The Design Case Study Paradox

Every designer has a section of their portfolio where they show their work. The typical method of documenting their work is called a case study.

case stud·y
/ˈkā(s) ˌstədē/

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.

Here are attributes that I notice in most designer case studies:

  1. Very long pages with lots of text
  2. Limited navigation
  3. No progressive disclosure
  4. Emphasis on process and not design
  5. Majority of content is research, not design
  6. Usually static (not animated)
  7. A picture of someone staring at sticky notes on a wall

Paradox 1 – It’s not applicable

Never in my 25 years of designing have I ever had to write a case study for work. Never. Not once. Additionally, I have never even heard of a product designer having to make a case study. The only people I’ve seen make case studies are marketing designers. (And those look very different)

So the question is: Why do we make designers explain their work through a case study? What’s the point?

I’ve heard one hiring manager say that if the designer can make a case study, it shows they can do the research to design something. I think this is complete BS. There is literally zero overlap of skills. A designer needs skills to do the job, but writing a case study isn’t one of them.

In university or trade school UX programs, they emphasize making these case studies. Additionally, they make sure they all follow the same template. In other words, they all look the same.

Paradox 2: Same is bad

As a hiring manager, I look at dozens of portfolios a day. Truthfully, they are 95% identical. It’s very different than looking at books at Barnes & Noble. All books look the same if you don’t read them. It’s the WORDS that make a book better or worse. You don’t judge a book by its cover, right?

However, you DO judge a designer by their designs. As mentioned above writing is not the primary skill of a designer. Design is the primary skill. So the question is: Why are portfolio case studies using the “book” model? Why are they trying to differentiate using words when the primary skill is the opposite of words? To me, this just doesn’t make any sense.

I’ll often describe this as the Zebra and the Peacock. These two animals have very different ideas about “Getting chosen”. The zebra is being chosen by a lion. It means death. A peacock is being chosen by a mate. It means life. Zebra therefore blends in and the peacock stands out. Life or death, which is the right metaphor for a designer case study?

The Zebra and the Peacock

It seems obvious to me that being chosen is GOOD in the dersigner case. It means getting a phone call by the hiring manager. So clearly, you don’t want to blend in. You want to stand out! So why in the world is everyone teaching young designers to blend in?

Maybe some hiring managers want designers who don’t actually have creativity or design skills. Maybe they want to copy other company (Apple/Google) designs, follow the crowd, don’t stand out. This may be the case. If you are a designer, ask yourself, “Is that where I want to work? Do I want to blend in my whole career?”

Paradox 3: Time spent mistmatch

I spend on average 3-5 minutes per portfolio including their LinkedIn page. I think I am a bit above average in time spent. I’ve ask designers and they all say between 30 seconds and 2 minutes is their expected amount of time from the hiring manager.

If this is the case, why in the world would you make a giant long text page? Clearly in 3 minutes for one page (generous overestimation) you have no chance to read the whole thing. So what’s the point?

I have never seen a designer case study where they used progressive disclosure. They could make a 30 second version and allow the user to click on items they want to know more about. The case study could be interactive. It’s a complete mystery to me why people trying to get a job called Interaction Designer make a demonstration site with zero interactivity.

Bottom Line

The bar is actually pretty low. Most designer websites are awful. They spend all their time writing long case studies and no time creating a good design for their buyer persona (the hiring manager). Wix and Squarespace sites are a dime a dozen and honestly, the experience is terrible. Webflow is gaining in popularity, but I haven’t seen enough of it. I’ve been intrigued by this tool that sits on top of WordPress called Divi. It looks like a full blown design tool. I would suggest designers really take a good look at their site and ask if my paradoxes (paradoxii?) are true.

Either I am completely wrong or design websites are. We aren’t both right.