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

by / Thursday, 15 October 2015 / Published in Inspiration, Philosophy, Writing

If you missed them, here are parts 1, 2 and 3

As you’ve seen already, a good graphic design case study is very simple: it’s just a short story about a business that also happens to show off how good you are. It’s like any article you’d read in a newspaper, or any short story you’d see in a literature class.

In order to pull that off properly, we have to combine all the right elements in exactly the right way – dialogue, emotion, story, advertising, etc.

How does all that come together? It’s not hard.

Is there a template, even? Why, yes, there is.


Some might fuss against me on this one, but I’ll stand by it: the best, most effective case studies range between 1000-1500 words.


Space, depth, and story structure.

There’s a lot to fit into an effective case study. There’s analysis, backstory, client dialogue/quotes, educational information… A lot of elements that need to be handled thoroughly, and balanced just right.

Try to pack all that into too small a space, and some elements suffer for it.

Can it EVER be done? In 750 words? In 500?

Well, sure. Don’t get me wrong. But those are exceptions to the rule. And, of course, sometimes copy needs to be trimmed for layout purposes. But you must understand – that means sacrifices.

(And, let me say here, I am especially against the super short “case studies” that merely list design choices in bullet-point format. Those don’t count at all. They miss the point entirely.)

More importantly, however, length is important because, on top of all the marketing elements we’ve been over, the article needs room to tell a story.


Remember Freytag’s Triangle, by chance?


That’s okay. Most people don’t. It’s pretty boring, except for us literary types.

It’s the general pattern that all stories happen to fall into, conveniently (and unimaginatively) labeled according to its three parts: beginning, middle, and end. You could go with Act One, Act Two, and Act Three, though, if you prefer.

Here it is…

See how that chart lines up perfectly with the structure we’ve laid out for case studies?

We BEGIN with your client and their situation, but things get COMPLICATED when they hit a design problem. ACTION RISES as you struggle to solve that problem, and a CLIMAX is reached when you lay out how you finally did so. The story then settles down to END on your client again, and how things have positively changed for them.

To sufficiently set up a story, raise its stakes, and then settle it all nicely, you cannot shortchange sections. They each have a function to fulfill, and that takes time. Don’t cut a runner’s best time in half, and then get upset when he can’t keep up.


Now, I’ll give you a template guaranteed to flow nicely, a formula or recipe that’s sure to please. But, keep in mind: as it is in copywriting, and as it is in graphic design, there are no real “rules.” These are creative professions, so, be creative with it. You can mix up the structure a bit.

With that said, here’s ONE structure sure to work…

Let’s just say we’re going for 1500 words. As we learned from Freytag, we have three main sections to cover – the beginning, middle, and end. That gives us about 500 words a piece we can devote to each section. For some perspective, 500 words is roughly 2 pages in Microsoft Word.  (These numbers are proportional, though. Divide accordingly for a shorter piece, if need be.)

However, that’s not how we’ll do it exactly, as you’ll see in a second.

Remember the points we covered in Parts 1 and 2 of this series? You should check them out if you haven’t already, because this is where they come in.

The key is matching up each of those points with one of the three sections of the story.

Here’s how they go, specifically, with recommended word count:

  • Beginning, the first 375 words: The Client, The Circumstance, and The Challenge.
  • Middle, the second 750 words: The Work, The Solution, and The Why.
  • End, the last 375 words: The Results.

For reference, 375 words is approximately a page and a half. 750 is about 3 pages.

So, first, devote a page or so to the first three points of your case study. We don’t need as much room to set the story up, so those points can be dealt with relatively quickly.

The Middle, as it is in any story, is the real meat of the case study. Here, you really do want to slow down and explain your work. That’s what this is all about anyway, right? Give yourself 3 pages for that.

Finally, for the end, describing the Result, another page and a half will do.


We can take this one step further and break the case study down into a strong outline, sure to succeed for any project.

  1. BEGINNING – 375 words, or a page and a half.

    1. Client background – history, demographic, services and products, etc.
    2. Personal background – Using a first name, alongside a more personal detail about the client.
    3. The Circumstance – A few sentences on why the business needed a graphic designer. What changed in their situation to prompt that need? (Include client quote.)
    4. The Brief – Describe the main points of the project’s creative brief.
  2. MIDDLE – 750 words, or 3 pages.

    1. Describe issues of research.
    2. “Bad” Idea 1 – Don’t be shy. Discuss it in all its horrendous glory. Explain why you thought it would work, and why it ultimately didn’t. (Include pictures.)
    3. “Bad” Idea 2. (Include pictures.)
    4. Brief description of what you learned from these “bad” ideas.
    5. The Solution – Explain your final solution point by point…why this color and not that color, why typographic and not iconographic, why subtle and not bold, etc. (Include pictures.)
    6. The Why – Take the reader to school, and include a factoid or two about graphic design that explains why your final solution actually works.
  3. END – 375 words, or a page and a half.

    1. Bring the client back in, and quote them on how satisfied they are with the final product.
    2. Bring up sales numbers, percentages, etc. Raw sales data – the benefits the client received thanks to your work.
    3. Recap the creative brief, and how it was solved.
    4. If possible, end with an inspiring quote from the client about how much they enjoyed working with you.

And that’s really all there is to it. Notice how that outline encompasses all the points we’ve discussed throughout this series – it’s structured as a story, so it’s able to affect emotions in that way, and it includes the key information crucial to good marketing. It’s everything a reader needs to understand how your services were able to bring more success and happiness to the client.

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