The Design Portfolio as a Visual Storyteller

After a recent opportunity to sit in on an undergraduate design critique, Susan Fireside, art director at IIDA, recounts the lessons to be learned from student design portfolios.

There’s something about design students. They’re at that point in the road where they’ve been in school for long enough and are now truly ready and willing to start their professional careers. Feedback and constructive criticism are still welcome because they’re hungry for the real world.

And hungry is what I saw when I recently had the opportunity to be a guest at a Portfolio for Interior Architecture class at Columbia College Chicago. Taught by Tom Marquardt, IIDA, president and founder of marquardt+, the class combines curating a substantial body of work with learning about professionalism and the business side of the industry.

Marquardt is their instructor as he was mine in a branded environments class I took when I was getting my master’s. While I’m not an interior designer, I am an art director, so branding, visual storytelling, and finding ways to express a design story is what I do. I was happy to offer my guidance to this group as they put together a physical book to show potential employers.

Here are some key takeaways from that critique session:

  • Carry your visual story through everything. The cover should connect with the inside, which should connect with your website, social media channels, and resume.
  • Digital and print are two different mediums. If you’re doing anything for print, be sure to print out your work at 100% while you are in each phase of the project. From your initial concept to your work in progress layout, what looks small on a screen can look oversized when printed.
  • Be consistent and streamline. Watch how many typefaces and font you use. Type and color tell a story as much as graphics and copy.
  • Use images purposefully. When building your portfolio, think carefully about what you show and if it’s reflective of the kind of work you want to do.
  • Edit. Curate. And then do it again. Your portfolio is an ever-evolving work in progress. Even if it’s your first, it will not be your last.
  • Research. Look at which companies you want to work for and see how they showcase their work. What are they including? What are they leaving out?
  • Technology is your friend. In today’s world, there are many different ways to showcase your work. Don’t be afraid to market yourself and show off what you are capable of.
  • Make sure it can stand on its own. Will someone understand what they’re looking at when you’re not there to talk about it?