Building an effective portfolio for art and design universities

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

Harsimran JunejaUpdated: Saturday, November 05, 2022, 12:02 PM IST
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Representational image | Pixabay

Imagine that you’re an admissions officer at a high ranking design school, responsible for choosing the most creative minds for the programs that your school offers. How do you reckon you’re going to judge a student’s creativity without getting to know them in person?

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

The portfolio is where you get an opportunity to tell a story about yourself, present your ideas, reveal your expressions and present your creativity. For art and design students looking to pursue undergrad studies abroad, the portfolio could hold upto 50-60% weightage in the overall admissions process. Needless to say, a strong portfolio is capable of swinging an offer in your favour and below are a few recommendations for how to achieve that.

Be reflective, be honest

In a sense, your portfolio is a representation of who you are, where you’re from, what concerns you, how you approach life and its challenges and why you do what you do. This requires you to reflect on yourself and turn your thoughts into ideas and ideas into projects. And if you are honest about these thoughts, there’s a high chance that you’re producing some high quality ideas. 

Draw, draw and draw

Drawing is perhaps the most fundamental and probably even the most useful skill to have. Draw from life, practice observation drawing, draws from memory, draw with experimental techniques and draw to visualise. In 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 with as much as you can in the whole gamut of art and design concepts, materials and techniques. Do this not only from the perspective of developing skills, but also for sampling new things and identifying what you enjoy and what you don’t. Rest assured, your portfolio will automatically reflect on your abilities and your potential.

Practice Ideation

Being original is one of the hardest things to achieve in the creative fields. But it is not impossible. Get into the habit of ideation as soon as you can and you’re certain to survive the long haul. There are several tools available online that aid in ideating for projects. Use these tools to work on quantity over quality. We’re often taught the opposite but hear this - quantity allows you to empty your mind and at the same time increase the probability of a fantastic idea through a filtration process. This exercise will not only aid 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 both primary and secondary forms of research to delve deep into any topic you are working on. Chances are that your research will lead you to a eureka moment which will eventually lead you to a great project outcome. Imagine how thorough 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 on it, ideating on solutions, prototyping solutions and executing the most appropriate solution. In art, your process is similar, except the problem is a topic 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. Several colleges, especially in the UK, value the process more than the final outcome. And your process will come through naturally in your portfolio if you actively work towards it. 

Tell a story through your presentation 

The way your present can make or break your chances. Regardless of your chosen field of study, learn the basics of graphic design for presentation and ensure that you design your portfolio in a manner that is aesthetic, easy to comprehend and effective in its purpose. Structure your portfolio almost as if you are narrating a story about yourself, your life or your experiences. This may not always be possible, but grab the opportunity when you get a chance.

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

The author is the Co-Founder, and Director at Uno Lona Academy

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