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How to write case studies for your design portfolio

A good case study on your design portfolio is a great way to make it stand out. Here’s how to get it right

Illustration: Yali Ziv

Putting a work process into words might cause some to break out in a light sweat, but just like the rest of a design portfolio, a case study is a chance to shine. The key to approaching such a task is by realizing that crafting the perfect case study isn’t that different from any other design work you do.

Here’s everything you need to know about writing good case studies, from how to structure them visually, to which details to include and more.

What is a design case study?

In a nutshell, the main aim of a case study is to tell the story of a specific project of yours. The text you write can put your design work into context and make it more fully understandable. Integrating images with text, a case study outlines the most important details of the process, from the brief you were given, to how you approached the task, to the final result. Incorporating case studies into your portfolio helps give potential clients or employers a look into how you work, what you’re good at and what your thought process is.

When making your online design portfolio, note that not every project requires a full case study. You can pick the projects you’re proudest of, giving you the chance to highlight your skills and explain what made the design so successful. Now that we’re on the same page, here’s our best advice:

Include the relevant details

To make sure you’ve covered all the relevant information, here’s a checklist of the main details to include. Note that these aren’t strict guidelines - it depends on how thorough you want to be and what you feel is important for your project.

1. Background info: If you were working with a client, include their name and what they do, plus the date and location in which the project took place. Also explain what your role was within the project (for example “Web Design,” “Branding” or “Art Direction”). If you worked in a team, credit the other people and list their roles. This is also the place to give a brief sentence on what the project actually is.

Example: See how designer Ariel Sun, introduces her rebranding project:

“The Human Project at NYU (THP) worked with the agency Ogilvy & Mather to redefine their brand and develop a new logomark. As THP's internal graphic designer, I applied that visual language to a variety of marketing & communications assets and fresh brand collateral.”

2. Goal: Briefly explain what the aim of the project was. You can base this on the design brief you worked with throughout the project.

Example: Design studio and Wix user, Run Wild, state the goal of their UX project:

“The challenge was to redesign a convoluted site into an action-oriented site that provides clear navigation and call to action.”

3. Design process: You can really decide how much you want to elaborate here. Keeping it short is also an option. Either way, the idea is to talk about the main stages you went through in the design process, which decisions you made and why, what your approach was, and any changes made throughout.

You can include some of the research you did and what your inspirations were. Don’t be afraid to mention any challenges you experienced or concepts that were later scrapped - as long as you keep a positive attitude and explain the reasoning behind the decisions, remember that it’s all part of the process.

4. Results: Here, present the final outcome and your main learnings. You can also write about how success was measured. For example, state whether all your client’s expectations were met (this can be in the form of client quotes if you like), or perhaps include stats you have about an increase in sales, or describe how part of your design was later used on a larger scale.

Example: In this case study about a redesign for a website, Ariel Sun explains the results:

“The result is an engaging and unexpected twist on a garden party that tells a clear story while still leaving room for the viewer’s imagination. After reviewing a set of submissions that included work from our very talented colleagues, Tattly picked this design and will elaborate it into a full-on marketing campaign.”

Make it skimmable

We all know that we live in a time of short attention spans. Even when it comes to prospective clients or employers, they want to get a feel for your design project fairly quickly. That’s why you should make your case studies accessible, inviting and easy to grasp at first glance, both in terms of the design and the text itself.

The layout of the page should serve the storytelling process, revealing information in digestible, bite-sized chunks. Combine images with text cohesively, somewhat like the structure of a magazine or book. See how designer and Wix user, Brittney Johnson, separates the parts of her case study into drop-down sections, enabling you to focus on one point at a time.

Split up your text into paragraphs and add headers that will enable visitors to navigate easily from section to section. Consider emphasizing certain words by making them bold, changing their size or opting for a different color. Additionally, caption each image with a brief description, so that even people that aren’t into reading lengthy text can comprehend the context. It will also help make your design more accessible, offering your visually impaired site visitors an alternative understanding of the image.

In terms of the writing style, keep it concise and to the point. Use short sentences that explain exactly what you want to say, without repeating themselves just for the sake of sounding sophisticated. This doesn’t mean you need to sound robotic - you should still keep it personal and remember that at the end of the day, your target audience is humans.

Write it like a (short) story

Just like in any other design project, a case study simply tells a story. And that’s exactly the way you should write it. It should have a structure, including a beginning, middle, and end, made up of all the relevant details (scroll up if you missed what those are). It’s not just random sentences placed one after the other, but rather, an outline of a process, generally written in chronological order.

Maintain your tone of voice

On a similar note, remember that your case study describes your project, so feel free to let your individual personality shine through in your writing. Keep the same tone as in the rest of your design portfolio’s copy, in order to form a clear personal brand and consistent browsing experience.

You don’t need to be overly formal or use complex jargon, as this could just end up intimidating people. On the flip side, including jokes might be taking it a little too far. Simply focus on getting the point across succinctly and in your own language. As a result, the likelihood is that you’ll give your site visitors a better idea of who you are and where your specialty lies.

The combination of text and images helps break it up into a story-like layout, resulting in a more immersive and engaging experience, which is why you should make sure not to only include visuals. Plus, text is great for your design portfolio’s SEO (search engine optimization), increasing your chance of ranking higher on search results.

Get more inspiration on how to tell a visual story through your portfolio with these 8 graphic designers’ websites.


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