Stories are design: How to really write a graphic design case study, part 3 of 4

by / Wednesday, 11 March 2015 / Published in Process and Procedures, Writing

(In case you missed them, here are part 1, and part 2 of this 4 part series – Shawn)

We’ve seen how crucial story is to a good case study, but how does that story contribute to good marketing?


Keep something in mind while writing your case study: a woman tied to railroad tracks, like in those old silent films, the ones with the mustache-twisting villain. That’s the kind of vibe you want to go for.

In a small way, a case study is nothing more than a damsel-in-distress adventure.

We have our damsel, the client. She’s distressed with a business problem. The villain, the design challenge, has her all tied up. And then, suddenly, with a sword and shield of image and typography, you ride in to do battle with the villain and save the day.

Then, of course, you both live happily ever after.

It might sound far-fetched, but it’s the same principle behind stories in thirty second commercials. Watch for it. The poor housewife can’t keep the kitchen clean with such messy boys running through the house, then here comes Such-and-Such Bleach to save the day, and mom can finally relax.

Stories work on both intellectual and emotional levels, so, no matter their length, they make a strong impression. Think of how rumors work in shaping your opinion of someone.

As a structure, this format of storytelling goes all the way back to Gilgamesh. It is historically proven to be the most effective narrative design there is to affect emotion. And, as part of its design, it has an extremely powerful way of arresting people’s attention.

Each beat flows fluidly into the next, repeatedly grabbing the reader’s interest. It’s impossible for them to “leave the theater,” because they just gotta know what happens next.

You know how that goes. Take advantage of that.

More important, though, is how they’ll think of you after they’ve finished reading.

In a case study, you’re a knight in shining armor. A hero. A savior.

(…a very small version of one, at least. But no matter, because…)

Our brains understand the world through metaphor and archetype – a theory going back to Carl Jung. Because a case study presents you as a hero, a connection forms in the reader’s mind between you and other heroes they’ve read about. Like Superman. Or Batman. Or Spider-Man. Take your pick.

Ask your kids. That’s an elite class to be apart of.

These types of subtle influences shape our perception, and thus our decision-making.

And sure, they’re very small psychological reactions, and not noticed consciously…but, as a graphic designer, you should know how powerful subconscious influence is.

This is how good copywriters do it.


A case study can’t win the war on its own, but it’s some serious firepower for the marketing campaign in general.

A marketing campaign always boils down to a single, simple message: “You should hire us/me, because…”

Your case study should reflect that “because,” and reinforce it with the story. To that end, as I said before, choose a project to focus on in your case study that’s a prime example of your “because,” something that supports the claim of your campaign.

As obvious as that may seem, I still read case studies out there that don’t exactly fit the marketing campaigns they’re apart of. It appears they settled on a project to focus on simply because it was their most successful, or the one they’re known for. But that’s not quite the way to go.

A good case study is part summary, like in a textbook. The reader reviews all the marketing material in general, and then gets a subtle recap in the case study.

That’s reinforcement. Driving the message home.


Do not trust the case study writer who does not use quotations, because he simply does not know what he is doing.

And you can quote me on that.

Direct quotes and testimonials from your satisfied client comprise half the power of a good case study, and that is no exaggeration.

Dialogue gives life to a character. That was true for Hemingway, and it’s true for your case study as well. For one, quotes add realism. They make a character human – as we did when we mentioned Muffy earlier. That creates a stronger bond for the reader.

It also comes down to a simple psychological trick: the sheer sight of text on a page, broken up by dialogue, reminds them of reading novels or newspaper features. That puts them in story-mode, and we know how important that is.

But, lest we forget, this is business here. Marketing. Advertising. Story’s great, but we’re not here to write a novel. We’re here to sell our services. To that end, nothing – and I do mean nothing – has more power than the voucher of a satisfied client.

Word of mouth.

For the purpose of the case study, quote your client, and, if you’re writing in third person, quote yourself as well.

(Yes, pretend you interviewed yourself.)

When do you actually use quotations?

The rule of thumb is simple:

  • Quote the client at The Circumstance, and The Results.
  • Quote yourself at The Work, The Solution, and The Why.

You’ll know which quotes go where. When the client talks about the problem they had to solve, that obviously goes with The Circumstance. And so on.

Do you have to use quotes at each point? By all means, no.

Do you need a lot of quotes? Of course not.

But you do need some.

No question.

Use them selectively, and use them wisely.

But do use them.

They are your sword, Sir Knight.


We’ve covered a lot in the past few posts, and it’s a lot to keep up with. What’s more, we have to consider things like page count, formatting, and structure.

Don’t worry. We’ll get to that next.

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