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Capstone and Portfolio Projects in Visual Arts College Programs

by Clara LaFrance | June 30, 2011

The end is near! No really, the end of your art and design education may be approaching. Depending on your program, you may wrap up your program with a capstone project, a portfolio review, or both. In this final post of our series comparing traditional and online visual arts college programs, we’ll take a look at capstones and portfolios.

A capstone project is your opportunity to express your creative view, supported by the techniques and skills you’ve learned in your program. Sessions online degree programs, as well many traditional degree programs, wrap up with a capstone. A portfolio is a showcase of your work, each piece carefully selected to represent yourself as a designer and an artist, and may include your capstone project. In some programs (such as Sessions degree programs and advanced certificates), your portfolio will be reviewed by faculty before you are set off into the professional art and design industry.

Creating a Capstone Project

A capstone project is an intensive final project that will coalesce your skills with your worldview and artistic vision. A capstone might be a complete print design campaign for a new product, a range of interactive materials for a Web business, or other large-scale, multifaceted professional project. The capstone is uniquely yours and will usually include a presentation component for you to defend your choices and approaches.

During the capstone process, which may involve part or all of a semester, you may find yourself with false starts. You may choose a path and find out that the technique you chose does not yield the results you expected. Embrace the unexpected, refer to your research frequently, and use in-class critiques and feedback to shape your project.

In a traditional program, a capstone may coincide with a thesis and culminate in a gallery show on campus. My Master’s thesis featured a visually rhythmic mural across the wall of my gallery space, and across several discarded house windows. It was quite interesting, and I spent an entire week in the gallery hanging each piece just right!

In an online program, your capstone project will be submitted digitally to your instructor and your classmates. As always, you will receive thorough critiques and feedback that you can refer to during your process. Take advantage of this! Use the feedback judiciously and combine it with your own creative insight.

Building Your Portfolio

Your portfolio is a series of pieces (around 10 to 15) from your body of work. Not just the best of the best, but the pieces that say something about your style and where you are trying to go as an artist or designer. See your portfolio as a self-explanatory series that accurately represents your artistic view, message, and skills. Here are some personal tips for building a quality portfolio:

  • Use your best pieces and have a critical eye. Your aim should be to create a cohesive whole, in which the pieces of work relate to one another and nothing stands out. It’s perfectly valid to be emotionally attached to the work that you do, but when creating a portfolio, choose the best pieces objectively.
  • Update pieces that need work, particularly if they were done early in your program. You have come a long way since then, and I bet your work shows it. Touch up pieces to bring them to your current skill level. Related, avoid including “studies” in your work. A color study or mood board is not a finished, professional design piece that is going to get you a job.
  • Represent a range of work. While maintaining a cohesive whole, choose pieces that can show a range of work. Present example of your branding work, magazine layout, and Web site design, for example, if that is the type of work you are looking to get in the field.
  • Watch for typos. Remember that Snickers commercial where a guy paints the Chiefs football end zone, then another person remarks, “Looks great, but who are the Chefs?” When you spend so much time looking closely at composition, color, and visual rhythm, do not forget to read the type! You are the last eyes on your piece and a large-scale error like this will be the first thing someone else sees.
  • Explain your work. Caption your pieces so potential clients or employers know more about it. This is especially important for group projects; make sure your role in the piece is clear.

If your traditional or online program includes a portfolio review, take full advantage of it. Faculty are experts in the field and want to see you succeed, so use their advice to craft the best portfolio you can and keep it updated as you progress as a professional. Your portfolio is your final step as an art and design student as well as the first step to getting a great design job.

Thank you for joining me on this exploration of traditional and online visual arts college programs! Best of luck to you whatever you choose and whatever stage of your journey!

Clara LaFrance
Course Producer | Sessions College

Clara LaFrance is a freelance graphic designer when she is not pursuing her dreams as a circus teacher and performer. Clara has an M.F.A. in graphic design from Boston University.