How to Read a Design Firm’s Portfolio
Any established design firm – whether a sole proprietorship or a multi-office international – will have a portfolio. Prospective clients can browse each design firm’s portfolio on their website, via their social media, or traditionally printed at their studio. A design firm’s portfolio can tell you a lot about how the firm collaborates with clients, partners and internal team members. In this post, we explain how to read a design firm’s portfolio. Most portfolios include architectural drawings and other pre-construction renderings as well as high quality photographs of recent projects. An interior design portfolio might also include a few mood boards, progress photos and testimonials. The renderings, photos and drawings chosen by a designer should not only demonstrate the firm’s signature style, it should also communicate the firm’s approach to design and briefly outline their process. Learning how to evaluate a design portfolio helps clients choose the right interior designer or residential architect for their project. From the flow of the portfolio itself to the projects featured throughout, here’s everything clients should consider when evaluating a design firm’s portfolio.
What’s Included in a Design Firm’s Portfolio?
In most design portfolios, a potential client can expect a brief bio followed by a collection of mood boards. They can also expect technical drawings, renderings, case studies and professional photos of finished projects. Some portfolios will include recent press, publications, testimonials and awards. If your project is a structural remodel or new construction, you might plan to work with a full-service design firm. Full-service design firms typically have both residential building design and interior design in-house.
A residential design firm like the Laura U Design Collective will add architectural drawings, construction drawings and other documents to their portfolio. For example, LUDC Creative Director Gina Elkins developed construction documents for structural changes to our Mountain Lane Show House. These construction documents can be seen in a couple of our recent blog posts, namely “Foundation to Furnishings: Our Holistic Approach to Home Design.”
Here is what you — a prospective client — might encounter when reading through portfolio examples.
. B R I E F B I O .
A good portfolio will start with a brief bio of the interior design practice and/or the firm’s principal. Within the bio, a design firm will probably include the location of their headquarters and/or studios. They might also include a list of certifications, description of offerings, insight into their studio’s style and short history of the firm.
Before viewing images of finished projects or reading through case studies, you should already know what the firm specializes in. Their bio should make the firm’s focus clear — whether commercial or residential properties, remodels or new construction homes, and so on.
. M O O D B O A R D S & S W A T C H E S .
A design portfolio might also feature a series of mood boards, color swatches and other samples. In interior design, a mood board is a collage or other visual representation of design elements like fabrics, furniture, lighting and more. Some designers use social media and graphic design tools like Pinterest, Pantone Connect or Adobe Photoshop to create mood boards. Others create mood boards from physical items in their studios. Paint swatches, textile samples and trim are all common.
According to Erika Lenkert in a recent blog post for Adobe Express, the purpose of a mood board is to help you explore…[and] communicate a general style, mood, colors, and overall feel of a…space.” When featured in an interior design portfolio, mood boards can provide insight into the designer’s aesthetic and approach.
. T E C H N I C A L D R A W I N G S .
The design portfolio of an interior designer or residential architect might also include technical drawings. Architectural drawings communicate the intricacies of the interior and structural architecture of an existing or planned building. They might detail the foundation and elevations or the interior floor plan. Other technical drawings describe a home’s plumbing and/or electrical systems.
Drawn to scale, technical drawings are often necessary to secure permits for structural renovations, additions and new builds. In order to gain approval from your local planning department, all construction drawings must meet building codes. Some technical drawings can be difficult for the layman to decipher. Thus, they might not be included in a public portfolio on the firm’s website or social media. Instead, the firm might include renderings in their online portfolio.
. R E N D E R I N G S .
More illustrative and less technical, renderings paint a picture of what an interior design or architectural project will look like once completed. Renderings can be three-dimensional images or videos created with Computer-Aided Design software or CAD software. They can also be hand-drawn illustrations.
Renderings are often included in a design portfolio and/or architectural portfolio because they show a visual progression in the firm’s process. Sometimes, renderings and elevation sketches will be separate from the firm’s portfolio and can be found on a page called On the Boards. In a case study, designers might include everything from initial sketches to photorealistic renderings to final photos. Combined, all this imagery helps take potential clients on the journey from design inspiration to completed project.
. C A S E S T U D I E S .
If included, case studies will describe problems and design solutions, celebrate brand partners, describe the firm’s approach and credit certain key team members. In short, case studies showcase stunning transformations and highlight effective problem-solving. For their portfolios, designers typically choose case studies that embody their signature style or greatest strengths.
Our Mountain Lane project is a great example of a case study. This is because it shows prospective clients how our multidisciplinary team handles everything from foundation to furnishings. We excel at structural renovations, major cosmetic remodels and new construction. Mountain Lane Show House involved a bit of each.
. P R O F E S S I O N A L P H O T O S O F F I N I S H E D P R O J E C T S .
Of course, every interior design portfolio should include professional photos of the firm’s best projects. Photos of finished projects should demonstrate the firm’s approach and style. They should also describe the scope of projects taken on by the firm.
For example, some firms might specialize in historic remodels, new construction, cosmetic updates, or structural renovations. Prospective clients will get a feel for each firm’s focus by sifting through photos in their portfolios.
. P R E S S , T E S T I M O N I A L S & A W A R D S .
Lastly, an interior design portfolio might feature press, publications, client testimonials and awards. When trying to figure out which interior designer or architect to hire, homeowners should look for recent, relevant press, awards and testimonials.
10 Questions to Ask Yourself While Evaluating an Interior Designer’s Portfolio
#1 Are Projects Featured in Their Portfolio Similar in Scope to What You Are Looking For?
First, prospective clients should look through projects featured in each interior design portfolio and consider how relevant those projects really are. If you are planning a gut remodel but the firm in question typically executes cosmetic updates, they might not be right for you. Ashley Abramson explains in her article “Tips for finding an interior designer who fits your style and budget” for The Washington Post.
Abramson writes that homeowners should “make sure the designer has experience in any special requirements you might have.” For example, you would not hire a designer famous for studio apartments “‘if you have a house with grandparents, kids and a dog.'” Similarly, you probably would not want to hire a designer who “‘typically works in the suburbs to outfit a tiny downtown apartment.'”
#2 Are Projects Featured in Their Portfolio Similar Stylistically to What You Are Looking for?
Of course, aesthetics are also important. If you like what you see when sifting through photos and renderings, keep the conversation going. If none of the images resonate with you, it might be time to move along.
As this post from The Modern House so eloquently puts it, “every practice will have a natural style.” As a prospective client, “your first question should be, ‘Do I like it?’”
#3 What Kind of Personality Does the Design Portfolio Communicate?
Some portfolios are informal while others are incredibly technical. Either way, most interior design portfolios communicate the firm’s personality. A good portfolio should reflect not only the work of the firm, but the ethos of who they are.
On Instagram, for instance, you may find what inspires the designers — from favorite travel spots to a particularly eye-catching bouquet of flowers. Does their ethos resonate with you?
#4 Are Recent Projects Featured in This Portfolio?
Make sure each designer’s portfolio includes their most current, up-to-date work. As time passes, even the most timeless styles evolve. You want to be sure that the firm’s current design vision is what you’re agreeing to.
You also want to make sure that the firm is still fairly active. The work featured in their portfolio must be an accurate portrayal of who they are and how they work today.
#5 Are the Photos and Renderings High-Quality?
Another indicator of professionalism is the quality of renderings and photos featured in a design firm’s portfolio. A great design studio should maintain incredible quality at every stage of the design process — from initial sketches to final photos.
The entire portfolio should be aesthetically pleasing, visually engaging and — above all — consistent. As Sagar Oke notes in a recent post for Archslate, “consistency is a fundamental design principle.”
According to Oke, “it applies as much to architecture as it does to UX design, product design, graphic design” and more. Oke notes that “the visual language” of a design portfolio — i.e. “font style, font sizes, color scheme, page layouts, image sizes, white space, etc.” — must be consistent. Otherwise, the experience is discordant, confusing and unappealing.
#6 Do the Designers Have a Signature Style or Do They Adapt to Client Preferences?
Some designers market a “signature style” to prospective clients. Clients seek out these designers when hoping to recreate that aesthetic in their own homes.
Other designers have honed their design process, but happily adapt to client needs, preferences and personal style. Whichever camp you fall into, be sure to choose an interior designer whose portfolio matches.
#7 Which Builders and Brand Partners Does the Firm Collaborate With?
An interior designer’s portfolio might also make mention of brand partners, vendors, builders and subcontractors with whom they frequently work. As a client, you might want to prioritize local vendors or builders known for using sustainable materials. Keep an eye out for mentions of brands and other firms that appeal to you.
#8 Is the Quality of Projects Featured in the Portfolio Consistent?
With residential building design, consistency is key. Homeowners should check for consistency when evaluating the portfolio of each and every interior designer or architect they consider. Of course, every interior design practice evolves over time.
If there is a marked improvement in quality as the company grows and changes, some inconsistency is not necessarily a bad thing. If the quality of projects declines over time, homeowners might reconsider.
#9 Does the Portfolio Highlight Design Solutions?
As noted above, interior designers and architects often include case studies in their portfolios to showcase different design solutions they ideated and implemented. A great design portfolio will highlight that firm’s ability to problem-solve. Homeowners should keep an eye out for design solutions that might apply to their project.
For example, if a homeowner has children or elderly parents, he or she might look for design solutions related to multigenerational households. Those who love to entertain might look for ways a residential design firm improved the flow of an outdated kitchen or parlor.
#10 Is the Portfolio Easy to Read?
Does their portfolio flow well from page to page or project to project? Is it too lengthy, too cluttered or too complicated? Does the firm strike a balance between technical drawings, renderings and final reveal photos? Are the mood boards messy? Can you understand the firm’s process and approach to design by reading through their portfolio? A neatly presented, easily digestible portfolio shows the firm can effectively communicate their work to clients, partners and everyone in between.
Here’s Where to Find a Design Firm’s Portfolio
You might find the portfolio of an architecture or interior design practice on social media platforms like Instagram. These are informal and function primarily as snapshots of the design firms’ recent projects, creative process and day-to-day operations. Most interior designers also have design portfolios on their websites.
In addition to an online portfolio, some will provide potential clients with a physical portfolio in their office or studio. These portfolios tend to resemble coffee table books. They feature high-quality photography of recent projects as well as detailed case studies. Portfolio books might also include color and textile swatches.
One great advantage of a physical portfolio over a portfolio website is that it offers a more holistic, engaging experience. This is especially important for clients with visual impairments. Of course, most firms will offer more than one type of professional interior design portfolio. The primary goal of an interior design portfolio is to communicate the firm’s creative direction and design process. It should make sense to potential clients, partners and other designers.