I have been lucky enough to have been accepted into the University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture + Landscape Architecture Environmental Design Program. The Environmental Design Program, a third-year transfer program, offers a design intensive education that prepares its graduates for continuing on into a Master’s of Architecture, Landscape Architecture or Urban Planning. The program is relatively new to UBC’s School of Architecture but in its few years of existence has grown to hold a strong reputation for developing highly skilled students with strong work ethic, a broad scope of design-based knowledge, and an unprecedented ability to collaborate.
Like the hundreds of applicants each year, I was among those who read the pages of the program’s website until I nearly had it memorized. The online information discusses how this design school is proud of the diversity of the students it accepts and how the small class size fosters a strong sense of teamwork within the Environmental Design Community. In May of 2011 I was one of the 25 fortunate applicants to be accepted into this tight group of design-minded individuals. I started the school year with basic expectations; thinking that this year would be similar to my first two years of general university education. However, my expectations were soon blown away. I had no idea that architecture school would teach me skills that stretch so far beyond the immediate skills required to produce good design or that classmates could become a design family. For those who have not been through the Environmental Design program, the closest thing I can equate the experience to is A&E’s Project Runway. There were tears, throwing up, fits of laughter and risky design but in the end and through the process of working closely with extremely talented creative minds, good design was produced and a strong design team was formed.
If you are interested in also being accepted into UBC’s Environmental Design Program in Vancouver, British Columbia, then you need to know that the most important part of your application package is the portfolio. Here, I offer the knowledge gathered from my personal wins and losses with my ENDS application process. I hope that it may be helpful in your own work and I wish all potential applicants as this past year in ENDS was my most rewarding to date. The struggles were worth it and I would do it all again.
For Environmental Design hopefuls, the item that holds the most weight in determining your acceptance into the program is the portfolio of your design work. The best and only piece of advice I received regarding the application portfolio was to present as varied a body of creative works as possible. I submitted photos of my textile work, wood work, furniture, paintings, sculptures and charcoal drawings. After comparing portfolios with other classmates that had been accepted into the program, I realize that presenting a very diverse body of work was the way to go. If you are a great painter, excellent; submit your best two paintings you have ever done and then turn your creative focus to another medium. Some of the other members of my class submitted songs or plays they had written or documented an extraordinary hike that they completed. Stepping completely out of the box like this is great, and perfect for the ENDS community, however you need to know how you can relate these different experiences to design and you need to be able to explain it very briefly in a short description accompanying the piece you are submitting.
I’ll tell you right now, that one of the biggest lessons I learned this past semester is that everything, EVERYTHING, can be related to design in some way, shape or form. What makes a truly individual is being able to make the connection and explain it in such a way that the less creatively inclined can also understand the connection you are making.
Diversity of creative works are preferred, but beware of stretching yourself too thin in order to try something new. You do not want to sacrifice the quality or integrity of your work in any way. The application committee have their eyes trained to throw out portfolios that contain anything that is of poor quality and that was quickly done. Do not try to fool them, it just will not work. Take the time to produce the best work you can. I would highly recommend taking a few visual arts courses. They are extremely helpful in getting those creative juices flowing, especially for applicants who are predominantly interested in math and sciences. Please note that this does not make you any less qualified of an applicant as someone coming from a major in fine arts, it just means that you have different skills that will be useful to your ENDS community and that you have to be creative in coming up with a way to show the portfolio reviewers that math and science are extremely creative fields as well. Again, I’ve seen examples of this very thing in some of my fellow classmates who came directly out of majors in science and they are doing very well and have unique qualities to add to their own work and the work of the class. If you are in visual arts classes, the work produced in those classes are good candidates for pieces in your application portfolio, however, if you are submitting an art work that was a class assignment, make sure that it is your best work and that it is unique. School art projects typically tend to look like just that: school art projects. A few of these are fine as they demonstrate that your learned some useful skills, however the more art work you can submit that is 100% unique to you, the better.
The ENDS application requires there to be no less than 15 and no more than 18 pieces in your portfolio. I would shy away from submitting the maximum number. If you can keep it around 15-16 pieces, it shows that you can say more with less, that you know how to recognize good from bad work and that you are able to self-edit. The criteria for the format of the portfolio is let completely open to the applicant. The one and only criteria is on the size: 9x12x1/2.” This is another place to show your creativity. This of the assembly and presentation of the portfolio as an art piece in itself. How are the pieces arranged? It is a book? A web page? A slide show on a disk? A miniature horse wearing a sandwich board with your portfolio posted on it? I heard of one student years ago who applied to another local design school by buying a Boler camper unit, gutted it and turned it into a mini, mobile gallery of his art work. He drove it down to the school and was accepted on the spot. Be as creative with the assembly of the portfolio as you were with the pieces themselves. If there is one thing to remember here it is to be consistent with your design moves. Every move means something whether it is a colour choice, paper size or thickness, digital or hard copy, black and white or colour, scrap booked or formatted in inDesign. My advice is to make your choice, and then stick with it 100%. If you are going to scrap book your portfolio, do it all the way and do it extremely well.
If you are unsure of how to take the portfolio assembly process to the next level, then the next best thing you can do is to produce the most professional work possible. Get yourself a layout program, I suggest the trial version of Adobe inDesign, and assemble crisp, clean-looking pages. Spend the money to get your work scanned or photographed at the highest resolutions possible for sharp images. If you are submitting a hard copy, invest in getting your portfolio printed at a respected print shop and on quality paper. The cleanest way I have found to attach the portfolio pages together is to leave a 1/2 inch margin on the left side of each page, punch holes straight through the entire stack (no more than two or three) and then insert Chicago screws. This is called post-binding and the screws can be found at any major hardware store, Rona or Home Depot for example. It is a two-part mechanism, so be sure to get both parts. This is just one suggestion for one method, but it is up to you to create the portfolio that best matches your style and your personality.
I would like to clarify that the information that I have shared is not necessarily specific to the Environmental Design Program at UBC alone and that the information in this article can be applied to a portfolio application to any design school.