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Part one of this series looked at how other disciplines use case studies, and part two featured models of practice within the design fields. In this edition, we’ll dive into the tangibles and intangibles that go into building a case study, as well as some opportunities for formatting the case study itself.
photos courtesy of Shutterstock
The second case studies installment listed suggested content that can go into your case study. Most in-house designers can gather that content with ease, but you may have difficulty collecting your colleagues’ materials, especially if said content is not in a shared server space. Ideally, get the content on your wide-area network or a cloud storage space, such as Google Drive or Dropbox. It could also be on a local-area network, only accessible in-house and at the office. No matter the case and the place, have the data in hand well before you need it. A good time to bring in all of the old bones, so to speak, is near a project’s conclusion. If it’s a printed piece, gather everything up as you’re pre-flighting files to send to the printer, or shortly thereafter when you have some downtime before proofing. If it’s a web or digital project, begin organizing and amassing it at the first round of testing. If you’re detailed-oriented, you’re probably good at creating a folder for everything before a project comes to life, and if that’s the case, pat yourself on the back right now.
If your audience is mostly or entirely internal and in-house, then you may want to have your colleagues provide narratives about each component that they contributed, how they interacted with you, your team, and (if warranted) outsiders, also have them detail how their role was instrumental in moving things forward and bringing the project to a close. Emphasize that the highlights are what’s most important in crafting their narratives. In terms of editing, one person may need to oversee all of these narratives in order to give your story a consistent voice. If your case study will remain with and be shared among just the creative team, you can be as technical as you need to be, getting into PMS colors, printer testing, font packages, CSS details, and so forth. But if non-technical peers will read it, consider using accessible language for anybody to understand what you’re talking about.
How will you package your case study and share it? Should you share it? Blogging platforms have become an outlet for design studios, advertising agencies, as well as in-house creatives to share what they’re doing with the general public. Thanks to the wide-ranging choices available these days, setting up a blog is simple. Moreover, it may already be built into the website system that you’re currently using, in which case, you can hit the ground running. And by putting these materials online as an extension of your pre-existing website, you’ll increase “searchability.” Just don’t expect a wealth of new traffic to come to your site by itself, and overnight. You’ll have to use some public relations, communications, and outreach in order to spur readership. If the case study lives online, remember to think “mobile first” so that the site and imagery scales down to a phone, up to a tablet, and even farther up to a desktop and television. And above all, consider having a print-friendly PDF version available for download, making sure to brand that case study with your pre-existing corporate identification.
How much money did the project cost? How much money did it make the organization? Was this below or above the expectations? What was the most rewarding part of the job? What was the most painful part? Did your audience or consumers value what you delivered? Were they emotionally touched for the better or worse? These are some of the intangibles that may not be readily available. For one, the people seeing and using your design may have little to no idea how much it cost to produce the work. Moreover, since your audience may be separated by a good distance (or an incredible distance), you may not have interacted with them enough to gain a sense of what was pleasurable and what was painful. If that’s the case, you need to begin getting user and/or consumer feedback as soon as possible, whether you’ll use social media, online surveys, email campaigns, telemarketing, or any other form of outreach. And when it comes to the money, you can disclose as much or as little as you see fit, or as required.
Packing it All Up
Once you have all of your materials, an understanding of your audience, and a place to showcase the case study, you’ll want to find a way to tell your story. But what kind of story will it be? Short and sweet? As short as a poem? As long as Game of Thrones? Consider those options, and these alternatives.
THE EPIC TALE
Ideal for internal and external audiences, and especially end of the year annual reports, recruiting new business, and approaching venture capitalists or other donors
Length: like the title says, it’s epic
Advantage: similar to the Process-Driven approach noted below, only it provides everything and the kitchen sink
Disadvantage: may be too long and exhaustive for most readers, requires you to supply content related to creativity, time, money, as well as a lot of intangibles that may not be easily accessible
—Are you apt to compose emails with 500 or more words on a regular basis? Do you consider George RR Martin to be light reading? Was the movie Interstellar too short for your tastes? Then crafting an epic case study is right up your alley. Documentation plays a critical role here, and if one or more of your team members kept a running journal of everything that went into and went out of the project, then there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to push this out in no time. Project management tools such as Basecamp also provide a hefty dose of reporting tools, be it their calendar or wiki, so you can glean data from there as well. This is one of the few case study approaches that would make a good book, as in a 48+ page book.
Ideal for internal and external audiences
Length: short, medium, or long
Advantage: offers bite-size issues in an easy-to-read format, think lots of questions with short-form answers, as well as plenty of bullet-points
Disadvantage: not robust for readers who want a lot of information, and a lot of backstory
—Building your case study on one takeaway is akin to pulling a chapter out of The Epic Tale case study. Or, for those who want to cover more than one takeaway, it’s more like pulling many chapters out of The Epic Tale. Ultimately, you should also showcase your organization’s value. You want to provide the reader with an “ah ha” moment or series of “ah ha” moments, showing the project’s value and even your creative team’s value. You could compare what was made and what worked with the initial marketing plan and/or budget. And in doing so, you’d aim to identify why things worked out the way they did. You can also highlight instrumental roles or performances. Was your intuition or your team’s intuition a game changer? And in terms of budget, you can go all out or focus on the details, even issues and influences outside of your control. Did the cost of goods change for the better or worse? Did you and your team cut down on the time needed to produce the work, and in the end, did it help you be the first to market?
HOW YOU THINK
Ideal for internal audiences, as well as creatives outside of your organization, also ideal for submitting to design award contests as well as publications that could promote your project
Length: short to medium
Advantage: helps you evaluate your creative process and teamwork
Disadvantage: because it often omits intangibles, such as the economic and technological climate or the consumers’ emotions, readers may only see the surface treatment
—Do you use moodboards? How many sketches did you have to make before finding the right solution? Did you approach things in a deductive or inductive way? Are you a lateral thinker? Did metaphor, connotation, and/or denotation come into play? These are some of the many questions that your how-based case study could answer. When these are short and sweet, biting off a single chunk of the project, they are most successful. While you could address everything that went into the project, in terms of your creative output, think about whittling it down to the basics, and make it a haiku. Set a goal to fit everything into one letter-size page, including images, and you should be good to go.
Ideal for internal and external audiences, also good for promotion via contests and publications
Length: short, medium, or long
Advantage: divulges everything to the reader
Disadvantage: if you’ve overwritten old files or deleted them, you may not have everything readily available
—How you think and how the project unfolded may seem like one and the same, but they’re not. A process-driven approach to your case study reveals everything and anything that went into conceiving, prototyping, designing, testing, re-testing and perhaps redesigning, as well as producing and releasing the work. It’s a start-to-finish kind of story, and in painting this kind of picture, you’ll want to showcase all of the “sketchy” works from the early creative process, in order to identify what worked and what didn’t work. When packaged up, a process-driven case study would make a nice PowerPoint or Keynote lecture, with 8–10 slides (12 minutes or less of lecture time).
Wrapping It All Up
As you build your case study, it’s important to keep your narrative in mind. Address the “How?” and “Why?” for your readers. How did you make what you made? Why did it come out the way it did, or why didn’t it? But it’s the “Why?” question that really matters most. Make sure you give your readers a reason why they should read about your work, whether you’ve told a short, medium, long, or epic story about your design.
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