Let’s face it. The formula for case studies has expired.
The “challenge, user journey, sketches, result” structure we’ve all desperately tried to follow is the result of bootcamp programming and lazy content marketing. We’re shown one template and it’s copied again and again, in classes and in articles, between thousands of portfolio sites that all end up looking the same.
And after all that work organizing and preparing and designing these case studies, the sad truth is:
Nobody’s reading them.
Most recruiters spend less than 10 seconds scanning your work before deciding they want to dig deeper into your site. And if they do dig in, you can be sure they’re not reading your full case studies. They’re looking at hundreds of portfolios a day; they don’t have time for that. Even our team, who spends all day every day studying portfolios, doesn’t read them.
Even more, these formulas have made designers lose the ability to think critically and for themselves. We’re just filling in a template, after all. And the result is a lot of mediocre work reflected on overwrought, uninspired websites. We are so obsessed with workflow and correctness these days, we’ve forgotten that creativity and a point of view are essential to design.
Yes, we need proper context to the work we’re seeing. And it’s important to understand who you are, how you work and how you think. But the current case study format isn’t accomplishing that. In fact, half of that will be revealed in your interview – after we’ve reviewed your portfolio. Your case study should do the best job possible showing why you’re the right choice over anyone else, so looking and sounding like everyone else is not doing you any favors.
Then what’s the solution?
1. Focus on what makes this a success story - The guides out there (including our own case study guide from Semplice) are meant to help you consider your story in full, including aspects a recruiter might be curious about. They shouldn’t be seen as a template for your case study. Think less about hitting all the right points, and more about what you want us to take away from reading this. Why was this project a success? What made it a valuable experience to you?
2. Start with just a paragraph - If you were submitting this project for an award and only had 300 characters of space, what would you say? A few robotic sentences about the client, the brief and the inspiration probably aren’t going to win you that award – unless your project is purely a piece of art, it’s not going to speak for itself. So how can you distill this story down to its most compelling points? It doesn’t matter how long your final case study is, it matters that you’re clear and to the point. Giving yourself this constraint not only helps you start in the first place (it’s only a paragraph!) but it forces you to edit yourself and crystallize your message.
3. Think less about process, and more your strengths and interests - As this article astutely points out, “Everyone’s process is somewhat the same. The steps in your process are just a framework to support your story — they are not the story itself. Reading an insightful case study is much more exciting than reading one that is complete but uninspired.” Instead of forcing yourself to slog through every phrase of your project, focus on the parts that were important and relevant to you. That’s all we want to know reading it, anyway.
4. Realize that your visuals will do 90% of the heavy lifting - Case studies are invaluable. It’s why we built Semplice.com, our portfolio tool, entirely around them. So I don’t like to say this, but the reality is that if we don’t like your visuals after scanning them, we probably won’t read your case study at all. So make your images incredible, to the best of your ability. If you’re not happy with how you did them for the project, redo them. Don’t hide them under paragraphs of copy, make them big. Make them actually connect to the text as we read it. When we scan your portfolio, we’re jumping straight to your images. So make them good.
5. Design every case study like a magazine feature - The templated case study approach assumes every project you’ve done is the same. The reality is, every project has a unique story to tell, and rarely does that story fit within the prescribed process that’s preached to you. Instead of retrofitting your case study to the classic structure, design it around the story itself. Use a unique color scheme for each one that complements the work. Write your introduction with a hook that reels us in. Give us proper context with images and captions. Pretend each case study is being featured in a magazine, and it’s the cover story.
Ultimately, the best advice I can give is to think of the person reading your case studies. Not an awards committee, your coworkers or your design peers. Sure, those people may be part of your audience. But usually, the first person to see your portfolio is a recruiter. Not "recruiters" or "a company," mind you – a single recruiter.
Write your case studies with that single person in mind. What skills or interests do you want them to be aware of? What keywords and experience are they looking for while reviewing (ie. scanning) your portfolio? How can you call their attention to those skills without wasting their precious time? How can you make them laugh, or stop and read further?
As with any form of writing, it helps to write for a single person. You just need to convince one person of your value as a designer, and that one person may offer you your next opportunity.