Writing A Compelling Design Case Study
How designers can communicate the entirety of their talents in the most logical, succinct, and effective way.
By Veronica Cihlar (with contributions from Erin Wang, Cassidy Hart, Shannon Reilly, Ryan Fleischer, Mel Chen, Gabi Homonoff, Stephanie Jung, and Christina Allan)
In the world of design, writing is for many an undertaught and underdeveloped skill. However, authoring a case study does present an opportunity to write (especially long-form) in a design context. Case studies not only showcase a designer’s (or a design team’s) work, but also the entire process from start to finish, and include sections that summarize as well as allow designers to reflect.
The ordering of some case studies is more complex and more detailed than that of others. Some designers recommend seven steps, some eight, and some only five. I chose to go with the seven-step approach, which seemed like the best compromise between brevity and detail.
The seven-step writing approach consists of the following: overview, problem statement, audience, roles and responsibilities, scope and constraints, process, and outcome.
I then asked some of Scout’s Project Leads (also known as “PLs” — they head each of the client teams here at Scout) and even a Scout alum to weigh in with some advice on the necessities that go into each step (additionally, if you would like to see an example of a case study previously written by Scout, click here). So, without further ado, here’s what our Scout members, past and present, had to say:
The first step to consider when drafting a case study is the overview. Erin, the Project Lead for our IDEA team, says that the overview needs to be “both engaging… and get to the point,” because it is essentially an “intro for the entire project.” For her, there are three major parts to an overview: the “current situation and what people are doing nowadays,” “the solution (in a single sentence pitch),” and “your role during the project.” Because the overview lays out the narrative and basic skeleton of the project, it can take a few bits and pieces from other sections (like the “role and responsibilities” or the “outcome” sections). It should not, however, focus in on any one section to the point of making that section later on redundant to the reader.
2. Problem Statement
The next section of a case study is the problem statement. According to Cassidy, our Project Lead for Saltwater Classroom, approaching a problem statement is all about prioritizing “the challenges the client was facing,” with an emphasis on “the client’s goals and motives.” Designers can also add “anything [they] saw as a point of improvement, or a roadblock.” The way Cassidy thinks about the problem statement is through asking “how-might-we” questions. Lastly, she likes to include any “other significant considerations… that affect any major decision-making.” For example, with her client, established brand identity and technological accessibility were top priorities, so she would include those in a problem statement.
The third portion of a case study is the audience. Shannon, our Project Lead for Scout Labs x MONUM — the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics — weighed in on how she handles the audience section. She says it is “critical to know who you’re designing for” in order for your design to be ultimately successful. Additionally, “empathizing” with your audience and pulling out “key stakeholders” from it are both incredibly important. One exercise Shannon recommends is to write down every group that is affected by your project and from there narrow it down to the ones who are most affected one by one. This exercise, she states, helps her “define who they are and begin to empathize,” which helps with realizing what connects stakeholders to whatever you’re designing (and is also the first step in stakeholder mapping).
4. Role and Responsibilities
The fourth key element of a case study is the section on your role and responsibilities. The way Ryan, our Project Lead for Nomix Life Sciences, approaches this section is by starting with “a benchmark” so that your reader “understands when you came to be a part of the project.” For example, “working with a start-up and [designing] their entire visual identity” is quite different from doing “touch-ups for a website” or “redesigning marketing collateral.” One already comes with established brand parameters (which could help or be a challenge), while one does not. Lastly, Ryan states that writing about your role and responsibilities is a critical way to “get credit for your hard work” and, equally importantly, to “recognize the contributions of others on the team you were working with.”
5. Scope and Constraints
The Project Lead that gave tips on the scope and constraints portion of case study drafting was Mel, who is on the BikeBus team at Scout. Mel compares this section to “writing about mistakes in a science lab.” He says there are always going to be some constraints, but that writing about them in a case study allows for them to be shown “in a positive light” and framed in terms of “interesting challenges.” You can click here for a helpful example from Mel on how constraints function in a real-world project for a real-world client. For scope specifically, Mel says it “ties in really heavily with the problem statement.” During the ideation phase, it’s tempting to create too much and get carried away, so scope is useful for prioritizing “what your user actually wants or needs.”
For the sixth step of writing a case study — the process — , we turned to Gabi, the Executive Director of Scout.
Gabi provided a direct example of part of a process portion from a case study she’s written in the past. She makes sure to be methodical with an attention to the details of each step (even adding portions she sketched out by hand) without being overwhelming. She also stays in chronological order, making the process easy to read. As a result, her process portion is a logical, digestible narrative. You can find the example below:
“In creating the brand illustrations, I started by drawing the same scene in three different styles to help NeighborSchools figure out what they wanted and didn’t want in an illustration style. To unify the brand, I brought in the shapes present in the NeighborSchools logo and utilized strictly brand colors for the palette, aside from skin and hair colors.
Style 1 was selected from the three presented for its gestural manner, with loosely stroked lines and simplified facial features that gave the illustrated scenes a welcoming, friendly feel. Feedback from the first style round provided some critiques about the age of the child, with the little girl appearing older than the anticipated clientele. The clients wanted to see a range of skin tones, as opposed to a universal yellow. We also went back and played around with the scale of the shapes — at this size and frequency, they were competing with the illustrations too much.
For the second style round, I also tried various styles for the background to get a more playful, less architectural feel to the drawing.”
The final step of any case study is the outcome, and we asked Stephanie, the Project Lead for Bharat Babies, to give us some advice on how she writes this section. When Stephanie writes the outcome section, she first recommends to “keep things succinct” so as not to bog down the reader with too many unnecessary details. The outcome is meant to showcase the product of your entire design process, and while in doing so it may be tempting to include everything, it can have the opposite effect of potentially confusing your reader or diverting attention away from the most important aspects. Stephanie also adds that it’s good to pull out and emphasize specific aspects of the final design, why certain choices were made, and how they relate to your audience and to your problem statement. Bringing up “any user testing or reviews,” as well as if a design is part of a “larger system that is location specific” and how it will be implemented are useful as well. A hypothetical example of the latter is “There will be fifty signs printed and placed in various hops on Newbury St. in Boston, MA.”
A few final general pointers…
Finally, designer and Scout alum Christina Allan advised with some general pointers. Christina graduated last May with a degree in Interaction Design and is currently a designer at Drift.
- “Keep it short.”
2. “When it doubt, show your work rather than say it or write about it.”
3. “Images should almost always include captions.”
4. “Think of case studies as a sort of story, and the plot can be different every time. Highlight the thing that makes the project unique — maybe you led the team, or the project won an award, or you unified 50 different styles into 1 cohesive one.”
So, your design case study should follow a basic structure, and the one this guide is based on is easy to follow yet effective at telling the story of your project. It should include an overview, a problem statement, an audience, roles and responsibilities, scope and constraints, a process, and an outcome.
However, it is also important, as Christina Allan mentioned, that every case study is somewhat of a different story. Thus, while this guide is meant to be useful in that it provides an outline, it is also important to make your case study uniquely yours or your team’s — and that that aspect is something that should not be glossed over, but rather intentionally highlighted.