What is a Case Study and Why You Should be Using Them

In Design Discussion #8, we went over ideas of creating self-initiated work and hopefully you have already started on some of these project ideas. Now I am going to go over one of the best ways to present those projects in your portfolio: Case studies. A case study, in general terms, is “a process or record of research in which detailed consideration is given to the development of a particular person, group, or situation over a period of time,” according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. But what does this mean in graphic design and other creative fields? I will break this down and walk with you through this process in terms of graphic design but the process and steps can be applied to any creative field like photography, animation, cinematography, etc..

 

Defining Case Studies for Graphic Design: Concept to Completion

So you have Webster’s definition of a case study but it still might seem a little vague. In the simplest terms, a case study is a presentation of a design process, from start to finish. So for a graphic design project a case study will consist of a number of steps:

  1. Project Briefing
  2. Research/Strategy
  3. Sketches
  4. Concepts
  5. Revisions
  6. Finalization
  7. Printing/Publishing

(I will go through each of these steps in more detail in my next Design Discussion article.)

A case study shows the full process, from concept to completion, all in one location. By going into detail, you want to go over any challenges you came across and your solutions to problems. Give insights to failures and success and why ideas failed or succeeded. Remember it is OK to fail because you can often learn more from mistakes than from victories. I will go over more in depth on why it is OK to fail in next week’s article.

Why Case Studies Are Important

Often times, new designers only put the finished product in their portfolio, which is great, but employers want to know how you got there. They want to make sure you understand the process especially when you’re just starting out in the field. By presenting your projects, even your self-initiated ones, as case studies you show potential employers and clients that you know what you’re doing and you know all aspects of the job. By also presenting your work in this format, you walk the employer step by step through your process which helps the employer or client evaluate you and hopefully alleviate any anxiety they might have. You have to understand that employers and clients are investing time and money in you when they hire you, and by showing them your process they can easily see your strengths and be able to see where you might need improvement on and they can then focus their training on that particular part.

When you’re starting out, don’t feel like you have to know everything about the industry, because a lot of employers know that you are still learning. If they see that potential in you though, they will take that risk to help nurture you and your skills to help you become a greater designer. You have to pay your dues no matter what industry you are in, and usually that means starting at an entry level position or a junior designer. Case studies will help you land that job and move up quicker and help you evaluate your own process and skills and allow you to see where you need to spend more time in your process.

How to Format a Case Study for Your Portfolio

Now you know what a case study is and why you should use them, but what does a case study look like? The answer is it can look like whatever you want it to, but there are some steps you should follow. In assuming you are working on a web based portfolio, you will probably want each case study to be clearly marked and labeled so viewers know what they are looking at and know that this is all part of a process on one cohesive project that might have multiple facets, like web and print collateral. Always present your information and images in a logical format, keeping in mind that when reading, most languages (sorry Hebrew and Chinese) reads from left to right, top to bottom—in that order. Remember, you’re the designer! Design your page with your case study that fits your style and branding. You will want to incorporate both text and images in your case study to clearly explain your process while showing examples of your work.

If you’re a visual learner, don’t worry I’ll include a link to an example of an existing case study from AIGA to help you envision this.

 

Takeaway

Case studies are great tools to have in your portfolio when displaying projects. They help show your entire process, not just your final product, which helps potential employers and clients understand your flow and help alleviate any anxiety they might have when hiring. By showing your process you help cement your status as a professional who doesn’t skip corners but knows what he or she is doing. Especially for the new designer trying to break out into the field, case studies are the way to do it. Now every project in your portfolio doesn’t need to be a case study, but you need to make sure you have consistent branding in your display of portfolio work.

 

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