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Does your portfolio tell the right story?

05 March 2020

An architect’s portfolio can be so much more than a series of impressive pictures to show a potential employer. It can provide a narrative, revealing who an architect is and what their concerns are.

Not only can it demonstrate ability and experience more powerfully than words on a CV, but it's also a chance to prove that your values and interests coincide with the practice you would like to work for.

“At interview, we use the portfolio as a tool to get candidates to talk about their experience,” reveals Ann Lakshmanan, director of Shepheard Epstein Hunter (SEH). “We want to know that you understand the process of what you have been doing and see it demonstrated. We want you to tell a story.”

She will ask job applicants to send a CV and, initially, a sample portfolio. This sample of work can be just a couple of sheets of paper (and ideally not in a huge format): at most just a few pages covering a couple of projects.

“Today almost anyone can produce a beautiful CGI render,” Lakshmanan suggests. “But this does not necessarily tell you much about a candidate’s ability as an architect.”

“What we really like to see are hand drawings and sketches, particularly when a candidate is a recent graduate. There are different processes involved in hand drawing or modelling: it is about showing how a building works, whether via details or at street level.”

At interview stage, Lakshmanan will ask candidates to present a more expanded portfolio than the initial sample. She suggests that two or three detailed sheets are enough to demonstrate that you understood the design principles of a project, how it was constructed and, importantly, what you yourself did.

Images are one thing, but being able to talk through the projects confidently and informatively is crucial. During a job interview, candidates may well find themselves with 20 to 25 minutes allocated to discussion of their portfolio.

“Irrespective of the design brilliance of an image, you have to be able to talk about the thinking that went into it and how it works. You need to provide a narrative, not rely wholly on visuals.”

Being able to talk through your portfolio articulately, demonstrating understanding of the brief, its execution and a project’s design principles plays a key part in a successful job interview

The interviewer will typically want to hear about the design and technical aspects of projects and how problems were overcome (such as planning issues or Building Regulations compliance). Mistakes and lessons learned can be referred to, so long as you have reflected on them and considered how you would do things differently next time.

“The most common mistake is in trying to show everything. Competition entries can be interesting if explained, but I do not want to see fifteen of them. It is much better to explain what you have learned from one of them,” says Lakshmanan.

Hard copy sheets are not the only medium to explore. Lakshmanan is happy to look at portfolios on a laptop or tablet, or to look at physical models.

It is understood that not every candidate will be a perfect fit in terms of relevant experience. You might be trying to move into a different sector, for instance. As a candidate, you can still overcome this obstacle by taking the interviewer through your projects articulately, provided you have done your research on the practice in question and can show understanding of its work.

You will not get far if you cannot provide an appealing account of why you are sitting there.

“We want to know why you are coming to us,” Lakshmanan states. “Employers do not want to think that a candidate is applying for any job going: you do need to be familiar with the work we do and be able to explain why you want to join us.”

It is not just your own portfolio that you need to be able to talk about, but that of your potential employer too.

Thanks to Ann Lakshmanan, Director, Shepheard Epstein Hunter.

The RIBA conference Future Leaders 2020: Developing a Leadership Mindset takes place at the RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London on 26 March 2020. Tickets are available now.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas.

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