There are a lot of mysteries surrounding case studies. When done right, they’re seriously complex and represent hundreds of hours of design work. At their start, they can feel like a disorganized, overwhelming mess. But step by step, they transform into a piece of work a designer can truly be proud of because it tells the story of their growth over the project. Being able to effectively communicate and illustrate that unique story is key to a designer’s success in the interview process, and a way for them to stand out from competitors. I’ve lost track of how many case studies I’ve reviewed in my time at Designation—it’s probably somewhere close to 1,000 by now—and in all that time, I’ve seen many important parts of case study writing come into focus. Below are five of the most important areas that go beyond the basics of case study writing and get into the more challenging parts that can provide a far greater reward. Together, they can turn good designers into great design storytellers—and set them up for greater success later on as professionals.
Show your process assets purposefully.Assets are your opportunity to show rather than tell—explain a big chunk of the process in a visual form. Assets can take many forms, and the more diversity in them, the more engaging for readers. They include photographs, which can backup descriptions of on-site research, interviews, and teamwork; screenshots of in-progress work and artboards; sketches showing rough ideas that were fleshed out later; Post-it notes and affinity diagrams; wireframes, sometimes with color added for extra clarity for the reader; animated gifs showing microinteractions and user flows through the product; charts and tables; and so many others.
A case study image like this shows a surprising amount of information and process—how creatively messy it can be to sketch, sorting to find ideas worthy of development, fleshing the strong ones out, and applying design elements and patterns to them. A case study without showing assets is incomplete, but one that shows assets without explaining them is almost worse, because a designer always needs to explain their importance to the process. The best way to do that is to use captions for each asset. But captions must always be a part of the overall story; they shouldn’t only repeat information that the asset already shows. They must provide a unique insight, and further the story for the reader. By doing this, it activates the caption and justifies its existence and the work it takes to write them by the designer.
This designer used two forms of captions to illustrate their screens: Annotations that point out specific areas of concern from testers who looked at them, and a caption below that collected and synthesized them for easier comprehension.
Provide a comprehensive competitive analysis.Designers often like to downplay the research and analysis of competitors that happens near the beginning of a project because it doesn’t directly focus on the work they created. This is an unfortunate mistake because it’s a huge part of the story and it often leads directly to designers making research or design decisions later in the process. Furthermore, designers should show off that they have a deep understanding of the competition whenever they work on a product; that they know what’s happening in the landscape and how their product fits in. Showing logos or only mentioning names of competitors isn’t anywhere near enough; designers need to discuss in detail what competitors do well, and analyze the areas in which they need improvement. Designers can provide screenshots of competitors’ products, but they need to go further and annotate or comment on them, to show a more detailed analysis. And they can’t ignore out-of-category competitors too, because that research often leads to innovative ideas that can catapult their product over in-category competitors’.
This designer looked at three competitors and called out unique areas of strength and weakness from each one, especially as they led the designer to make design decisions later in the process. Finally, all that analysis requires synthesis, which means explaining the opportunities the designer saw for their own product after looking at the competition. This helps the designer more formally describe the end of the competitive research phase of a project and how that helped them refocus on their own product.
The designer analyzed competitors’ images in the center of this screen, but the text at the bottom presents what they did with that analysis: They derived an important design principle from it, which heavily impacted the next phase of their work.
Be team-centered.Almost every project done at Designation is done as part of a team because almost every project done as a professional designer is done as part of a team. It’s crucial for designers to reflect that in their case studies. Designers must write “we” when talking about group actions, and “I” when talking about personal design decisions or insights. In other words, we encourage designers to use “I” when they talk about where they led their team, and “we” when they supported another team member leading their team.
This is a great example of team-centered writing, where the designer discusses how the team worked together to generate concepts. She then switches to individual writing to indicate which concept she took charge of. Both extremes of this spectrum are bad in a case study—ones that only say “we” look like the designer didn’t think for themselves, and ones that only say “I” look like the designer isn’t a team player. So that balance has to always be found. Employers look for teamwork skills as much as they look for hard design skills, and a case study can be an excellent place to find records of them.