Creating the Best Application for Architecture and Design Programs

Application Strategy

Creating the Best Application for Architecture and Design Programs

So, you're applying to design programs. Whether you are a graphic, architectural, industrial, furniture, landscape or other designer, your applications most likely consist of three main elements: (1) portfolio, (2) CV and (3) essay. It is tricky to put together a good application, and the trick is to "design" your application just like you would a project.

Design Principles That Matter

Good design is as practical as it is beautiful; it has a purpose. The point of a poster or advertisement is to display information about an event or product in an eye-catching way. Buildings are designed to be inhabited. Gardens and parks are designed to be explored. The point-of-view of the designer is important, but so is the experience and perception of the person experiencing the design for the first time. As a designer, it is your duty to control and enhance that experience, and you can use design principles to "design" your applications.

Below are some of the most important principles of design as they apply to your application. Keep these in mind before, during, and after you create your application materials:

  1. Build your application around your strengths. The point of your application is to display your best qualities. Why should they admit you? What makes you special? This is your thesis/argument.
  2. Minimize your weaknesses. Don't mention the things you're not good at, and don't display projects that you aren't proud of. Focus on other things instead. They don't need to see everything.
  3. Simplicity and clarity are key. Your only task is to show them why they should admit you. The shorter, simpler, and clearer you can do this, the better. Remove anything that isn't necessary.
  4. Presentation is as important as content. The quality of your work is important, but if it isn't clearly displayed then nobody will be able to tell. The same goes for your essay: what you say and how you say it are equally important. Use good visual and verbal design to make your content even better!
  5. A picture is worth a thousand words. This is true of visuals and also stories, examples, and imagery in an essay. Showing is always better than telling!
  6. Take a step back. Every once in a while, ask yourself what your application looks like to someone who is seeing it for the first time. What does your application say about you?
  7. Always have the reviewer in mind. The people looking at your application don't know you. What do they expect from an application? What do they want to see? If you were in charge of reviewing applications, what would you like to see and what would you dislike?

Your Portfolio

Depending on the requirements of the application, you may have to submit anything from a 5-10 page work sample to a 20+ page portfolio. As long as you do not go beyond the limits they give you, the length of your portfolio does not matter. You portfolio length should be a result of the works you want to display and how you want to display them, not the other way around. Do not sacrifice presentation just to fit in extra stuff!

In general, simplicity and clarity are the most important principles of portfolio design. Design each of your spreads to show off the best parts of your projects, and try to make it so the reviewer can understand your concepts with as little text as possible. Be aware of the proportions of every page: white space is a good thing! Make sure to use simple, easy-to-read fonts (smaller is usually better) and keep your design elements consistent throughout. Remember: good design is simple. The point is to show your ideas and projects in the best, clearest light. Don't over-design! The reviewer should be looking at your projects; they should not be distracted by crazy layouts/fonts.

Another important thing to think about while designing your portfolio design is page order. You can organize your portfolio any way you like (type of design, medium, concept), though it is usually best not to make it chronological, since you do not want to put your weakest work first. It is common practice to put your best projects first.

Your CV

The rules of the CV are similar to the rules of the portfolio. If you are sending it in as a separate document, it should be just as carefully designed as your portfolio. Focus on your strengths and try to avoid displaying your weaknesses.

With each item you include, ask yourself, "what does this say about me?" The reasons to include something are: (1) it's required/expected (i.e. previous education), (2) it applies directly to arts and design, or (3) it shows something good about you in a meaningful way (like an extracurricular activity that you care about.) Anything that does not fulfill one of these should not be in your CV.

Your Essay

Most design schools require an essay, which is either a Personal Statement or a Statement of Intent. Some applications will give specific prompts/questions, while others will just ask for a general statement. In my experience, the most common are Statements of Intent, which require that you give specific reasons for why you want to attend a particular institution.

There is one main objective to the essay: to show the school why they should admit you. Don't just tell them: show them! Show them that you are passionate, smart, ambitious, and curious. Curious people talk about what interests them and what they want to learn, ambitious people talk about their dreams and how education can benefit them, passionate people tell stories about their past experiences, and smart people talk about what they learned from those experiences. You don't need to tell them you are good, just show them you are good in how you write the essay.

Your CV shows them your achievements, and your portfolio shows them your skills and past works. Therefore, it is redundant for your essay to list achievements or past projects. Take the essay as an opportunity to show them who you are, what you are passionate about, and what makes you unique. If you want to talk about a project you've done, do it because of what you learned from the project and how it reflects your attitudes towards design, not just to describe the project. The Statement is not the time to walk the reader through your portfolio; let your portfolio speak for itself.

Why "Designing" Your Application Matters

Finally, it is time for some hard truth. The reason you have to think about these bigger design concepts is that this is what design schools expect. The people making the final decision about who to admit are going to be designers themselves, and designers pay attention to presentation just as much as content. You may have brilliant projects, but if your portfolio itself is not well-presented, then the person reviewing your application will notice the poor design and mark points off for it. They are looking for people who think like designers in all aspects. Many of your fellow applicants will carefully design their applications, so don't get be left behind!

So to all you designers out there: good luck! You can do this.