Building an Effective Portfolio for Art and Design Universities

Imagine that you are an admissions officer at a top design school, responsible for choosing the most creative minds for the programs offered by your school. How do you think you’re going to judge a student’s creativity without knowing them in person?

Most colleges and universities have an elaborate admissions process that allows them to evaluate students holistically. This typically includes transcripts, curriculum vitae, aptitude tests, language proficiency tests, academic essays, personal statements, and a portfolio.

The portfolio is where you have the opportunity to tell a story about yourself, showcase your ideas, reveal your expressions, and showcase your creativity. For art and design students who wish to pursue undergraduate studies abroad, the portfolio may hold up to 50-60% weight in the overall admissions process. Needless to say, a strong portfolio is capable of swinging an offer in your favor and here are some recommendations for doing so.

Be thoughtful, be honest

In a sense, your portfolio is a representation of who you are, where you come from, what concerns you, your approach to life and its challenges, and why you do what you do. It forces you to reflect on yourself and turn your thoughts into ideas and your ideas into projects. And if you’re honest about those thoughts, chances are you’ll produce high-quality ideas.

Draw, draw and draw

Drawing is perhaps the most fundamental and probably even the most useful skill to have. Draw on the fly, practice drawing from observation, draw from memory, draw with experimental techniques, and draw to visualize. By doing so, you will not only cover a portfolio requirement of including observational drawing, but also develop an essential skill capable of enhancing your creativity.

Work on your skills

Explore and experiment as much as you can in the full range of art and design concepts, materials and techniques. Do this not only from the perspective of developing skills, but also to try new things and identify your likes and dislikes. Rest assured, your portfolio will automatically reflect your abilities and potential.

Practice ideation

Being original is one of the hardest things to do in creative fields. But it is not impossible. Get into the ideation habit as soon as you can and you’re sure to survive in the long run. There are several tools available online that help in designing projects. Use these tools to work on quantity rather than quality. We are often taught otherwise, but listen to this – quantity allows you to clear your mind and at the same time increase the likelihood of a fantastic idea through a filtration process. This exercise will not only help your creative process, but also provide you with a range of things you can do for your portfolio.

Engage in research

Another exercise that facilitates your ability to be original is research. Engage in primary and secondary forms of research to dig deeper into any topic you are working on. Chances are your search will lead you to a eureka moment that will eventually lead you to a great project outcome. Imagine how complete your portfolio could be if you practiced this for even 50% of your projects.

Develop your own creative process

In design, your process begins with identifying a problem, defining it, researching it, ideating solutions, prototyping solutions, and executing the most appropriate solution. In art, your process is similar, except the problem is a subject of choice and the solution is a potential aesthetic outcome. The challenge for you is to understand the basics of this process and gradually move towards developing your own. Many colleges, especially in the UK, place more importance on the process than on the end result. And your process will naturally materialize in your portfolio if you actively work on it.

Tell a story through your presentation

How your gift can make or break your chances. Whatever field of study you have chosen, learn the basics of graphic design for presentation and make sure you design your portfolio in a way that is aesthetically pleasing, easy to understand, and effective in its purpose. Structure your portfolio almost as if you were telling a story about yourself, your life, or your experiences. It may not always be possible, but take the opportunity when you have the chance.

I’ve mentored students in preparing their portfolios for the past 6 years and it’s still one of the most exciting things I do at work. The flexibility and freedom it offers in terms of exploring topics, experimenting with techniques, exploring concepts and developing ideas is immense and perhaps the most valuable attribute in the journey of learning of a student. Approach your portfolio not from the perspective of fulfilling a college requirement, but by nurturing your own creativity and I assure you that securing college offers would be the least of your worries.