Career Skills

Taking Your Portfolio Case Studies to the Next Level

with Jeremy Osborn, Director of Learning at Aquent Gymnasium

In this tutorial, you’ll learn three tips on how to write compelling case studies for your online portfolio.


Taking Your Portfolio Case Studies to the Next Level

with Jeremy Osborn

Jeremy Osborn: Case studies are one of the most powerful tools in your portfolio to help you demonstrate your expertise. Unfortunately, many of them don’t do a good job of keeping the reader engaged. In this tutorial, you’ll learn three ways to level up your case study and make you stand out from the crowd.

Now a case study is a write-up of a project where you had a major role and one that you’re proud of.

It gives the visitor insight into your thought process and your workflow. Here is a brief list of what you might find in a good case study:

  • The client and deliverables
  • Your role and contributions
  • The process and approach used
  • The types of tools and techniques used
  • Key insights you learn from the project
  • What was the project impact after it was released

Tip number one: Use a narrative structure to engage the reader.

To explain this tip, here’s an example of what not to do — add a couple of generic sentences describing a project followed by a dozen screenshots with no context. Please don’t do this. Why?

Because a great case study captures the reader’s attention from beginning to end.

Telling a story is an excellent way to do this, and there’s a well-known storytelling formula called “the hero’s journey” that you can use. So here’s a lean and mean version of this technique:

  1. The Challenge: This is your call to adventure. Describe why the project was important as well as any challenges that were making you nervous.
  2. The Solution: This is the thick of the battle, where you’re using all of your skills and experience to solve the problems you encounter. What were the unanticipated challenges that you faced? And what strategies did you use to overcome them?
  3. The Results: This is the resolution, where you return from the frenzied pace of your adventure and have a chance to reflect. Specifically, what did you learn that made you stronger? And how did it improve the way you work?

Keeping this narrative structure in mind will help you focus on the big picture.

The mistake many case studies make is not giving the reader a reason to care.

Don’t forget, the project is not the hero of the case study, you are.

Tip number two: Focus on the process.

Over the years, I’ve worked with people who have looked at thousands of portfolios. And the complaint that comes up the most often is, where is the process?

Now in this case, “the process” is the evidence of how you solve problems.

But chances are, you solve lots of problems, so which ones to choose? Well, the answer is to start by defining the most important thing you learned in a single sentence. So here’s an example.

Fill in the blank:

“The most important thing I learned when the project was done was that [blank].”

In this case, doing user research constantly throughout a project is critical to success. Whatever that sentence is, now reverse-engineer it and explain the events that led you to that conclusion. These are the stories you want to be telling.

Next, document those very same events with visual evidence. This could be preliminary sketches, notes, prototypes, or literally anything created during the project.

And this leads us to tip number three: Less words, better visuals.

You have to remember your audience. They’re busy, and you don’t have much time to impress them. So I stay away from strict rules such as word count.

But a best practice to aim for is a case study that takes about three or four minutes to read.

At the very least, avoid the infamous wall of text, as seen here. When I see a case study like this, I take a deep sigh because it already feels like a chore. Instead, consider organizing your text into short paragraphs with descriptive and meaningful headings and add carefully chosen images throughout.

The big idea here is that your headings should function as an outline so that even someone skimming the case study will get the idea.

Every single image must have context and help tell a story.

If not, leave it out, because I see this mistake all the time — thumbnails or sketches where nothing is actually readable. It just shows that the person did stuff. This could be for any project ever made.

Best practice: At a bare minimum, at least add a caption to each of your images.

Finally, get creative with your imagery. Consider making original infographics or perhaps a pull quote from research you did. Whatever it is, just make sure everything you use has a purpose and isn’t just filler. That’s it.

For more information on this topic, check out our Resources section and be sure to check out our other Take 5 tutorials as well as the entire course catalog at Gymnasium.

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