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A Recipe for Great Design Case Studies

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Everything I've ever learned about writing case studies for design projects, I've gleaned from Cook's Illustrated.

Every recipe that magazine/show produces is 100% food porn, following an explicit formula that yields not only deliciously readable prose, but also an understanding of what working process the chef/recipe optimizer went through. Much like a taking part in a design project, they're identifying problems, churning through failure after failure to find that most delicious outcome for you, the reader, to enjoy.

We designers may be spending more time in our kitchens making web apps and identity systems—which aren't as simple as, say, making a great crème brulée—but there are certain ingredients we can steal from the articles of CI to put that extra oomph into how we promote our design efforts to prospective clients.

Here's a taste of what I mean, broken up into the five key areas that comprise a great long-form design case study. Video and brief pictorial case studies are their own challenge, which I'll talk about at a later date. In this post, I'm describing those double-sided sheets of paper you may hand a client in a meeting to take home and peruse at their leisure, or more detailed case studies on your website. Some may argue that these kinds of case studies have gone the way of the dodo, but if you're working to be hired by a large organization with a long and elaborate sales process, you need a few case studies to pass along to all those people you don't get a chance to talk to you along the way.


1. A compelling design case study starts with a simple, evocative first sentence.

A suggestive headline sets the tone for the case study, highlighting the key focus of your design efforts. Beyond "Case Study: Robtek Industries Branding" or "Lox Stores Website Redesign," what's the result that your client derived from your efforts? What can you imply about the outcome of the project? What makes your work special?

Some outcomes are qualitative, such as an apparent leap in quality from Old Ugly Design to New Design with Blingy Graphics and Improved Grid Action, and can be demonstrated in images without selling it too hard in a headline. These are the most common headlines in Cook's Illustrated. Randomly opening an issue from June 2007, the headline of the first recipe I spy says "Hearty Asparagus-Stuffed Omelets." Not "Asparagus Omelets" or "Good Aspargus Omelets" or any other permutation of what you could get at the local diner, prepared in a mediocre fashion.

This approach works well and are easy headlines to write—but are not quite as effective as starting with results first. Strong success metrics are unbeatable hooks. "Redesign Raises Online Sales by 20%," compared to "Redefining Buying Smoked Salmon Online," brings a tangibility to your design work that elevates your design artistry to design effectiveness. Getting these metrics from your clients will require you to maintain and continue your relationships with your clients, following up with them to see how your design deliverables have influenced their business success. Highlighting these details in a quantitative manner makes prospective clients salivate.

Another approach is to identify the complexity of the problem, making it apparent that you scaled Mount Everest, designwise. But it isn't always the best approach. Another CI example: "Rethinking Blackened Red Snapper," "The Problem with Thick Cut Steaks," and "An Easier (and Better) Bran Muffin" all make the wheels in my head (and stomach) begin to spin, but aren't great templates for design work. What really is the problem with thick-cut steaks? Why are bran muffins so hard? Since we're in the solutions business, we should focus on the result first, not the challenge. (That's what the first paragraph of the case study is supposed to do.)

If you can't determine what makes a project distinctive and distill it into a few words, then perhaps you shouldn't be writing a case study about it.


2. The first paragraph defines the problem and clarifies the audience need, without assuming any industry knowledge on the part of the reader.

Many design case study writers spend the first paragraph focusing on the five most important questions that need to be answered, journalism-style: "Who? What? When? Where? Why?" The rest of the case study then delves into answering the question "How?"

I think a more classy approach is to use the first paragraph as a way to drop the reader immediately into a better understanding of the design challenge you've been tasked with. See this extract from the lede and second paragraph from "Best Vegetable Curry" by Rebecca Hays in the June 2007 issue of Cook's Illustrated:

There are thousands of ways to make curry. When flavorful beef or lamb is the main ingredient, even a mediocre recipe usually yields a decent outcome. But vegetable curry is a different story: It's all to easy to turn out a second-rate, if not awful, dish… Vegetable curries can be complicated affairs, with lengthy ingredients lists and fussy techniques meant to compensate for the lack of meat. But I wanted something simpler—a curry I could make on a weeknight in less than an hour… I had my work cut out for me.

Until reading this article, I hadn't realized doing vegetable curry was difficult. (Then again, I'd never made a particularly good vegetable curry.) This lede did a good job of setting up Rebecca's challenge for me—that by the end of the article, I would see her best her initial attempts at gourmet curry in a hurry and describe to me how she created a superlative Indian dish that I could also enjoy in my own kitchen.

Working directly from the problem statement you've agreed upon with your client—you do have a problem statement from the creative brief, don't you?—you can move to a higher level and speak about why your client's stated challenge was a struggle for them and required your expert hand. The best way to do this is to couch it in explicit customer need.

Here's a hypothetical example I've thrown together for a hospital website:

Your husband cut an artery and you need to rush him, bleeding, to the ER. You need to visit a relative that's just recovering from surgery. A routine checkup at the doctor turned up something suspicious, and you need an MRI pronto. Awesome Design Firm was hired by Lorem Ipsum Hospital to redesign their website to [improve stated goals and success metrics from the brief]… Since our interactions with hospital websites are charged with emotion and immediate need, and we knew it was mission-critical that every aspect of our design was intelligently considered to quickly connect patients and visitors with the services they need.

This is the part of the case study where you can apply the human touch, and where most often we opt for, "Joe Client hired us to do blah blah blah." Taking an approach that illustrates a client ask in human terms demonstrates that the designer dealt with not only the stated needs of the client, such as specific products or services that they want to highlight—this is often all that clients ask for—to also best meet the demands and requirements of the website audience.

If you're describing an advertising campaign or example and don't need to go into execution particulars regarding audience need, you can often summarize the whole spirit of the project in a single paragraph. See this excellent writing from Wieden and Kennedy Amsterdam's recent "Write the Future" work for Nike:

The mood of a nation. The decline of a would-be hero. Fame. Infamy. The possible futures of the world’s top footballers are played out in epic fashion. All hang in the balance. Only the moments on the pitch will decide what really happens. And the margins for error could not be more narrow. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel, 21 Grams) and featuring the incredibly unique music of Dutch rockers, Focus, the film shows how one moment on the pitch can be the catalyst for ripple effects felt around the world.


3. Outline the high-level process you took to fulfill your solution, staying clear of any blow-by-blow details.

Part of the fun of reading Cook's Illustrated is in hearing about the trial and error process they worked through to reach their final recipe. From that same article about vegetable curry:

Looking for ways to improve the flavor of the curry powder, I tried toasting the spices in a skillet until their seductive aroma emerged. This simple step took just one minute and turned commercial curry powder into a flavor powerhouse. Why was toasting so beneficial? When added to a simmering sauce, spices can be heated to only 212 degrees. In a dry skillet, temperatures can exceed 500 degrees, causing flavors to explode.

In a description like this, you're being informed about goals (making the tastiest curry possible), tactics (toasting spices), and rationales (higher heat increases flavor in spices) in quick succession. For a design case study, describe goals that are then fulfilled through specific tactics supported by implementation technologies. No matter whether it's HTML5/CSS3 or a Heidelberg, it's hard to go wrong with this approach. (Unless you had no goals or well-reasoned tactics.)

So, if we were to continue the hospital case study, you could imagine moving from the stated audience need (from the lede) to tactics:

We knew that a critical attribute of our approach would be to include flexible site templates that could accommodate frequent updates for improving service delivery to their patients. Feedback would be collected from surveys delivered automatically to customers a few days after their visit, then delivered to the client in a manner that would allow them to make weekly updates through their custom CMS. Our client was delighted with the workflow improvement, and when the system went live, patient satisfaction with the hospital's online services also lifted month-over-month by 10%.

Choose just the top two or three tactics from your project that delivered the most impact. Don't go into detail overload. You only have a page (front and back) to describe and illustrate key learnings in a print case study, and online you should use even less space.


4. Include the ingredients of the recipe: The people, tools, and skill sets leveraged by your organization.

I've worked at firms where the names of people involved in projects are withheld from case studies, often in fear that prospective clients will request those same people to work on their projects—or that competing firms will poach that talent.

My point of view is: If you don't work for a very large company or team, list the people involved, as it provides a face for the firm and encourages contact for future business. If you work for an extraordinarily large firm, it may be harder to resource identified staffers to the work, so list roles and (if you're feeling spry and personal) first names.

As for technologies, list what tools were used for implementation, as it helps to give an understanding of what core development competencies your firm may have as part of its arsenal. And don't forget to include what skills were used, as this is a key place that you can illuminate your strengths—and where you've brought in partners to help fulfill key aspects of producing a design, such as back-end development firms or printers.


5. Weave in the appropriate quotes to show client partnership and audience response as a strong close.

There's a reason that Cook's Illustrated is one of the top magazines in the home-cooking world: You know that every single recipe that's included has taken hundreds of human-hours and countless recipe iterations to come up with what their test kitchen believes to be a perfectly stable and highly delicious meal.

An important last step in formulating a good design case study is to demonstrate that your stated POV is shared by your client. Socialize your draft case study with your client, requesting a quote or two from them that helps to support the conclusions you've outlined. What you send to them should provide a balance between your point of view and their stated needs and desired outcomes.

But if you've got quotes to add to the mix that show you've fulfilled the client's and the audience's desired outcomes, then you've got the right recipe for a truly great case study. In having made dozens of the recipes from Cook's Illustrated, I can vouch for the integrity of their work—there's rarely a wasted moment in fulfilling each recipe. Look online and you'll find legions of devotees, with varying points of view on each recipe and their own tweaks and adjustments. (And there's always a call to action at the end of every recipe in the print edition, with video content that illustrates the case study.)

Isn't that the final taste test for any great case study—that the world echoes the opinion you've put forth about the quality of your work?



Looking for examples of good case studies? I've been scouring the Internet, looking for really good long-form ones—but most agencies keep those kinds of materials close to their chest, only sharing them with directly with prospective clients.

If you've got any killer examples of these kinds of design case studies, leave 'em in the comments.


Yuebo Wang

Thank you for the post, I am planning to iterate on my portfolio based on your suggestions. But before that, I am wondering if you could share some comments on my existing "case studies", if I can call that for the school projects I did. http://wangyuebo.com/HappyNotes.html, thank you in advance and appreciate your time.

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