In his previous articles, Brandon Hubbard has discussed how to create the perfect short portfolio to get the attention of your future employer, and how to prepare for some of the most common interview questions. In this post, originally published on The Architect's Guide as "4 Reasons Why You Need a STAR Portfolio," Hubbard discusses the architect's key tool at an interview, and how to maximize its potential to impress.
Perhaps the most important component of any architecture job application is the portfolio. The key is to tailor the portfolio not only to the position to which you are applying but also to the correct stage in the application process.
As I covered in a previous article, The Two Page Architecture Portfolio, your first contact with an architecture firm should include a “sample portfolio” as a part of your application. This is usually two to five pages long and just like the resume it is a snapshot of your greatest work and experience. This is the approach I recommend at the outset, while at the other end of the application process - the interview - I advise a different approach.
This is where the STAR Portfolio comes in.
What is a STAR Portfolio?
If you’re not already aware, STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action and Result. The STAR Portfolio is a short document containing bullet points and images on how you dealt with a specific problem on a specific project. This is usually around ten or so pages to go along with your complete portfolio that you will bring to the job interview.
What do I talk about?
Spend some time thinking about a problem that has come up on a project that you needed to solve. This should be obvious but pick a problem that you solved effectively, not one that ended poorly… I will discuss with examples on how to structure this document.
So why go through all of this extra effort on top of the portfolio you have already spent hours developing?
1. Helps you stand out from the crowd
Everyone that shows up to an architecture interview arrives with the same thing. A portfolio and resume. If you really want to stand out, you have to do something different.
Most candidates will typically use the “all-in-one” portfolio for the application and interview. Unfortunately over the years I have discovered that there is no such thing as an effective all-purpose portfolio. I say unfortunately because those of you that have gone through the process of creating an architecture portfolio, whether academic or professional, know that it is a major undertaking.
Collecting the images, writing, formatting, printing, binding, realizing a page is upside down… rebinding... Noticing a spelling mistake, reprinting, rebinding. And on and on. While I know how labor intensive it can be it is all worth it when you have that job offer in hand.
2. Shows you understand the role
Knowing the specific role that the architecture office is looking to fill is essential. Are they looking for a Technical Architect? BIM Manager? Senior Designer? Intern?
Try to align the problem you are discussing to the job you are applying. When you tailor this supplement specifically to the position using tangible examples it shows how and why you are a qualified candidate.
If you are applying to a very technical role then try to pick a technical problem you solved, like resolving a particular detail. However, don’t talk about solving a problem with an onsite concrete pour if you are applying for a design role doing competitions. Rather, use an example of when you solved a design problem. For example, how you redesigned the exterior plaza to allow for better pedestrian and occupant flow.
3. Puts you on offense
When I say “offense” I mean in in contrast to defense. Many interviews put the candidate on defense by being asked a series of interview questions.
Tip: if you are doing the talking it is harder for me to grill you on your portfolio.
By taking the lead it can indirectly show your willingness to control a situation and show in real time how you can get results (land the job in this case). While this is also true with the complete portfolio, the more you can control the interview the better off you will be. Generally, the less the interviewer has to squeeze information out of you, the better.
Keep in mind the interview is still a conversation between you and the hiring manager. I am simply emphasizing that you need to control the flow of the conversation. Tell your unique story clearly and concisely.
However, a word of caution, you must be careful with this approach. Try to read the interviewer’s reaction. Everyone’s hiring style is different and this technique might not be best for every situation. Be very conscious of the their body language and verbal reactions.
4. Shows your delegation and organization skills
The primary purpose of this supplement is to show how you dealt with a particular problem or issue and how you were able to solve it. When selecting which problem you have solved I recommend getting the most mileage out of the one you pick. For instance, a more complex problem - did it involve multiple consultants and delegating tasks to several people internally? Be careful with this however, the last thing you want to do is confuse the interviewer.
Let me explain with an example project, this is a technical example, but the same rules apply for any project application. Keep in mind your example will have supporting images and your verbal explanation to go along with it. The bullet points are just a “cheat sheet” for you to keep track of your story during the interview.
Typically I format this as a letter size (A4) bound document, with the key bullet points across the top and minimal supporting images on each page. More pages with less content per page seems to be the most effective method for this.
Depending on the length of the interview (typically an hour) don't spend more than 10-15 minutes on this. I usually start with the STAR Portfolio and explain how “I am going to do something a little different”.
Here is a reminder of the STAR acronym and what you should be looking to address for each subject.
Situation: set the project context
Task: what was required or did you need to do?
Action: what did you actually do?
Result: what happened to the situation?
Here is a hypothetical project with the STAR principle applied:
Project: E2 Technology HQ
Description: 150,000 sq. ft. office
Budget: $100 million
Location: New York, NY
- During construction of the office project The City of New York conducted a survey of the surrounding levels to be incorporated into public route next to the main entrance.
- Survey points did not align with the civil engineers’ survey, significant differences.
- Construction cannot be delayed without major cost implications.
- To identify where and why there are differences between the surveys.
- Put together a plan of action to resolve the variations.
- Identify what is fixed and what is flexible given construction progress.
- Created a 3D parametric mesh to compare and create visual representation of the differences between the two surveys.
- Met with consultants and contractor to determine what could realistically be altered given the constraints.
- Developed design options to solve the level changes with minimal visual impact.
- Determined the site levels had moved due to settlement and adjacent construction.
- The City of NY agreed to my design compromise given acceptable curb heights and drainage slopes were incorporated.
- Issued revised site levels which maintained the project schedule and budget.
By clearly laying out the problem in this simple example the interviewer can see how you prioritized, delegated, coordinated and organized - attributes every employer looks for.
Hopefully this supplemental portfolio will impress any potential employer. Just invest a little time putting together a great document and it will pay dividends for years to come. Remember to tell your story in a way that highlights your strengths by using examples relevant to the position.
Main image via Shutterstock.com