A few months ago, I recently accepted an employment offer as a landscape designer using a portfolio I developed six years ago, with minor tweaks to show updated work. I also got a park internship and my first employment opportunity with the same portfolio years prior. My portfolio has proven to be timeless after all these years and the techniques I have used to seemingly make my landscape architecture portfolio stand out remain applicable today.
These techniques are gathered from my own experiences, learning from my mistakes and successes throughout my career. They could help your portfolio set you apart from other applicants and get noticed by prospective employers. It worked for me, so I believe there is some merit to these strategies.
Here are a couple of ways to help your landscape architecture portfolio stand out:
1. Show YOURSELF in YOUR portfolio.
The first portfolio I developed early in my career was quite memorable – in a terrible way. My portfolio was a hot mess of colors, text, photos, and graphics spread into only 10 cringe-worthy pages. I am ashamed to have submitted this with my job application to several reputable landscape design firms and, not surprisingly, I did not get a response from any of them at the time.
I am not sure why I thought this was a good portfolio then, but I know I was partially attempting to imitate what others were doing in their portfolio. I was showing my work in a way that looked “cool” like theirs with embellishment of unnecessary text and photos, but made no real sense to do so. I was trying to be something I was not and created some sort of Frankenstein result out of it, with bits and pieces of me, others, and nonsensical things in one unapologetic format. It is not that I was presenting bad projects either, I was just not displaying them properly.
Ultimately, I was not showing who I am as a landscape designer and my own creativity. So after a few years of various career ventures, far too many Sunday morning hangovers, and an MLA degree, I scrapped my Frankenstein portfolio. I devised a new one, using fonts, a color palette, and organization of my own style. I made my portfolio simple and cohesive, with a variety of graphics, and wrote paragraphs briefly introducing and explaining every project. I also became incredibly detailed with how I wanted each page to be displayed: I wanted to control how the viewer would visually experience this collection of my work when mouse-clicking onto the next page, since this would be initially viewed on the computer 100% of the time in a matter of seconds. Each project also showed something different, dynamic, and new, to indicate that I was diverse in various skills and project types, while simultaneously keeping the portfolio unified.
My new portfolio got me interviews with several prospective employers. I even got an interview with my dream firm, which was also one of the reputable firms I applied to with my Frankenstein portfolio years ago. (Side note: I did well in the interview, but actually took a job offer with a more local firm instead.) It is my best portfolio to date as it shows the real me and, along with it, my own originality and creativity.
So find out who you are as a designer and showcase this in your portfolio. There will be nothing like this out there. It will probably take a lot of back-and-forth brainstorming, much keyboard slamming out of frustration, and maybe times when an indecisive measly detail will keep you awake at night. Just remember the reward outweighs this first-world and short-lived anguish and the outcome will perhaps even surprise yourself.
My portfolio revealed who I am, my talent, and my potential. Your portfolio should do the same. So be your good ole’ self in your portfolio.
2. Improve your project graphics.
Now, I know what you are thinking. Why on earth would I spend more time on these projects when I have already spent countless hours on them already?
Well, because when you actually finished them to meet that 9:00 am class deadline, they are most likely a representation of your rushed work, not your best work. Perhaps you met the minimum criteria of graphic quantities and quality to get a decent grade, but this does not mean the same in the real world. Re-evaluate your project graphics and see what you can do to improve. Better yet, take the constructive feedback you have gotten from your professor and peers. Their criticism is generally meant to help you and, while sometimes it’s tough to hear after three straight all-nighters of studio work, you may find some truth in their words.
Do take some time to figure out what worked, did not work, and things the project lacked. I did this for all my projects in my portfolio, doing minor changes to some and major revisions for others. I discarded several mediocre perspectives and developed new renderings instead, to show the concept at different times of the year. I also made new graphics to help enhance my ideas further. This took many hours of intense computer staring, with some panic moments of Photoshop unexpectedly crashing in between, and lots and lots of caffeine. I probably spent more time doing this than the time to complete the project itself for the class. Though, in the end, I couldn’t have been happier with the results.
I used some of the same projects from my Frankenstein portfolio in my new portfolio, just a 1000x more enhanced than before. Here is a tip: if you figure out how you want to display your graphics and the overall layout beforehand, you do not need to redo or revise the entire section or perspective, just the part that will actually be shown. There may need to be some early coordination between InDesign and Photoshop, but this can help save time and effort. Also, smaller graphics on the page may not need as much revision as the larger graphics since they will not be as readable.
There was a project that I had to revise the most, but it is my favorite project of all time and one that I did back when I was a sophomore in college 12 years ago. Yes, it is okay to include work that you have done in the distant past, as long as it is relevant to the position you are applying for. There is no rule against this and if it makes you feel any better, I did note down the year for all my projects in my new portfolio and no prospective employer has ever bat an eye or questioned it.
3. Be unique in your graphics.
While you are in the zone to update your project graphics, you might as well consider how to display them differently or in a way where they are not typically shown. Think of it this way: most web pages today have a beautiful UI interface with large photos of happy, good-looking people enjoying the atmosphere around them and symbols and text to make the content seemingly more user-friendly. Though, I feel this makes them all look the same and dilutes what they are trying to market. Nothing stands out. A hiring manager may experience something similar when going through hundreds of portfolios in a competitive market.
A good portfolio needs to be interesting. Find ways to display graphics, particularly analytical data, that are both visually captivating and informative. For example, I did a public survey for my graduate thesis and I was intrigued to do an infographic of the results in my portfolio. I went out of my comfort zone to do this, as I have never done this before, and it became the first graphic in my new portfolio. I also found creative ways to transform my site analysis and collected data from GIS or written research into interesting graphics that would lead into the final concept. Not only should you show your talent to make pretty renderings, but also your ability to interpret analytical information.
Along with creative data related-graphics, hand drawn sketches are useful in a portfolio and can be a major part of the project in some instances. I voluntarily did a planting design for a small garden bed, roughly 64 square feet, in a local cemetery (don’t ask). I sketched my vision of the garden bed, planted the annual plants with another crew member, and tended to them as they grew within several weeks. I later took a photo of the garden bed in full bloom, and it looked pretty much like a replica of my original sketch. This hand-drawn graphic is the second largest on a page in my portfolio and has not been re-drawn or edited much ever since. Hand sketches are a display of your original ideas and could really help differentiate your portfolio from others.
Part of this making your portfolio journey is to actually enjoy being creative and developing graphics to make ideas visually alive and exciting. This is the most fun aspect of the landscape architecture profession, so why not give the portfolio your best and show prospective employers your enthusiasm and personality? This is what an entry-level job description usually highlights anyway.
4. Little details matter.
The tiniest details in a portfolio can make a difference between you and another potential candidate. I made a personal logo out of a casual whim and placed this in my portfolio, along with my cover letter and resume, to make my application coherent. It impressed my new employer because I think that extra effort shows diligence and meticulousness. I also labelled all my graphics using the same font and size across all projects, to add consistency to the portfolio. I did the same with project cover pages, north arrow, and scale too. Because I like quotes, I added one to the beginning of some of the project introductory paragraphs. This was also noticed by my employer.
Little additions and details can go a long way to making your portfolio stand out from the rest. You never know if the prospective employer will relate to anything that you show in your portfolio, but try and see what happens. If you are into watercoloring, show this side of you. If you are into plants, show your planting skills and ideas. If you like to write (like me), then write good paragraphs. As long as the content is not offensive or illegal, then you can really show other sides of you in your portfolio, beyond just standard course projects.
If you made it near the end of this blog post and you are still not convinced in putting that much work into your portfolio, then read my last piece of advice. I will confront the elephant in the room and actually talk about the financial aspect of the landscape architecture profession. For those who are applying for a new job position after a few years of industry experience and are able to get a job offer, then you can perhaps negotiate a higher salary with an exceptional portfolio. It proves your hard work ethic, your talent to do great graphics, and your potential to do bigger things with the new company. I was able to negotiate the salary I wanted, about 20% higher than the national average of my experience level. My portfolio was probably a big reason for the salary increase, so hard work can really pay off.
It took a lot of time, thought, and patience to make my portfolio what it is today. I was not the best drafter or had the best grades in school. In fact, I was average compared to my peers, but I persevered and did a couple of freelance and side projects to help add to my portfolio. If you are willing to do the work, then you can create your own Frankenstein portfolio that you can call exclusively yours and nobody else’s. It could be your greatest creation yet.