I would like some input on interviewing with a portfolio.

I'm a young architect going through the interviewing process. It is standard for architects (and most artists and designers) to bring a portfolio with images and descriptions of their work. These interviews tend to have relatively few behavioral questions and more time spent reviewing the portfolio.

How much verbal description should I provide for each project? Should I be brief on most and more extensive on a few important/relevant projects? Should I remain mostly silent and let them read the descriptions?

Is there a good, actionable, manager-tools format for describing a project?

Thanks for your input!

afmoffa's picture

Hi CSouza:

I'm a graphic designer who did some interviewing recently. Design isn't architecture, but I hope you'll find some of my advice applicable. You had it mostly right with your third question, up there. You should remain silent and let them look at your portfolio. There shouldn't be much to read. I put my written descriptions on one typed page at the back of my portfolio. My portfolio is between 10 and 20 pages, so my descriptions are quite short. (In a minute, I'll tell you my template for how I write the descriptions.) That last page either pulls out easily or I bring an extra copy of that page, so anyone perusing my portfolio can refer to it without flipping back and forth.

Here's how I talk about my portfolio in interviews, in one sentence: I stand on my own throat.

I could talk all day about my portfolio. I'm a "high C" when I'm working, but I'm a "high I" when I'm presenting. As soon as an interviewer asks to see my portfolio, I have a powerful urge to run my mouth for twenty minutes about why I chose this font, and isn't this just a great shade of green, and oh man I'm sure you've dealt with picky clients before, but you won't believe how many drafts my team went through... blah blah blah. So I do the smart thing. I stand on my own throat.

I don't know Mark Horstman's laws of artistic portfolio interviews, but I heed the general advice of "The Interview Belongs to the Interviewer. It does not belong to you." If the interviewer wants to know all about an eye-catching piece in your portfolio, she'll ask. It's entirely possible the person interviewing you in the first round knows nothing about design/architecture/writing, and is just screening you for basic professionalism.

When (heck, IF) the interviewer asks for my portfolio, I hand it to her across the desk, having oriented the porfolio so it will be right-side-up for her. I don't open it. I don't flip to my favorite page. I don't walk around to her side of the desk so I can patronizingly walk her through it. I hand it to her and i say "I chose these pieces for [Acme Industries] because I know your company values [a, b, and c]. The last page has brief descriptions of each piece. I love what I do, and I'm happy to talk about any of these pieces."

I stand extra-hard on my own throat when an interviewer flips through my portfolio and says, "Hmm," or "That's interesting," or "I always liked NorthBank's signage." Because that isn't my cue. I know my cue when I hear it; it sounds like this: "Would you tell me a little more about this piece?" or "Which parts of this did you design?" or "Tell me why you chose this photograph." When I hear my cue, I speak for 2-3 minutes about what the client wanted, what I did to meet the client's requirements, and any particular challenges that came up along the way.

If I never hear my cue, then chances are this is just a five-minute detour before we're back to a traditional interview about my accomplishments.

Now, as for the descriptions, let me reiterate: They all fit on one page. If this is the first time the interviewer has seen my portfolio, she can't read ten pages of captions during my interview slot. My descriptions go like this: Portfolio page number, project name, city and state of the client, one sentence about my goal, what parts already existed, what parts I created, the tools I used, and the date the client was satisfied."

It looks like this for a purely freelance job

"3. Business cards for David Smith, Esq. San Francisco, CA. Logo supplied by client. Font, colors, and layout at my discretion. Illustrator and Photoshop. October, 2008."

(I omit the part about the client's goals and how I met them, because it's pretty obvious the client wanted business cards and unless I did something pretty wild like holograms or balsa wood or a flip-book, ...)

Or if I were working for Stirling Designs when I got the assignment, and I was part of a team, it would look like this

"7. Website redesign for, by Stirling Designs, Sunnyvale, CA. Client wanted existing Website migrated to modern CMS to allow for easier updates and expansion, as well as a more modern look and feel. Logo, sitemap, and copy supplied by client. Photoshop layout and color palette by Stirling. HTML/CSS, rollover images, manipulation of stock photography, and WordPress conversion by me. Illustrator, Photoshop, GoLive, WordPress, Drupal, TacoEdit, ACD Canvas. November, 2008."

I know nothing about buildings, so laugh all you like, but if I were an architect, I'd probably write something like this

"4. Stairway and wheelchair ramp for Springfield Public Library, by Stirling Engineers, Sunnyvale, CA. Client needed to bring town library up to code while maintaining historical charm of existing structure. Limestone to match existing facade. Wrought iron railing designed by me based upon existing decorative ironwork on east entrance. Indigo ink blueprint, AutoCAD modeling. January, 2010."

Like any format or template, it's a starting point, not a ceiling. If you want to tweak it, go ahead.

There are two older threads on the forums about interviewing with portfolios; good stuff in there.