional experiences.
Successful resumes that convey information efficiently will operate on two levels: 1. fast read or brief overview and 2. slow read or in-depth analysis. It is critical that your resume caters to both types of reviews. Employers will typically glance over the entire presentation first, taking notice of bulleted items that jump off the page to compare you to other candidates. They may come back later for further analysis to read supporting information for each item and decide if your qualifications warrant a personal interview. Tailor the resume to each firm. For example, if the office to which you are applying has partners who teach, you may want to include more academic achievements, teaching commitments and publications where your work has been featured. This will show that you are already aligned with their studio culture. Developing a clear and concise format, which includes the following categories, will help to organize your experiences and cater to both types of reviews.
A. Contact Information
Design a graphically pleasing header at the top of the page which includes your name and all of your contact information including phone number and email address. For clarity, this header should be present on all pages of the document if the overall resume is longer than one page.
B. Personal Statement
Begin with a personal statement about your professional attitude. This section should be the first thing the employer reads as it will serve as an introduction to your character and personality. Do not waste this space with the traditional opening statement of “I want to get a job or obtain an internship” (or some derivation thereof). The employer knows you want a job or else he or she would not be reading your resume. Be original and reveal something about your professional character like, “I am a versatile team player,” or “I am eager to remain on the cutting edge of design.”
Academic achievement is the first milestone in any design career. It remains an important criterion in evaluating qualifications for employment since the professional practice of architecture requires an accredited degree. This section should operate as a quick overview of your academic achievements and feature a bulleted list of each school that you have attended, degree earned, GPA and class rank for younger applicants and any honors associated with your degree, such as magna cum laude. Once a professional or undergraduate degree is obtained, information about High School Education can be removed. If you are enrolled in a degree program but have not yet graduated, list the university, degree you are pursuing and expected graduation date. If you are enrolled in IDP, indicate your status and number of points earned. Employers generally like to see that interns have taken charge of their career path and are actively engaged in the process leading to professional licensure.
D. Professional Experience
This section of the resume should include all relevant employment in the field of architecture and design. It must operate on both levels of review, featuring a clearly defined list of design firms and projects completed as well as a more in-depth summary of each position. For juniors who have little to no professional design experience, it is acceptable to include past employment which shows a significant professional commitment or level of responsibility to a previous employer. Individuals who are switching careers to become architects should list all previous long term employment.
Each position should be clearly defined with a description of your responsibilities. Begin by listing the name and location of the firm and dates/term of employment. Next, include your official job title and write a brief 1-3 sentence summary about your professional responsibilities while employed by this particular office. This summary should include a description of your daily tasks and the skills acquired, such as 3d modeling, BIM and analysis, presentation drawing, project management, preparation of construction documents, writing contracts and proposals, establishing CAD standards or general administration. Below the summary for each employer, provide a bulleted list of two or three important projects that you personally worked on. Include the name of each project, approximate square footage and estimated construction cost if available. Many potential employers will use this list as a quick reference to determine if you have the type of project experience that matches their selection criteria.
Over time, short term experiences such as summer internships may be removed to make room for more full time design positions. In addition, office managers and other reviewers will typically want to cut to the chase and quickly determine how many years of full time employment you have completed. If your professional experience includes many short term internships and teaching appointments, it may be necessary to create a separate section for these items so they are not confused with full time employment.
E. Awards and Publications
When composing the resume, it is important to qualify the character of your academic and professional experience by listing notable achievements. This section should include a list of all scholarships, fellowships, grants, honors, design awards, and publications where your work has been featured. Each of these items should include a brief few-word to one sentence description explaining its significance. An example listing may include the following, Honor Award for Excellence in Design (Awarded at graduation for a consistent standard of design excellence throughout the graduate studio sequence) or S.F. Memorial Scholarship (Merit based design award for highest level of acceleration in design proficiency during the first three years at the undergraduate level). The academic institution or design competition administrator usually includes a short description or tag line indicating purpose of the award, and it is best to use their description rather than writing your own.
In a field where digital technology has completely transformed the design process over the last two decades, demonstrated proficiency with various software platforms is essential to remain competitive in the search for employment. Many employers are looking for design professionals who can handle any task or project managers who understand design and presentation software enough to monitor the production of deliverables and engage in the process themselves. Extensive software experience will give any applicant a competitive advantage. If you are weak in this area, you may want to enroll in professional training courses while the economy is still in recovery and many trainers have reduced prices. There are also web sources for software training such as Designreform.net or Designalyze.com which offer free tutorials in various software platforms. In a recession, employers are looking for applicants who can do it all, stretching the value of an employee’s salary and consolidating two or three team members into one.
The resume should contain a section where you list all software in which you are proficient. Many employers are looking for applicants who are current in the latest version of certain programs. It is important to delineate the version of each program with which you have experience. When listing industry standard platforms such as 3D Studio Max, Rhino and AutoCAD, it is advisable to include how many years of experience you have with each software package.
G. Length and Formatting
Similar to a portfolio sample, a resume should be graphically compelling and adequately summarize the applicant’s experience, talents and achievements. The use of clean, and simple fonts will enhance the visual presentation of your resume. Sanserif fonts, such as Helvetica, Arial, and Swiss, are commonly used for their versatility and professional appearance. In addition, each of these font types will typically come with an extensive family of sub-fonts to use for bolding, italicizing, and adjusting kerning, stroke and size of letters. The use of one family of fonts will help to unify the overall presentation. Establish three to four different font sizes and bolding techniques to highlight different aspects. These sizes may include one font for section titles; one for listing employers, job titles awards, ect.; one for narrative text; and one for listing titles of projects you have completed for each firm. Lettering should not be too large as to take over the page or too small as to be illegible when printed. Running frequent prints is the best method to test the text at full scale and determine the appropriate font size and how well it enhances the graphic presentation.
The length of a resume is subject to the applicant’s experience level and individual achievements. For someone who has just graduated from an undergraduate or graduate design program with little professional experience, one page may be sufficient to list all relevant information. An applicant with 5 to 10 years of experience may need two pages to list all previous employment experience, awards or publications. Length should be determined by the information necessary to present one’s qualifications with one to two page resumes being ideal for an optimal summary. Furthermore, it is also important to always format your resume in complete pages. For example, resumes with 1.25 pages are not as graphically cohesive as a full two page resume and may look unprofessional to a potential employer. It may appear as if you were not efficient in describing your employment history and carelessly let your text run onto another page. In addition, pages that are only partially filled with text or fail to contain the applicants name can easily be ignored or misplaced by the recipient. If a resume needs to be longer than one page it is important to make every successive page hold the same weight and look as professional and graphically cohesive as the first page.
H. The Application Package Should Not Include the Following
Do not include a list of references or the phrase “personal references available upon request”. References should be guarded and only provided at a personal interview. While the application package should provide a thorough picture of your background and experience level, there are certain things which should not be included as they may be used in an unfavorable manner. Do not include a photograph of yourself, your marital status or any references to religious or political organizations with which you are affiliated. Only organizations that demonstrate diversity outreach, mentoring experience and community volunteerism should be listed. Do not include a list of references or the phrase “personal references available upon request”. References should be guarded and only provided at a personal interview. Unless it is mandatory or required via an automated application system, never include salary history or requirements in your application package. This information is often used as criterion for vetting applicants based on financial considerations. Furthermore, by listing salary requirements, you are effectively negotiating monetary compensation with yourself instead of directly with the employer which will put you at a distinct disadvantage during the interview process. If you are unable to avoid listing salary requirements, specify a wide range (such as $50,000 – 60,000) which will leave the subject open for negotiation at the interview. An application package should present skills and experiences, enticing the employer to learn more in a personal interview, without forcing the candidate to put a price tag on his or her background.
IV. Designing the Portfolio Teaser
Carefully composed as an enticing sample of your personal monograph, the portfolio teaser is an expression of your creative energy, design talent and professional experience. It is an extremely important part of the application package as it presents the employer with an overall impression of your design background and should leave them wanting to learn more about you via a personal interview. The portfolio should be presented as a short visual narrative, illustrating the thought process behind each one of your best professional or academic projects. As examples, I have included my own personal portfolio samples in two formats, one that is submitted via email and the other published in hard copy and sent via postal mail.
A. Graphic Design Precedents
The portfolio teaser is the most effective tool for graphically marketing your talent in one concise presentation by showing samples of completed projects. Examine how professional firms market their work and compete for projects, as these are the best precedents for graphic design strategies and portfolio preparation. Look at websites and publications of up and coming design firms or designers who frequently compete for awards and competitions. Competition and design award submissions draw many parallels with portfolio preparation. They are focused towards a specific audience and are clear and concise, typically requiring the contestant to make a powerful design statement within a small number of slides. Pay close attention to the types of images used to explain the design process (diagrams, renderings, sketches, technical drawings, ect.), the techniques used to enhance these images and the organization of the overall package.
In addition, there are many publications that serve different types of professional firms and exemplify various graphic languages. Design firms look to these journals as precedents for portfolio preparation and they will expect you to be fluent in these graphic languages if hired. The portfolios of many boutique and hospitality firms are heavily influenced by Metropolis , Wallpaper , Frame , Mark , Surface and Hospitality Design Magazine . The Korean Magazine, BoB serves as a precedent for different styles of photography and photo treatment. Architects and Engineers often refer to Detail Magazine , Architecture Magazine , MONDO , Abitare , and El Croquis for their clean page spreads, use of white space, font size, project layout and presentation of technical drawings. Smaller studios tend to look at the aesthetic of ACTAR publications such as Verb or Boogazine . Many of these publishers have attracted their own niche market and retain specific audience appeal. Publishers like teNues, Princeton Architectural Press, Actar, 010 Publishers, and Rockport exhibit very elegant and clean corporate design layouts with a modest amount of text on each page, never crowding images and maintaining nice font spacing. These publications can be a great source of inspiration for graphic organization and a clean, concise presentation style. They are also the same magazines where a potential employer hopes to have their work published. The portfolio teaser should indicate that your design and graphic presentation skills will serve as an asset to the company to enhance its competitive edge.
The ability to effectively communicate the ideas and merits of each project with an organized sequence of supporting images and a clean presentation style is a testament to your character as a designer. A potential employer will want to know how methodical your design process has been, and how well you can explain yourself through this visual narrative. Each project within the portfolio sample should be documented through conceptual sketches/drawings, process models and eventually technical drawings, perspectives or physical models of the final design. A careful selection of images and a sequence that organizes and details each project from conception to construction is often the most effective way to communicate how well you understand your own work and if you are able to convey the main ideas to a potential client.
A successful portfolio sample makes a powerful statement using only the most essential imagery. Carefully choreograph the narrative of each project, selecting only those images, diagrams or models that clearly express an idea. You do not have to include every perspective, design sketch or rendering completed for each project. Portfolio samples that are too long may cause the reader to lose patience and either glaze over essential portions or refuse to finish reading.
2. Length and Content
The portfolio sample should exhibit your design talent, experience level and professional expertise. The key to leaving a lasting impression is to get in and get out as efficiently as possible and tell a powerful story with only the most impressive projects. To show a broad range of experience and ability, the portfolio teaser should contain a minimum of three to five projects and no more than ten to twelve. This is not a comprehensive monograph and should only serve to explain your background and leave the viewer asking for more.
Within each project, it is important to choose images which illustrate your personal contribution to the design process as well as a visual representation of the finished product. For professional design work, it is perfectly acceptable to use images of professional renderings and/or physical models which you did not personally complete to give an overall impression of the project. Proper credit must be given for these images. However, to achieve balance, there must also be enough imagery within each section to represent your personal contribution to the design and presentation of the project. One page or one double page spread per project will usually allow enough space to feature larger images, explain the design process, cite your personal contribution, and explain how each project enhanced your skill set. A comprehensive presentation will show how each project responds to its design parameters and may include various media types such as sketches, computer generated drawings, renderings and physical models. Exhibiting a multitude of presentation materials, both virtual and physical, will indicate a diverse design background and a versatile skill set. Choose images sparingly as this is only a small sample of your work and you want to be able to present each project in greater detail during a personal interview.
Showcase your proficiency in different areas by including concept/design sketches to show artistic talent and your ability to communicate through drawing; orthographic drawings which show experience with space planning, composition, and scalar relationships; digital renderings that you have personally completed which demonstrate your ability to design in the virtual environment; and technical details or construction drawings to exhibit your understanding of building technologies and construction methods. It is not necessary to include all of these components for each individual project but instead strategically assemble a collection of projects that will cover most, if not all, of these areas and present a comprehensive design background. Images and drawings should include a caption or system of footnotes to explain their purpose and place in the design process.
A comprehensive portfolio teaser which is inclusive of both professional and academic work will provide a potential employer with a clear sense of the applicant’s talent, ability and character. Academic projects are the purest representation of your creativity and vitality as a designer because they exist without “real world” constraints such as budget, client preference or contributions from supervisors or other members of the design team in a professional office. They are valuable in showing your personal design process, judgment, presentation skills and should always be included in a portfolio sample to compliment professional work.
As an example, I have provided my own personal portfolio teaser. This sample features a variety of different project types across the entire design spectrum from conception to construction. I have included numerous professional and academic competitions; one professional project I have taken through schematic design and another I have taken through construction documents as production team leader; large scale urban high rises as well as smaller residential buildings and urban infrastructure; projects that show the ability to communicate through hand sketching and rendering; projects which are reliant on complex digital modeling and photorealistic rendering for visual presentation; and final, projects which exhibit expertise in tectonic development, conceptual massing, technical drawing and detailing.
3. The Project Order
Similar to the resume, the portfolio teaser is a living sample of your design work and should always remain in flux. Over time newer, more sophisticated design projects take the place of older, less advanced ones while still maintaining a diverse range of project types. After attaining your highest collegiate degree, it may become necessary to eliminate certain academic projects and replace them with professional ones that showcase new skills and diverse experiences. However, it is still important to maintain a delicate balance between professional and academic work for the reasons stated in the above section.
When assembling the portfolio teaser, it is important to carefully consider the order. Professional projects should come before academic projects, with the strongest samples placed at the beginning. The goal is not to maintain a strict chronology but rather to have an impressive portfolio anchored by strong projects at the beginning, middle and end which show a cohesive body of work and present the applicant as an experienced designer and competitive asset to the firm.
D. Graphic Presentation and Sequencing
The portfolio sample should serve as a testament to your facility with graphic design and it must be visually compelling. Many employers are searching for candidates who are able to assemble presentations that will help them compete for jobs. The portfolio teaser is your first audition for this type of role and it must be carefully crafted. A powerful graphic design strategy is one that clearly illustrates the design process, highlights important aspects of your work, seamlessly transitions between projects, and visually ties the portfolio together into a cohesive presentation with a single graphic language. For guidance and inspiration, you may want to refer to page spreads in design magazines, observe how each project is presented and visualize how your work may fit into this format. A clean and simple layout can be the most effective. Limit the amount of images on each page and avoid layering too many images over top of one another as this leads to confusion. A visually busy layout that includes too many images or ideas on one page spread will make the viewer’s eyes wonder and he/she may lose patience trying to interpret too much information all at once. Sequence the projects carefully and lead them through the story gradually.
1. The Cover (Published Hard Copy Sample sent via Postal Mail)
The portfolio cover is your opening statement to the reader and will set the stage for the story inside. Portfolio samples which are published, printed and bound should include a visually attractive cover. Digital samples sent via email do not necessarily require a cover as they are usually bound in a PDF along with resume and cover letter (see Digital Submission below). A vibrant and enticing cover design will enable your visual narrative to stand out amongst others when all portfolios are arranged on a table and compared. You can enhance the cover design with an impressive image or rendering from a project, a well crafted line drawing that you have completed or a strategic use of color. Whatever the cover statement, it should be simple and effective. The portfolio sample cover should include your name, degree(s) earned and the portfolio title.
A portfolio sample with strong graphic organization and a discernable language of transition will keep the reader engaged and prevent confusion. Hard copy portfolio samples which are sent via postal mail can Include a table of contents at the beginning which lists each project and establishes some type of organizational system, referencing projects within the portfolio. Digital samples sent via email do not necessarily require a table of contents as they are usually bound in a PDF along with resume and cover letter (see Digital Submission below). The portfolio should have a graphic language that signals a transition from one project to another and unifies the entire compilation. You may choose to further divide the projects into sections such as architecture, interior design, visual art, academic work, design competitions or professional design work. These sections should be established within the table of contents (if applicable) and graphically referenced on the pages of individual projects. For example, within my own hard copy portfolio sample I used a numbering system for each project that appears in the upper right and left hand corner of each page spread. My portfolio sample is also divided into the following sections: Architecture, Interior Architecture and Urban Intervention. The section title is clearly displayed in the top corners of each page spread for quick reference. This nomenclature is introduced in the table of contents and runs throughout each book, graphically unifying the entire volume, providing quick references and signaling a transition between projects.
3. Format and Sequencing
All projects should be organized with a similar style of presentation. Establish an underlying grid which will structure the layout of images and text on each page spread and carry throughout the portfolio to unify it as one visual presentation. Each project should include a general information key which indicates the name of the project, year completed, firm name or academic course, project duration, site location and any special designations (such as competition entry or awards received). You should design a graphic header to unify this information into one format that repeats itself on every sample page and signals a recognizable transition between projects.
Editing the content of each project is extremely important. Using every single sketch or drawing generated during the design process is not necessary. Each selected image should say something new about the project and elaborate on the visual narrative. You are telling a story about your personality and professional experience in different phases of the design process and it should be constructed like any other well written narrative: with an introduction, a climax and a powerful ending.
4. Include a Written Narrative
For each work sample, include a written narrative that is integrated into the presentation and will explain/support the imagery. Images can be glazed over by the audience and misunderstood without clear explanation. The written narrative should help tie everything together and serve as your proxy in the conversation between the portfolio and its intended audience. State the name of each project, its size, location, a short description of the program and design process and your personal responsibilities and contributions as a member of the design team. You may also include any special training that was required (software integration, project management, ect.) and explain important working relationships between you and other members of the team (such as working directly with the partners of your firm and/or leadership team, communication with the client, responsibility for coordination with consults, ect.). The narrative statement should be no longer than 2 to 4 paragraphs and should explain how the project enhanced your professional skill set.
5. Font Selection
The use of clean, and simple fonts will enhance the visual presentation of your work. Sanserif fonts, such as Helvetica, Arial, and Swiss, are commonly used in design presentations for their versatility and professional appearance. In addition, each of these font types will typically come with an extensive family of sub-fonts to use for bolding, italicizing, and adjusting kerning, stroke and size of letters. The use of one family of fonts will help to unify the overall presentation. Establish three to four different font sizes and stick to them. These sizes may include one for captions and image credits, one for narrative text, one for project titles and one for portfolio section titles or symbols. Lettering should not be too large as to take over the page or too small as to be illegible when printed. Running frequent prints is the best method to test the text at full scale to determine the appropriate font size and how well it enhances the graphic presentation.
D. Peer Review
Discuss the design of your portfolio sample with your peers. Be sure to critique each other’s work and the graphic presentation of each project. In addition, present your portfolio to someone who is not an architect or designer to determine if a person outside the design vacuum is able to understand the process of each project and the merits of your work. This process will test whether the visual narrative is successfully exhibiting your strengths and abilities.
V. Submitting the Application Package
There are two primary methods of submitting your job application package: Hard Copy Print sent via Postal Mail and Digital Submission sent via Email. Although most applications are submitted electronically, it is important to have your application package prepared in both hard copy and digital format as some firms still require a hard copy submission to be sent via postal mail.
A. Hard Copy Submission via Postal Mail
1. Packaging and Presentation
When submitting a hard copy of your application materials, it is important to present your resume and portfolio sample as a refined, professional package. The cover letter and resume should be printed on a medium to heavy weight resume paper and packaged in a legal sized envelope along with the portfolio sample. Never fold or bend the resume and portfolio sample to fit them in a smaller envelope. Many applicants use professional resume folders which contain two internal pockets: one for the resume and cover letter and one for the portfolio sample. These folders will give the application package a professional appearance as well as some rigidity to avoid damage in shipping. These folders also eliminate the possibility of loose materials being lost or misplaced and enable the employer to keep all of your materials together.
2. Publishing the Portfolio Sample
a. Sourcing a Publisher
Although the author controls the graphic presentation of each project, the overall appearance of the portfolio will rest in the hands of the publisher. Print quality, page size and binding type are all contingent upon the publisher. Finding the right publisher and choosing the correct media is a process that should commence while the portfolio sample is still in the early phases of design. There are two types of publishers for design portfolios: web-based publishers and printing/reprographics shops. For best results, you may want to find a professional printing house used by architectural and design firms for the production of marketing material and client presentations. Web-based publishers, such as lulu.com are also fast, efficient and low cost publishing resources that offer many options for customization.
Jason Ivaliotis is a Project Designer for HNTB Architecture and is currently working on the design for the expansion of South Station in Boston, Massachusetts. He began his professional journey as a designer and educator at Miami University in 1999. Over the last decade he has gained a ...