• Thought
  • 26 November 2014

Your portfolio should be case a study

Tired of the screenshot portfolio piece? So am I.

Your portfolio is king and key to your career and where you are going to go next. It’s your file that you carry with you, proving what you can do and have done.

It’s for this reason that spending time and making sure your portfolio sells you in as good a light as humanly possible should be top priority for the designer, front-end developer or even backend developer who is serious about his or her work.

As a lead front end developer and head of department I have had to hire quite a few people. Each and every time I go through exactly the same experience. I have to sift through pages and pages of screenshots. After the 5th one I don’t even see the quality of work anymore, I just see images. Then I have to deal with boring, shoddily done websites/cv’s/etc, which is equally frustrating. That’s a differen’t topic though.

It just feels to me that showing the world that you are a great person to have on a team can be easy. If you explain your work, talk through your thought processes and showing where you made mistakes, you immediately give the reviewer an entire world of information that your page of screenshots would never be able to illustrate. And let’s be honest, the chances of you being able to openly talk through your projects accurately and candidly in an interview is pretty slim. I know that I won’t be able to!

What you need is case studies of the work you have done.

Okay. Why?

A potential employer or client absolutely wants to see if you are a good designer, or whether you can build a good website. But he/she also wants to see what your thought process looks like; that you think about your work at all. He/She wants to know how you dealt with a pressure situations, and how you go about solving problems.

More than that though, it shows that you care about the work you do. And I think that is hugely important. A few images shows a great end product, but they are silent. They don’t speak about how you overcame responsive design issues with a clever CSS trick, or how you reduced performance overhead by stripping out an overkill Jquery library. It doesn’t tell me how you use local storage for important information, so that when the user’s phone doesn’t have signal all of a sudden, he/she can still use your app.

A case study gives the reader the behind the scenes action of your project.

It gives insight not only in what you can do, but also in how you can do them. It can give the smart reader an overview of your strengths, even if you did not explicitly know about them, or think to write about them.

Less can be more

In some cases it seems like writing a solid case study is almost as much work as the project itself, and rightly so. It’s hard work to talk about what you have done, but in the end it’s worth the effort. A well made case study is a solid time investment, so you need to be sure that you invest wisely.

We tend to want to put all the work on our portfolio. To show the people that we are hard workers, and we are busy and awesome. Consider perhaps that 3 well made case studies on work that you are truly proud of can do a better job at selling you than 1000 screenshots of websites.

That is absolutely the direction I am taking with my own site. I am trying to stick to a few projects that I will spend a lot of time on, making sure that they do the work I need them to do. I would much rather have only 1 case study up that I know I am absolutely proud over.

So how do I take a portfolio piece, and turn it into a case study?

1. Develop a structure to work with

It sounds counter-productive in a way to try and fit all projects within one structure, and yes, there will absolutely be cases where a single structure don’t work. That said, committing to a uniform direction helps to focus your mind when writing up your case study, and gives the reader a comfortable experience. The reader can anticipate what to expect next.

  • Introduce the work.
    • Keep it short, and fun. Make the reader want to read on!
  • Identify the client.
    • The style of work, and direction taken is highly relative to who the client is. If we have that context, a lot can make sense to us right off the bat.
  • What is the problem the project hope to solve?
    • What were you hired to do?
    • How did client need stack up to client want?
  • What did you do to solve the problem?
  • What issues did you encounter, and how did you solve them?
    • Be honest. No project goes smoothly. This is a great learning opportunity for you, by identifying the problems you had, and what you can do in future to avoid them.
    • Claim your mistakes. It shows much greater character and trust to just own up to fucking up. People will respect that far more than the actual mistake you made.
  • What results did you achieve from the project?
    • Be honest, and do not cook the numbers!
    • You can leave it out if it’s not applicable.

2. Explain the work through visuals.

Of course you can still go nuts and visually show off your work! You have to! Break up your case study with compelling and informative visuals. Show not only how it looks, but zoom in on the small detail work, like mini-animations.

Don’t just throw in a screenshot or two. Take the time and present the work properly. Put them in context of devices if you worked on a responsive site. Record the various small animation effects and hovers and place them as little videos or gifs throughout the page.

3. Give credit where credit is due.

I know it’s your portfolio, and the people are here to see _you_ shine. I get that. But the work is not all about you. Unless you really did do all the work, give credit to the people who helped you. It’s good form and shows teamwork.

4. Invest the time. Wisely.

Spend the time to make your case study great. Make it amazing. Edit your words carefully, rewrite sections if needed. Fuck it. Rewrite the whole thing if you have to.