Case study writing

Beyond something you just see

The days of a design portfolio being a glorified slideshow are a distant memory in an age when process and delivery reign supreme.

Updated October 14, 2019

The first step on the pathway to a job requires that you make a lasting impression. With that in mind, think back to the last time you applied for a job.

Did you apply on a job site? Perhaps you submitted your resume and waited patiently for someone to respond.

Design positions are different. Unlike other fields, designers have a unique opportunity to telegraph to potential employers why they are the best person for the job without ever talking with anyone from the company.

As a designer, you are counting on your portfolio to open that door for you.

This fact has led to a lot of shiny personal websites that sizzle while lacking many of the fundamental elements that make a design portfolio work.

In short, a design portfolio that doesn’t display how a designer thinks or how they deal with adversity is a non-starter in 2020.

Ten years ago, you could have likely strolled into an office with some interesting visual work and landed a gig. It was the era of ‘move fast and break things,’ when just being able to ship a product reigned supreme. That mentality is rapidly fading as the industry wrestles with looming scandals weekly. Now, employers are actively seeking out designers who can help create ‘minimum virtuous products.’

So just having a shiny portfolio isn’t going to be enough to draw attention. You need to show how you think — and to do that, you’re going to need to create compelling case studies.

The audience

There is no shortage of places to sprinkle your portfolio’s URL, and that’s going to bring a lot of different eyeballs to your site.

In the sea of faces that might visit your portfolio, there are two groups of people that you want to notice you. I refer to these groups as Scanners and Divers based on their activity while visiting your site. The job titles associated with these groups will change from one company to the next, but the primary action they perform remains the same.

Scanners is the first group to encounter your site, and they won’t stay very long. A Scanner will review at all the applicants en masse to help determine which portfolios deserve a second look. The whole point of this exercise is to eliminate applicants that are not fit. Anyone that is involved with hiring at the company doing the hiring could be a Scanner. Portfolios that hit the mark our first group are passed onto a small group or individual who is going to go through the selected portfolios in much greater detail.

The detail seekers are our previously mentioned Divers, and they do what you might expect — they dig into the details of your portfolio. By nature of the whittling process, Divers review significantly fewer portfolios but are more likely to be involved in the interview process as they will have spent the time reviewing your work in detail. While a Scanner might be someone from the HR department, a Diver is generally going to be a subject matter expert at the company.

The final audience member that you will need to get comfortable with is — you. Of all the people who might read your case study, you’ll be the person who uses it the most. It will become the common thread of many conversations you have with employers and other designers. Case studies provide a prewritten script for these discussions that you’ll need to draw from and add color to where required.

The structure

If you’ve spent any time reading case studies, you realize that most are lengthy by nature. While some case studies are far too long for the content they contain, others appear to breeze by because of how the information is structured.

The structure of your case studies should reflect the different audiences that are coming to your portfolio. Aiming at two different audiences at the same time seems like a difficult task until you realize there is a well-documented storytelling format that we can use.

The inverted pyramid is a method of storytelling that frontloads a story with critical information before becoming more granular in detail. The format is a staple of journalism, where stories compete for the attention of a reader. The goal of the inverted pyramid is to deliver essential information to the reader as quickly as possible. If a reader leaves early, they still get value out of the time they invested.

Inverted-Pyramid-Example Source:

For your case study, the inverted pyramid creates a movie trailer for the Scanners, while delivering the lengthy feature presentation to the Divers who arrive later. Everyone receives the information they came for.

The format

A traditional inverted pyramid has no noticeable beginning or ending, aside from the detail of the information itself. By imposing a format onto a case study, you can signal to the audience which portion is intended for them.

The overview section of your case study should be constructed with the Scanner in mind. A compelling overview will do all of the following:

  • Convey what the product or service does (one-to-two sentences)
  • Identify the main problems
  • Outline the final solution
  • The role you played on the team (and who was on the team)
  • The design artifacts that you produced
  • Display what the actual product looks like
  • Provide a link to a prototype/deployed site

The external link is a signpost for the Scanner, providing a clear action to take. The Diver won’t be distracted by this shiny object, because their interest in your work is just beginning.

Overview-process Source:

The process section of your case study will provide insight into how you tackle problems and bounce back from issues that occurred during the project. Your process section will likely include, but is not limited to, the following:

  • How you researched the project
  • Target user information
  • Display of the iterative arc of visual solution
  • Analysis of testing rounds
  • Detail of personal growth throughout the project

It is a good idea to include another link to the prototype/deployed site near the bottom of the case study. By repeating the link, you provide the Diver with a logical action to take when they reach the end of your case study.

Finish strong

The usability of your portfolio site matters to employers, so it’s a good idea to make it easy for visitors to navigate to other areas of your portfolio from the bottom of your case study. While each portfolio will have a different structure, poor usability is not a feature, so invest some time determining where people should go when they finish with the case study.


Like design, writing is an iterative process. Doing either well requires both patience and lots of editing.

In this exercise, you will begin writing your case studies. Begin the process by creating a first draft of the overview section. You should only focus on one case study at a time. If you have more than one case study to write, pick your most substantial project.

On your second draft, you should not only have a somewhat refined version of your overview but a complete first version of your process section.

Once you complete your second draft, update your Program Journal with links to the case study produced for this exercise. This exercise will likely have more revisions than other exercises in the program.

Post a link to your Journal in the #Feedback-Loop channel for review.

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