A presenter showing charts and graphs
silly illustration by an AI robot

Lately I’ve seen some advice on social media about design case studies. People often recommend using a formula that’s likely to satisfy most hiring managers, like this:

  1. Pick a project you worked on, and state the problem you were solving.
  2. Explain how you arrived at that problem.
  3. Explain how you tried to solve it.
  4. Explain why your eventual solution was the best.
  5. Demonstrate that it worked, with metrics and qualitative results.

That’s a great start, but there’s more to it than that! Here’s a deeper way to think about it.

What’s a case study for?

A case study is a storytelling exercise. The point is to articulate certain unique aspects of your work experience.

This is not actually a story about a project. It’s a story about you, using the project as evidence of how you work and how you think.

With that in mind, you can see why only walking through the routine aspects of a project would be insufficient. Nearly every design process follows the same basic order of operations:

  • Customers were dissatisfied about something.
  • There was a business motivation to try fixing it.
  • The team did some research and narrowed down what to focus on.
  • They explored possible solutions.
  • They reviewed and refined the ideas.
  • They picked one and built it.
  • They shipped it and measured it.
  • It had positive or negative results.

This is just replaying how most projects happen. All of this is necessary, but it’s not quite enough for a great story.

To make your story more compelling, think about what you’d want someone else to take away from it. What was special about this project, and how did it enrich your personal experience and point of view?

Was it…

Proof of great craft and sweating the details? A strategic gamble that paid off? A tough situation, like working with a difficult peer or a tight deadline? A new challenge you hadn’t attempted before? An example of your range, such as leading a team? A struggle or failure that taught you something valuable? A chance to invent something totally new?

…or other things like that.

Once you’ve put together a few of these on different topics, you can use them strategically for your portfolio or job interviews. Tell stories that represent what you care about, and relate in some way to where you want to go next.

There’s no need for this to be overly dry or formal, either—don’t be afraid to use your own voice and sense of humor. Design is messy, and nothing ever goes perfectly smoothly, so tell that tale! A great story has a bit of drama, insight, and levity. Bring your personality into the case study and it’ll be a million times better.

P.S. it’s always good to shout out your team in a case study, since most design work isn’t made alone. You can do this while clarifying what your role was on the project, which helps a hiring panel get a better read on your experience.