Why Building a Smart Design Portfolio Is Everything

A firsthand look at how to go about building your student design portfolio.

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19 October 2015, 7:50pm

A proposal for a San Diego State Research Facility. Images courtesy the designer

When applying to design and architecture schools—or any art school, for that matter—your portfolio is the best representation of your work over time. They exemplify the topics you are most passionate about pursuing in your professional and creative life.

We probed Harpreet Basi, a fifth year undergraduate architecture student from the NewSchool of Architecture & Design, around the development of her portfolio. In it she displays renderings of proposed projects—a lobby of a college, plans for private home, sketches for student housing, replete with process diagrams as well as graphic designs in the way of posters and marketing collateral.

In the design for a sustainable private residence, Basi asks, why not make buildings that react to environmental changes like our skin reacts to heat or wind? The proposal drafts out ventilation and wind patterns for a home in Arizona in a series of sketches and design perspectives through the seasons. From her portfolio, one can read that Basi is most interested in sustainable and reactive architecture to carry us into the future so we posed some questions in her direction about architecture school and designing her portfolio while in school.  

A sustainable private residence in Arizona, "Breathe In_Breathe Out"

The Creators Project: What is the best advice someone gave you in applying to design school?

Harpreet Basi: The best advice I received when applying to design school was to never get so wrapped up on an idea early on that it stops you from doing something better. It's important to let yourself explore as many options as possible. If you're really focused on your intent and goal I've found that the design will follow if you let it.    

Be honest. How hard was it to put together your portfolio?

Putting together my portfolio wasn't incredibly difficult, but it was time consuming. Getting the details just right is what took the longest. They may not have seemed incredibly important on their own, but it's what really brings a portfolio together. I like to think that you don't WANT people to notice the small changes and notes you made. It should be so seamless that people just find it easy to read.

Who was most helpful in building your portfolio?

I took a page layout class last winter and I really think that helped pull everything together for my portfolio. Portfolios are very much about graphics—you need to get people's attention before you can explain the rest of your work. The single most helpful exercise we did was finding magazines and books with a nice layout, and then dissecting it to understand why it was so appealing. 

How much has your portfolio changed through time?

My portfolio changed dramatically from when I first applied to NewSchool of Architecture & Design, and less since. Once I finalized a graphic style I wanted to continue, it hasn't changed very much. Now I just swap and add projects that I think best reflect my skills and way of thinking. 

Proposal for a San Diego State Research Facility. 

Why is a portfolio important?

Portfolios are our way of expressing who we are in our field. Grades are important and might be able to describe your work ethic, but they can't tell someone what you actually learned or what you can actually do. A portfolio is the most effective way to let someone visually see your creativity and what is going on in your head. 

What was the most important and relevant experience professionally and artistically that fed to your admission into school?

I didn't want to become a licensed architect by learning from one firm. In school, you have endless opportunities to learn from different people—students, faculty, and professionals. I saw school as a way to learn from multiple people and industry leaders, while still actively pursuing my goal of becoming a licensed architect.

A proposal for a student housing center

What is the worst advice someone gave you in applying to design school?

That doing something good means staying up all night. I don't know where that tale started but I could not disagree with it more. It really is very much about time management. I've been able to participate in more than one area of school, perform well in studio, and get a healthy amount of sleep. 

What do you hope to do when you graduate?

When I graduate I hope to be working at a firm that does the things that I have become passionate about during my time at school. Wherever that takes me I just hope to be at an office that doesn't accept the status quo of what architecture should be, and instead challenges the limits of the existing model of architecture.

Graphic works for student events 2014-2015

To learn more about the NewSchool of Architecture & Design, click here

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