Making the perfect case study (Hint: Leave it a little rough around the edges!)

In order to figure out what should be included in a portfolio case study, let’s dive into a little bit about the point of the case study. The traditional portfolio only presents finished work, often work that never came to fruition or it was produced in a sub-optimal way, not the way the designer intended. The popular wisdom around design portfolios even suggests that designers show the work in the way they intended instead of what was actually made! But that’s actually a terrible idea. Here’s why:

A finished thought experiment doesn’t tell me anything about the most important skills it takes to be an effective designer. Is it your ability to choose colors and set type? Nope. Those are a given. Anyone coming out of any design program or even people with natural talent can do that. And with all of the tools available to designers now, like color pickers, and the fact that it’s impossible (or at least a waste of time) to perfectly kern a dynamic interface, these are commodity skills. 

So if design ability is a given—the cost of admission, not a competitive advantage—then what are employers looking for? Is it mastery of software, like Adobe and Sketch, or programming languages? Nope again! With resources like youtube, Udemy, Udacity, Code Academy, and a slew of others, a smart person can learn enough of any one of those programs to be proficient in an afternoon. The idea of software proficiency as a skill is outdated. These shouldn’t even be on your resume. It’s like listing “typing” and “arithmetic.” 

Alright, alright. So we now know that a case study is not designed to showcase your innate design chops or your photoshop skillz. What’s left?

A case study is the best way for a potential employer to get a feel for what it would be like to work with you. The skills that will set your apart are things like cooperation on teams, autonomy, speed of work, process, ability to take feedback, making smart compromises, and more. Everything in your case study (and on your portfolio for that matter) should be in service of one of these attributes. 

Now that we know the “why” of the case study, let’s dig into the “what."

The anatomy of a great case study:

  • The goal:  Was it merely a brand refresh to bring the company into the 21st century? Was there a conversion problem from free to paid customers? Was this to improve signups? Retention? Comprehension? Reduce support tickets? Churn? Explain why this project even happened. 
  • The challenges: Why was this a hard or interesting problem? A case study without any challenges doesn’t tell me much. This is where you get to showcase your problem solving, teamwork, and negotiation skills. 
  • Your role: Be really upfront here. No one wants to play the guessing game of “well, what did this person *really* do on this project?” If we're left wondering, we’ll often automatically assume you didn’t do all the work. And with no clues, it’s really hard to make a bet that the skills you brought to the table are the right ones. 
  • The thing: At this point, it’s good to show the thing to give some context to what’s coming next. 
  • Process: Now how did you get there? This will be the longest section of the case study, and that’s okay. This should include everything from the quick conversation you had in the kitchen to sketches, wireframes, color explorations, and everything in between. That being said, this should just be a hodgepodge of “process” photos (an artistic photo of you drawing on a whiteboard juxtaposed to a haphazard wall of brightly colored post-it notes). There should be some sense of story arch here—“we did this, which led to this, then this, then we had to backtrack to this because of new information x.” Remember: the point of the case study is to get a glimpse of how we might all work together.
  • The thing again: This time with more of the thing! Now is the time to show intricacies of the final design and talk about how they fit into the whole. 
  • Outcome: A small blurb about whether or not the project was successful. If not (which is totally okay!), why not? What did you learn, good, bad, or just interesting? This may sound small or dumb, but this is secretly one of the most important sections of the case study. Employers want to know that you’re constantly learning and that you have the capacity and humility to evaluate whether a project was successful or not and the self-awareness to articulate what they would change in the future. 
  • Next steps: Don’t just leave them at the end of the page with nothing else to do. The easiest thing to do from here is to exit. You want to direct viewers to other parts of your portfolio, your social media accounts, writing, or something else that highlights you and gives them a better sense of who you are.
  • Bonus: I love testimonials (and so do hiring managers!) I like to sprinkle them in all over, and that includes case studies. If you have a great blurb to include from someone who worked with on this project, this is a great way to get that in front of a hiring manager in a context that makes sense (and not just a string of praise or a LinkedIn recommendation.) 

This is the basic anatomy. Obviously, you should add and subtract to certain areas to suit your work. For example, a link to a working app or website, video of someone using the product, user research results, and any additional artifacts (like a custom font or icons) would be good additions.


Now I want to hear from you:

What has worked best for case studies that you’ve seen? Do you have any more specific questions regarding the construction of your portfolio, portfolio prevention, or design interview? E-mail me questions directly at hello@missytitus.com. I respond to every one.