How To Build An Interior Design Or Architecture Portfolio (When You’ve Never Had A Client)

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How To Build An Interior Design Or Architecture Portfolio (When You’ve Never Had A Client)

by Jo Chrobak

by Jo Chrobak

INTERIOR DESIGNER’S BUSINESS SCHOOL

by Jo Chrobak

by Jo Chrobak

INTERIOR DESIGNER’S BUSINESS SCHOOL

Table of Contents

I used to genuinely believe it was obvious and easy to build an interior design portfolio if you’ve never completed a project before. Still, the more I spoke to struggling designers, unemployed interior design graduates and interior design start-ups, the more I realised that it’s not something that everyone knows the answers to.

Also, I still get upset because no one actually asks what is, in my opinion, the right question – which is; whether a portfolio is the best way to get clients anyway. Everyone assumes that you need a portfolio, and there’s absolutely no way that you’ll get into the industry unless you have at least 3-7 perfect, beautifully completed professionally taken photos of a six-bedroom house all designed, project managed and styled by you (at the age of 21).

Frustratingly, all over the internet, people who have never built their own successful interior design businesses or designers who have only worked traditionally (before the internet) are telling you that you need to go and shadow someone, work for free and build your portfolio because you need to showcase your skills and that, that’s the only way to get started as an interior designer.

For me, this outdated advice just creates more problems because your confidence takes a battering. You feel like you need 4 degrees, 50 qualifications, 8 licenses and 100 years of experience before you’re allowed to work with real clients. Of course, it creates the chicken and the egg problem – how do you build a portfolio when you’ve never had a client, and how do you get clients if you’ve not got a portfolio?

So, let me finally give you the answers your looking for and let this be the blog post that finally gives you a way to move forward, no matter where you’re at in your interior design journey. Let’s start by asking this question:

What Kind Of Portfolio Do I Need?

Graduate Portfolio 

The portfolio most people mean when they talk about an interior design portfolio is a graduate portfolio. A hardcopy (which usually has a digital copy) of student work showcasing your design “talent” from your recent studies. In my opinion, the only time you ever need a graduate portfolio is if you want to get a job with an interior design or architecture firm and you’re preparing for an interview straight out of university. That’s it. I am not going to discuss how to create this type of portfolio here (that’s what I’ve included in the video above). This really is a niche portfolio and the one thing I typically teach that you don’t need if you want to work with real clients. Also, my graduate portfolio, although it did land me excellent jobs, never landed me or any interior designer I’ve known (or taught) a paying client, so I’d say it’s the least useful type of portfolio for many of the designers who are trying to start a business (my area of expertise).

If you’re interested in creating a digital or printed interior design or architecture portfolio and you’re graduating from design school and looking to get a job, alongside the video above, I would have a look at this book, which is the best one I’ve read on the topic and specifically written for this purpose. “Portfolio Design For Interiors By Harold Linton and William Engel” (not an affiliate link).

CV Portfolio

A CV Portfolio is also similar to a graduate portfolio, but it will have less (or none) of your student work and more of your professional work presented within it. Like the graduate portfolio, you should always tailor it to suit the company or business that you’re applying to get a job with. It should only contain relevant examples of work to the job you’re applying for whilst showcasing the specific skills that the company require in a designer (the details are usually outlined in the job description and requirements). Again, I won’t be discussing this type of portfolio in this post as I cover this in detail in the video above, associated with this blog post.

Professional Portfolio

The type of portfolio the rest of you want is not a graduate or a CV type portfolio; it’s a professional portfolio or website! The type of portfolio I will focus on in this post is the type of portfolio you need to attract or secure paying clients (or your first client) as an interior designer.

And to clarify, a professional portfolio is not the only way to get clients. It’s ONE WAY. (If you want to know how to get interior design clients without a portfolio, then you’ll want to read this post: How do you get interior design clients without a portfolio?

These days, a professional portfolio can be as simple as an Instagram account, a website or a place to showcase your work on a carousel type online platform. It typically isn’t a printed portfolio of work that you take to a potential clients house to secure a project (like back in the 1990s…)

You’ll want to start creating a professional portfolio if:

So this type of portfolio probably won’t resemble a typical portfolio at all; in fact, it’s probably just a professional website that links to your Instagram account or a few slides/pages of project work with descriptions that you can email to potential clients (I never put mine on my website because I always tailored mine to each client).

Either way, you should aim to have the following list of items in your professional portfolio in some searchable, digital format in one way or another:

List of items in your professional portfolio:

How To Build An Interior Design Portfolio (When You Have Never Had A Client)

I would suggest starting with very small projects for those who have never worked under a designer, have not undertaken a construction or professional project, or have not got a university degree in architecture or interior design. The types of projects I mean are residential projects, such as colour or design consultations, e-design concepts or single room projects that only require decoration rather than a renovation.

The reason for this is that you will make mistakes (we all do), but those mistakes won’t cost you your career or livelihood, so my guidance is to stay small and work your way up with your project size. If you want to explore this idea a little further, I’ve done a short video about this topic here:

This really isn’t a definitive list, so if you have more ideas, post them in the comments below; you might even kickstart someone’s career!

And if you can get through this detailed post – at the end, you’ve got a little gift waiting for you: A free downloadable that contains 50 Project ideas to help you build your first interior design portfolio.

50 Project Ideas To Help You Build Your First Interior Design Portfolio

1 | Photograph Or Document Your Design Process

In many ways, this is more important than the finished product. If you’ve ever been to a design school or if you’ve ever done a design degree, you’ll understand what I mean! Everything at design school is about the process. Our lecturers never cared as much for the end result as they did for the process. They always wanted to see how we got to the end design. They made us painstakingly expand each step of the process with diagrams, sketches, models, theories, philosophies, hypotheses and everything in between and then we had to explain it to death. Our lecturers wanted to see the nitty-gritty in-between bits, from the crude sketch idea to the beautiful concept drawing to the detail, the technical drawing and obviously through to completion.

Showing your design process is typically far more interesting than showcasing a finished product and always gets much more engagement, especially on social media. Architects have used this technique for many years, mainly because our projects usually take years to complete, and in the meantime, we want to show something about the projects we’re working on. (And for those of you who are newbies, you don’t need a real project either, say it’s something you’re working on or an idea you’re testing – architects have been doing that for years too!)Showing the design process really is the perfect way to show your style, expertise, and skills visually by showing how you create a design rather than showing the finished product.

If you’re not experienced enough to understand the full design process yet, just try to create a collage or mood board of a space and photograph those. You could even share the process of finding the items that ended up on your board.

2 | Work On Your Own Property/Space

I get it. You probably live at your parent’s house or in a rental. In my case, I lived in an architecturally unspectacular and cramped, one-bedroom London flat with no natural daylight and zero budget. Get creative and show your skills. The majority of your first client projects will probably have similar issues you’ve managed to solve in your own space. You’re not the only one with a place that needs some imaginative thinking – that’s why we designers are in business, so get thinking!

Don’t forget that there are lots of different types of projects out there too. These days, even renters hire interior designers or decorators (obviously not for a full refurbishment typically, but smaller projects such as consultations). The first few projects I consulted on were single room designs that solved similar problems to what I had solved in my own space.

Even if you’re a renter, show how you’re unique or what interests you about interior design. Show your style, be proud of what you’ve got and share it with the world, be yourself and be honest. Remember that the problem you have with the space you’ve got is probably the same problem millions of others have got too. Solve that problem in your own home and share your unique skills with the world.

Obviously, for those of you with gorgeous homes, then this one is a no-brainer! If you can, try to style each room and take the most professional photos you can (or if you can hire a photographer even better). If you’ve only got your own home to showcase, then create a project for every room, then a description, and explain each space’s brief. A typical three-bedroom home could get you about 5-7 separate projects in your portfolio. I did this with my London flat when I was just starting. I created four projects and showcased each room. When we sold the property, I asked the real estate agent if I could keep the professional photos. They agreed, so I got professional photos of my project, too (although the hefty commission from the real-estate agent probably paid for them!)

3 | Create A “Fake” Project

This is especially useful if you’re an experienced designer and all of your work has been influenced by a previous employer or if all your project images were not yours to use. This can often happen if your employer/client made you sign a non-disclosure agreement or if they didn’t want you to make the images public for personal reasons.

If you already have a few projects drawn up from a past job, altering them to suit your design and modelling them will give you a project that you hopefully didn’t have to create totally from scratch. Of course, if you know how to undertake realistic renders, take the time to take it that step further (this obviously takes time, but it’s one way of building imagery of a finished product).

Finding an idea for your fake project is so much easier these days too! You can look in magazines or blogs to see what others have used and find something similar to work on yourself, or you can search on a design forum and see what kinds of problems real people are having and try to solve it with a design that you create!

For those of you who haven’t got any previous experience, this step is a little harder because your processes are probably really slow, and you probably aren’t sure of how to present the information. So I would start with sketching ideas, creating collages or concept colour boards/mood boards and style boards. You’ll see these all over Instagram and even inside the portfolios of interior designer’s on service websites (where clients go to find an interior designer). It’s the perfect way to show your style or expertise visually. Of course, once again, if you can model it up and show us the space in 3D, that’s a bonus as you’ll be able to create a tone of content just from one model.

4 | Undertake A Project For Friends Or Family

These are often great first projects because the client will already know you and be a lot more relaxed/forgiving if you make a mistake or if the project takes longer than you thought it would. The only thing I’d say here is to make sure that you’re getting something in return for all of your time, or at a bare minimum, limiting the hours you’re spending on these projects unless you’re getting paid for them.

I am quite adamant that everyone should get paid for their time, so if everyone’s asking you for advice or asking you to help them with their renovation, decorating dilemma or asking you to help them choose furniture, why not ask them for a small sum and get paid for your time? If they’re friends or family, let them know that you’re trying to start a business or explain how long it takes (even if you love every second). If your friends want to help you and not just use you for their own benefit, then they will be more than happy to pay you for your time or provide something of equal value in return (but don’t get into a habit of doing this too often either… limit these types of projects to one or two or else you’ll be working on a hobby, not a business).

5 | Create Small, Staged Or Styled Vignettes Or Flat-lays

At the outset, it is unlikely that you’re going to have a huge completed project that’s fully staged and styled, and professionally photographed. So be where you’re at and know that the majority of us all started in the same place you’re starting, so just start! Enjoy focussing on just a small area of a bookshelf or dining table. You don’t have to present full rooms; there is equal merit in a detail or styling shot. Just look at magazines and editorials – they usually have a photo of a room, but then they always zoom in and take a hero or detail shot of a vignette or piece of furniture.If you’re working on your own projects at home, simple things such as styling, hand made crafts or upcycling a piece of furniture are worthy of a photograph if they represent your style and unique edge. I started out styling a corner of a room at a time (as we were renovating).

Flat-lays are also perfect for those who, like me, had many unfinished projects or didn’t have “portfolio worthy” type work that you wanted to publish on your website or social media. Just collect items that show a mood or feeling and edit them to showcase your skills of creating themes and unique/original ideas.

Don’t assume the only way to show your skill is to show a complete room or house, and don’t forget, you can always swap these out for better quality photos as you go along!

6 | Swap A Service

Those of you who are just starting in business and potentially meeting other business owners or networking, reach out to see if you can swap a service and get a small project completed quickly. Obviously, the intention here would be to do something short and sweet like a concept for a bedroom or a home office space for the other entrepreneur and maybe get your logo designed in return.

7 | Enter A Design Competition

I was entering design competitions whilst still at university, and I still enter one every couple of years just for fun to keep my ideas fresh.

I would try to find an interior design competition in line with the kinds of projects you want to work on. For example, it might not be worth entering a competition to design a phone booth if you want to work on residential living areas (maybe it’s relevant to children’s rooms, but I’ll leave the details for you to work out!)

There are hundreds of companies and design sites offering design competitions. You obviously don’t have to enter the competition if the information is provided freely. You can just use the brief to solve the design dilemma in your proposal instead. Some competitions are paid, so if you pay to enter, choose the one you want to take seriously.

Here are a few sites to check out for design competitions:

8 | Create A Case-Study

This is more of a document or research style presentation of your skills where you analyse someone else’s project or discuss a relevant project to the types of projects you want to get hired for. For example, say that you love working on designing children-friendly spaces. You could choose two to three designers work and compare/contrast and analyse what you like or dislike about the designs related to child-friendly spaces. This could be a separate page on your website, or you could form them into a blog.

If you preferred to share these on social media, you could create “long-form” social media posts that showcase your knowledge and skills in that way, too (just don’t forget that on social media, they don’t last long, so you’ll be creating content more often if you’re not keeping these on your website/professional portfolio).

And don’t be afraid to share that you’re just starting out. It would be best if you were honest about the skills you’ve got. People are willing to give new designers a chance, so don’t think that everyone wants a highly skilled designer – not everyone is willing to pay the premium price for one, so be ok with where you’re at and know that you’ve got a chance too. We all start somewhere. The majority of people looking for an interior designer don’t see the need to hire Kelly Wearstler to design their kids room, especially if you’ve shown a particular skill/talent that the client respects.

9 | Photograph Your Craft or DIY Projects

No matter how small or insignificant your project seems, please make an effort to write about it or share it either in a digital or physical portfolio or on social media. Many of my mentees were just showcasing domestic crafts, DIY or furniture upcycling projects when someone reached out and asked for help.

Interior design is such a broad industry; showcasing other skills will help you define your style, brand and niche later down the line. If upcycling furniture or creating unique table pieces are something that you love to do, don’t forget that these are complementary services for an interior designer and really go hand in hand with your design services if you want them to.

For those who aren’t crafty but artier, it’s also ok to showcase your art, too, even if it’s only digital art. Many designers have another skill/hobby that they integrate into their designs. For me, in the beginning, it was designing bespoke artwork for a room, so think about your other skills or talents. Are you great at calligraphy, woodwork, scrapbooking, making kids games… think!

10 | Find A Real, Paying Client

There is an endless number of ways to get interior design clients! Typically if it is your first client, however, they will probably be someone you know or will come through someone you know (unless you know how to market yourself and then, in that case, you’re probably already working with clients!) So tell everyone you’re in business and that you are eager to take on a client (and don’t be afraid of being eager, no one wants to work with a designer who doesn’t care if they get their project!)

But no one will hire me without a portfolio, you say? Of course, they will. You just haven’t tried to get a client because you either don’t know how to, or you might feel too insecure to tell anyone that you’re open for business. Toot your horn a little and let everyone know that you’re eager to work and have space available to take a client on.

(If you want more help with finding a real, paying project or client, then check out my Interior Design Mentorship ) and if you want to know how to get interior design clients without a portfolio, then you’ll want to read this post How Do You Get Interior Design Clients Without A Portfolio? ).

Do Not Work For Free

Wait, there’s one more thing I need to say. Please do not work for free. Many people will tell you that you should do projects for free to build up your portfolio and showcase your talent and skill.

This is an option, but it’s the worst option! Have those people ever done it themselves? Worked painstakingly for months for free? Why would you do that? And why do people keep telling you to do this! I’ve never had a mentee that’s ever needed to work for free (that should be proof enough that you don’t need to work for free to build a portfolio).

If you’re trying to become an interior designer by working for free, you’re doing three things:

If you love interior design and want to do it for free, great – do it as a hobby – but don’t pretend you’re an interior design business. Hobbies are done for fun (businesses too, but we get paid for doing what we love, which in my opinion, is way better).

50 Project Ideas To Help You Build Your First Interior Design Portfolio

Take Action

Now that you know what kind of portfolio you need to create to get clients rather than a job and now that you have a few ideas on how to create content for your portfolio, you can go ahead and choose one of the above and just make a start. There are enough ideas here to cover those of you who are totally inexperienced to those who have many years of experience, and everyone in between. So you have no excuse not to have a professional showcase of your work in some digital and visual format out in the world for people to start finding you and connecting with you.

And if you don’t know where to start, here is one more little push that should get you thinking, “make what you do as an interior designer interesting”. If you think you’re boring, we are all going to think it’s boring, so find a way to make what you do (even if it’s the smallest thing) interesting to us. If you’re waiting for the perfect project to come along, you’re going to be waiting a long time, so start now, from where you are, with what you’ve got, one day and one step at a time.

Jo Chrobak

As a little bonus for making it this far, above is a downloadable workbook and idea sheet for you – Project Ideas To Help You Build Your First Interior Design Portfolio.

Jo Chrobak
Jo Chrobak is an architectural and interior designer and mentor at the Interior Designer’s Business School that trains interior designers to set up professional and successful interior design businesses and gain experience working on real projects. She is trained in architecture, interiors, business and life coaching and runs her architectural and interior design studio just outside of London in the UK.

6 Responses

  1. Hi Jo – this is so useful, relevant and it gives me a standard to work towards. Many thanks for showing the detail and sharing your portfolio. Monika

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