An Introduction to Case Studies for Designers
Imagine you’re a hiring manager for a design agency. You’re looking for a junior designer that will bring a unique perspective to your team. You’ve pulled up the portfolio websites of a few different applicants and you are faced with a comparison: Designer A vs. Designer B. Both designers have great-looking work, but they present it differently. Designer A has big images and a one-sentence description of the project. Designer B has an in-depth description of the problem they were solving and the steps they took to solve it. You understand how Designer B thinks. You understand the purpose of their design decisions and how they respond when things go wrong. Which designer are you more likely to hire?
A case study allows you, the designer, to show off not just your designs but also your value as a designer. You get to show the whole process from start to finish. People reading the case study get to know how you approach problems and how you communicate. You have the opportunity to tell a compelling story with every project.
A Basic Case Study Structure
Most case studies follow a basic structure like this:
- Introduction. Summarize the project in a sentence or two. Give us a bit of basic background. Who was on the design team? Who was involved as a consultant, as a client, as art director or instructor?
- Reframe the problem. What problem were you trying to solve? What was your goal? What was the brief, and what was your take on the brief?
- Explain your approach. What was your process? Show sketches, wireframes, user flows, and early drafts. Talk about what worked, what didn’t work, and where you struggled. What problems did you run into? What did you learn along the way? Why did you make the decisions you made?
- Show the final deliverables. This is the final “thing”, the finished design work. Show the final photos, mockups, screenshots, prototypes, or screen recordings.
- Conclusion. What’s next? Address expansion possibilities. What would you improve with more time or resources? Where else could this project go? Optional: Solicit feedback from your audience. Ask for comments or suggestions.
How is a Case Study different from a Pitch?
A case study is similar to a design pitch, but a case study shows a little more of a peek behind the scenes. A pitch — like what you see on Shark Tank — is about selling potential. When someone is viewing your pitch, they don’t necessarily care how hard you’ve worked. They just want to know what makes the design valuable.
A pitch focusses on who, what, and why. A case study adds in how. It includes documentation of the process. It reveals how the designer dealt with problems and what they learned along the way. Both a case study and a pitch show off the final work and highlight what makes the work great. Both should reframe the problem and the solution and both should address possibilities. It’s important to consider your audience when you are choosing how much detail to include in your case study or pitch.
But I’m a designer, not a writer!
Graphic design is all about communication. Even if you don’t consider yourself to be a writer, part of your job as a designer is to create meaning. Writing is a skill that can be honed. One great resource is Writing for Designers by Scott Kubie who advises designers that “writing is always hard,” even for writers, and recommends breaking the act of writing down into the following distinct steps:
- Prepare (to write)
- Compose (the words)
- Edit (what you wrote)
- Finish (the damn writing)
Step 1 of the writing process, preparation, is just like the early stages of the design process. You need to define the problem: What is your deadline? Where will the writing go? How much of the project do you need to cover? You need to collect assets for your writing, just like you would collect images and text for a design. For a case study, this means collecting your process. Review and organize your notes, sketches, and design drafts. Organize this information to get a sense of what kind of story you can tell.
As with design, don’t let the blank page intimidate you. Use tools like mind-mapping and brainstorming to organize your thoughts. The basic case study structure described earlier (introduction, reframe the problem, explain your approach, show the final deliverables, conclusion) can serve as an outline. This is like a wireframe for your writing.
Step 2 of the writing process, composition, gets words on paper (or screen). Kubie advises designers “to write quickly and to write everything.” That is, don’t try to be perfect in your first draft. Just get something down. Try to write a little something for each section of your outline. If you’re really stuck, write one thing — one word, one note, one description — for each section. Keep writing until you have a full first draft. There will be plenty of time to revise your writing in the next step.
The most interesting case studies tell a story. Focus on the problem you solved with your design. The introduction and reframing the problem sections set the scene and establish the plot, and explaining your approach shows the rising conflict. Your story is building up to your final deliverables. In an article for UX Planet, Taylor Nguyen has more great tips for great case study storytelling. She recommends that you be specific with information you want your reader to remember. Consider how a phrase like “73% of users preferred option B” is more insightful than “most users preferred option B.” You can also add emotion when you can. “Our team was surprised to find…” “Customers were frustrated by…”
Perhaps most importantly, don’t use your case study to just describe what we’re seeing in your images, “The logo uses Helvetica,” “users enter their name and email address here.” Descriptions of images should not be ignored, but those can be in alt-text. In the body of your case study, explain what is not on screen. As Nguyen describes, “It is in the things not shown on the screen that makes us designers.” Write about why the design is the way it is.
Step 3 of the writing process, editing, is different from proofreading. As described in Thinking with Type, “The proofreader corrects gross errors in spelling, grammar, and fact but avoids changes in style and content.” Editing, on the other hand, is concerned with the content and structure of the writing.
During the editing process, consider why you are making changes to your case study. Can you add information for greater meaning? Can you simplify a section to provide clarity? Can you re-word something so the “personality” or tone of your writing matches the tone of the design you’re describing? Try reading your case study out loud, or have someone else read it to you.
In an interview with casestudy.club, Tobias van Schneider recommends designers give enough information to be informative, but get to the point: “I want to understand your process, but I don’t need to know your user persona better than I know my own mother.”
Think about how your readers will take in your information. Readers online tend to scan rather than read every single thing. Readers pay attention to words that stand out, visually. Consider your paragraph breaks and call out to important information with design elements that grab attention:
- section headers
- content that is a different color, italicized, or bold
- lists (did your eyes jump to this one?)
Make sure you take a mental break between writing and editing. Step away from your computer, get a night’s sleep, or switch to a different task to give yourself some mental space. Throughout the editing process, keep track of the changes being made in case you ever want to go back, especially if you’re working with someone else.
Step 4 is to finish the writing. In the same way a design is never quite finished, you may feel that your writing is never quite complete. Still, you’ll reach a point at which the writing and editing are “done.” At this point, be sure to proofread your work. Find someone new to read your case study and point out errors. Or try reading backwards — word by word from the end of a paragraph back to the beginning — to catch errors your mind might ordinarily miss. Use a tool like grammarly.com to help you proofread.
The Value of the Case Study
Design case studies are most commonly associated with user experience design, but a case study can talk about any design that addresses a prompt or solves a problem. A case study can turn a compelling design into an even more compelling story.
A well-written case study highlights not just your work but also you as a designer. It acts as a platform to show off how you approach problems and how you communicate your ideas. It allows prospective employers, clients, and colleagues to understand you and your ideas. It also serves as a powerful reflection tool—you can better appreciate what you did and what you learned when you write about your design process. We all become better designers when we take time to reflect on our own work and to learn from the work of others.
Great Examples of Design Case Studies
- Creating Slack’s Illustration Voice by Alice Lee
- How might we reimagine the future of Television? TV Guide App UX by Abdus Salam
- Designing Urban Walks by Anton Repponen
- Buying a Metro Ticket in Paris — a UX Case Study by Greg Jeanneau
- Interaction Design Foundation: What are Case Studies?
- Case Study Club
- Text Scanning Patterns: Eyetracking Evidence
- Stop Trying to Fit in With Your Portfolio: Case Study Club Interview with Tobias van Schneider
- Case Studies and other writing from Tyler School of Art & Architecture’s Graphic & Interactive Design Program