A Case Study Format For Emerging Designers
A versatile and user-centered approach to consider
As an emerging/early-career designer, it can be difficult to determine the “right” way to do things. A topic that is flooded with differing opinions is writing case studies for portfolio projects. This is the main reason why I struggled when putting together case studies for my portfolio. It wasn’t until I explored several portfolios, read countless articles, and talked to many designers that I settled on a framework. This framework really takes into account all of these efforts and combines them.
I’m not saying my way is the right way to do things. Rather, my hope is that sharing my approach will provide an option to other designers and possibly help them find success when trying to attract the attention of hiring managers.
How you assemble your case studies largely depends on your design process. It varies by designer, team, and project. That said, if you take away one thing from this framework, let it be this — include a “Brief Overview” section at the very top of your case study.
I came up with this idea after getting a lot of feedback on my portfolio. I evaluated all of that feedback and determined what to incorporate and what not to. It’s important to be intentional here because everyone says something different.
My ultimate goal was to tailor my case studies to various audiences — the busy hiring manager and the process-driven folks who don’t mind reading about the details.
Brief Overview Section Structure
Here are the main things to cover:
- Problem Definition
- Customer & Business Impact
Most of this came from Budi Tanrim’s article. The article is straightforward, concise, well-put-together, and it’s from someone who frequently reviews portfolios. In his article, Budi states:
It takes me less than 2 minutes to decide whether I want to interview the candidate or not.
2 minutes. That’s all you have. Crazy, right? Refer to Budi’s article for the key questions you should be answering in each section.
And here are some additional tips for you:
- Experiment with how you would like to word things
- Keep in mind that your goal is to be concise (this can be tricky)
- Try to pull out the most important details
- Place more visuals at the top — oftentimes, this is what draws people in and encourages them to read more
All in all, putting these essential details at the top can only help you, especially because most people don’t have the time to read about your detailed process.
Curious to see what my “Brief Overview” section looks like for one of my case studies? Check it out below.
Celine Fucci - Sustaio
How might we help users transition their habits to be more sustainable through daily education, goal-setting, and…
After the “Brief Overview” section, I get into my detailed process. As I said above, this is for those who want to read about the details.
Below, I’ll speak to how I set things up. And remember, this is largely dependent on your design process.
Here’s where I provide context around the project and describe the challenge. I also decided to put some previous designs in this section, just to give the reader an idea of what the clients provided to my team.
Tip: If you want to call out something critical, I recommend using color or type hierarchy to draw your reader in. For example, most of my case study text is set against a white background but when I wanted to highlight the main challenge of the project, I set it against a different color background and used large, bold type.
Research can be pretty in-depth, which is why I recommended writing a bit about what you did, but then (similar to above), call out those important insights.
Try to answer this question: What were the key findings that went on to inform your design decisions?
If you want, you can also link to the full research report.
This is really where you start figuring out what to build. It’s okay to put some of your messy design work here. After all, this phase is all about experimenting and trying things.
Execution is all about building out your solution for the problem you identified at the beginning of the case study.
Questions to think about:
- Did you set up any systems (ex: components, naming conventions) before getting to work on the visual design?
- What were your initial designs?
- How did you test your initial designs?
- What were the most impactful user testing findings?
Iteration is a critical step in the design process. In my refinements section, I detail how I balanced client and user feedback to iterate on the initial designs I talked about above.
Tip: Show the progressions of screens (v1, v2, v3, v4, etc.) and point out how you landed on your final design.
In this section, what I decided to do was insert a video walkthrough of my final prototype.
But, here are some other things you may want to touch on:
- Future recommendations/testing initiatives
- Other deliverables (ex: design system, marketing site)
To wrap it all up, you can describe what you learned and talk about what you would have done differently. You could also add in some endorsements. This could give hiring managers a sense of your strengths and how you work on a team.
Important Note: Something I’d like to call attention to is the fact that no project is perfect. That’s why throughout my case study, I highlighted my struggles, pivots my team made, and things that went wrong.
Responsive Web Design
Please take the time to make your portfolio responsive. A lot of hiring managers will view your portfolio on mobile and if you haven’t taken this view into account, that’s an easy way for them to move on to the next candidate.
Make it easy for hiring managers to navigate between the pages of your portfolio.
- At the bottom of your case study, add links to the next and previous projects
- Set the position of the top navbar to fixed so it’s always available when scrolling
- Have a logo? Link it off to the home page (this is a common approach)
- Add a persistent back-to-top button
I used Webflow to build out my site and it has a pre-defined selection of design elements to choose from. One of them is the lightbox. A lightbox is basically a pop-up window that displays content in an enlarged view. Take advantage of this element to display visual designs. Placing your designs inside of a lightbox will allow people to identify the small details.
Table of Contents
Here’s another user-centered tip for you. Instead of having people endlessly scroll through your case study to get to the section they want, add a table of contents that stays fixed as you scroll (similar to the navbar). I added mine to the left side.
Type Hierarchy & Spacing
Effective type hierarchy and spacing are two necessary practices to keep in mind when making your case studies easy-to-read. Don’t be afraid to utilize whitespace and choose one or two typefaces that have various weights.
Assembling case studies takes time. As I mentioned above, there’s not really a set structure. However, hiring managers usually look for some basics.
On one hand, I hope you utilize this approach if you’re feeling stuck and are looking for ideas. On the other hand, I hope you take the time to experiment and learn what works for you when writing your case studies. What matters most is taking the time to put some thought into them and trusting yourself. And remember, don’t shy away from feedback and put your work out there!
You can check out my portfolio here:
Celine Fucci - Product Designer
I'm a detail-oriented product designer who focuses on designing collaboratively and systematically to fulfill user…
And if you’re hiring, feel free to get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org