IMPORTANT Website terms of use and cookie statement

Architecture degree shows: how to get hired on the spot

With degree show season in full swing, learn more about maximising opportunities to get hired by architecture practices right away.

25 May 2023

It’s that time of the year when architecture students finally get to display their work to the world, including architectural practices who are looking to hire new talent.

We asked three architects – David Wise, Associate Director at Newcastle-based Space Architects; Joan McCoy, founding Director of Belfast-based White Ink; and Sarah Lee from large practice Stride Treglown – what they look for at degree shows, and what it takes to impress them.

What roles do degree shows play in the recruitment process, and what do you look for?

David Wise: Degree shows are special as they embody the culmination of countless hours of intense work and dedication. Attending these shows on the opening evening is always a great experience filled with a sense of relief and pride that permeates the room.

Whether or not I attend with the intention of recruiting, I always find inspiration in the work on display. While we have various recruitment channels, I’ve found that degree shows are the best way of discovering outstanding candidates in a relaxed and informal setting, away from the pressures of formal interviews.

Sarah Lee: We would always look for attractive, well-presented and legible displays, with a range of presentation skills and knowledge demonstrated. Degree shows offer an employer an opportunity to assess many students’ abilities and skills quickly and ‘en masse’, with the added benefit of being able to compare students’ work to their peers.

Joan McCoy: What we look for is a student who, through their work, has demonstrated a fully thought out, rounded and original design. The presentation itself is also important. We have in the past offered positions based on work at the degree show when the student’s work is clearly at a level beyond their peers.

A sample of degree work presented by students from Coventry University, which is part of RIBA's Future Architects network (Credit: Coventry University)

What makes a memorable project or presentation?

David Wise: With so much to see, I have to be selective in the time I spend at each presentation. Certain images, sketches, or models have a way of capturing my attention, so it's crucial for students to be selective and create space for their best work to truly shine.

Projects that trigger an emotional response within me, whether due to their ambitious objectives or the sheer beauty of their execution, are always the most memorable. Personally, I find myself drawn to projects that showcase resolved architectural forms because they reveal how students have translated their ideas into tangible spatial concepts.

Sarah Lee: Eye-catching, bold and strong/colourful statements made architecturally or artistically through the student’s degree show presentations will always attract attention, but they need to be backed up with the right dialogue, explanations and maturity to explain the theory convincingly. A student with charisma, confidence, intelligence and style will always catch an eye – we are salespeople of our skills and ideas too after all!

Joan McCoy: What stands out for us is not necessarily for the ‘best’ overall project, but one that demonstrates innovation, creativity and smart thinking in some aspect of the student’s work for the final degree project. It could be a clever concept or idea for a particular site, an inventive presentation style or innovative use of technology.

Students who show initiative and ways to get employers’ attention, such as business cards, mini portfolios, QR codes etc. are particularly appealing, but they should never underestimate the power of a good drawing!

With a focus on presentation material, how important are verbal communication skills?

David Wise: Being able to effectively articulate and communicate your ideas verbally is a hugely important skill in architecture. Just like a well-crafted elevator pitch, a successful architectural concept should possess the ability to capture attention quickly and ignite curiosity and dialogue.

I’m always encouraged by students who confidently present their work and engage in dialogue with their audience. It is important to provide a brief explanation of your project, encompassing the underlying concept and your response to the design challenge.

Sarah Lee: All communication skills are equally important in architecture, whether it is presenting design proposals from an early conceptual sketch and visioning artwork through to technical 3D computer models to explain detail to those constructing it. These all need to be supported by verbal communication. ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ is not necessarily true! Being able to speak to anyone and everyone about your design intent and ideas at the right level, no matter who they are, is an essential skill for an architect!

Joan McCoy: We normally try to attend opening night of degrees shows. This provides us with a good opportunity to meet students and speak directly to tutors to gain further insight and feedback on the student and their work. We want to be confident that a student will be able to hold a good conversation in a professional environment, which means clear articulation of a concept, design proposals followed through to detailed design, and the avoidance of ‘archi-babble’.

What weight is given to technical excellence versus creative brilliance - does it have to be both, or do you value one above the other?

David Wise: At undergraduate level, we don't typically anticipate seeing projects with refined technical resolution. However, it is important for projects to exhibit a solid understanding of basic environmental and construction principles and sensitive use of materials. What truly captivates me when evaluating graduates is their creative brilliance, as that is a quality that cannot be taught.

For Part 2 graduates who have had the benefit of at least one year in professional practice, I hope to see greater integration of environmental principles, materiality, structure, and servicing, resulting in a more holistic and cohesive spatial design.

Sarah Lee: We all have different skills, some more varied than others. It depends on what skills we already have in the office when it comes to looking for skills from a degree student. Technical knowledge and ability may be weaker at degree level, with an acknowledgement that the student will develop and strengthen once they begin to work on real projects. Some natural flair and creative brilliance are always worth investment, although mavericks can come with their own pitfalls which may not be helpful in a practice dynamic.

Joan McCoy: We measure the weight of technical vs creative equally, but do not necessarily expect them to be on the same level. We look for an active engagement and interest in research for technical design and want to see this demonstrated in how technical details have been developed. What is important is that creative and technical design have been integrated and considered as a whole.

Physical models possess a unique ability to engage viewers (Credit: iStock. Stock photo, posed by models)

What do you look for when it comes to hand drawings/modelling/presentation skills?

David Wise: Physical models possess a unique ability to engage viewers on a tangible level, allowing them to interact with and comprehend the design in a way that digital representations often cannot replicate. The choice of scale, materiality, and the craft employed in physical models can profoundly influence the experiential quality of the design.

In addition to the artistic beauty of drawings and images, I also place great value on the thoughtful consideration given to scale, detail, and the consistency of presentation material. These elements collectively showcase an individual's intelligence and judgment in visual communication. It’s not merely about creating visually stunning pieces, but rather about employing these elements to convey ideas in a clear and engaging manner.

Sarah Lee: Most of our drawing and design work is undertaken using Revit, plug-ins such as Lumion and then good old Photoshop. However, occasionally nothing can quite beat a good old-fashioned hand drawn sketch to get an idea across. With so many ways of drawing, scanning and colouring using a Revit model as a base, the options are endless and open to personal interpretation and expressions of character and individuality. We all love the opportunity to provide a physical model too, although the requirement for these is often limited to a public consultation event these days. And the students always get the fun of making them too!

Joan McCoy: We normally look for a good range of skills. Selecting the appropriate tool to communicate the message is important, but not as important as how well the tool has been used to generate content. We don’t look for, or require, any specific presentation skills. We understand that with the right person and a proactive mindset, these can be learned on the job.

In terms of what you look for, how have these things changed over the past five to 10 years?

David Wise: In recent years, we have noticed a shift in some architecture schools that historically demonstrated greater technical emphasis, to a more theoretical approach. Concurrently, advancements in digital technologies have significantly transformed the way the industry operates. As a result, we have adjusted our expectations regarding the readiness of graduates for commercial practice.

To adapt to this evolving landscape, we’ve developed a structured graduate development program for our graduates to bridge the gap between academic learning and professional practice. We now place a greater emphasis on recruiting candidates who demonstrate creative excellence and a strong alignment with our practice values. While technical skills can be taught and refined, we have come to value the ability of graduates to think critically, conceptually, and holistically about architectural design more.

Sarah Lee: With advances in technology and the internet there is almost no need to actually produce and print drawings to send out in the post. Most of our output is created digitally, from concept through to completed technical production information, and uploaded to virtual portals for all the team to access.

All of our staff need to be tech savvy and flexible with all the multiple software programmes out there to support our industry, but there is a real danger that we spend too much time staring at screens, rather than sat around a table together with pencils in hand, where we can see the whites of each other’s eyes and read body language as we collaborate and solve problems together!

Joan McCoy: Basic principles not changed at the core, but what sometimes stands out is the people who push boundaries and pioneer new technology, such as QR codes for 3D walkarounds, and surprise us by demonstrating fresh thinking on how they can gain attention.

If you had the chance, what would you say to your younger self before they prepared for their degree show?

David Wise: Be authentic! When showcasing your work, it's important to remain true to your own style and resist the temptation to conform to prevailing studio aesthetics. Trust in your own creative instincts and present your work with confidence.

Sarah Lee: I would tell my younger self that you cannot possibly know or do everything as an architect. If you have the maturity and confidence to accept that – to understand what it is that you are good at or want to be good at, and to concentrate on that – your strength will develop through your own authenticity and help you to shine. Don’t try to be something that you’re not!

Joan McCoy: Think about quality rather than quantity. Don’t put everything up – pick out the work that best tells the story and represents you as a budding architect. Consider eye levels – curation of work can be just as important as the work itself. You have worked hard all year, so leave enough time to ensure you present your work in its best light.

Thanks to David Wise, Associate Director, SPACE; Sarah Lee, Senior Associate, Stride Treglown; Joan McCoy, Director, White Ink.

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

For advice and information about studying architecture and RIBA's student mentoring scheme, as well as exclusive events and opportunities, and preparing you for life in architectural practice, the Future Architects network is designed to support, inspire and provide a voice for those transitioning from study to the workplace.

Latest updates

keyboard_arrow_up To top