Turning Non-Design Projects Into Design Case Studies

I’m a TA for a product design course at my college and gave a lecture on Creating Case Studies from Non-Design Projects. This is an article-ized version of it!

This article contains 1) the design thinking framework compared to any project 2) how to turn non-design projects into case studies, 3) how to turn interesting things in your life into case studies,4) two anecdotes of how I did just that.

I’ve experienced that it’s difficult to find a starting point for side projects (case studies in a design portfolio to apply for internships).

There’s a moderate barrier to entry to starting this case study project process before landing an internship.

When I was first starting as a design student, Philip Guo’s design lectures mentioned using existing projects as portfolio pieces. Before I had enough case studies to put on my design portfolio, I used final slides of projects as filler. I could’ve gone a step further and turned these into case studies.

What I didn’t recognize in myself then that I see in beginning design students now is that they

  1. already have a unique and awesome perspective of looking at challenges and thinking through them
  2. have projects completed which all have similar processes to that of design

I propose beginning design students already have their own version of design-thinking framework from previous projects. From English essays to final Art journals to General Education solution proposals, these projects require some sort of research, decision, and drafting process. With similar artifacts to that of the design process, these projects can be pivoted to design case studies.

Most projects apply the design thinking framework

Most projects have the making of a design case study because they all kind of follow a project process similar to that of design thinking. I compare the steps of the design process to similar ones in projects:

Turning non-design projects into design case studies

To turn a project into a case study, I recommend retracing the steps through the project then organizing the project process into the different buckets of the design process. Consider these steps and reflective questions as guidance:

Personal anecdote of project → case study

For examples of how to write a case study, see the Case Study Factory.

When I first started as a design student, I thought UX Design meant app design only (think LinkedIn, Lyft, Airbnb) since that’s what sites like cofolios.com had the interns of featured. Design means much more — not just products but ecosystems, ways of thinking, structure, and more.

I’ve never completed a specific design internship but have done software engineering projects that I’ve talked through during interviews with a design perspective and was able to land a full-time UX Designer role with, without having to show the full user flows, fancy mockups, and wireframes. Rather, I showed screenshots and talk through the steps of my process.

Tip: Take notes and screenshots of your projects or processes! you don’t have to sort through them at first, just throw them into a folder to at least have them. Hopefully these steps will allow you to rethink your work all in potential contexts of design!

Turning interesting things in your life into a project into a case study

Self-motivated projects are the ones you’ll be able to speak about best. If you find things in your life that are interesting / frustrating / intriguing, you can turn your everyday observations into a case study.

Through finding things in everyday life that are interesting, you ask others about their similar experiences then see where your combined observations lead, whether it’s to a problem, or just the implications of something cool. Consider these steps as guidance:

Tip: Find an advisor! it can be an older design student, a mentor found online, a professor, or any friend to hold you accountable. You can ask, “will you spend 30 minutes with me per week just giving feedback and advice on what I have so far?”

Personal anecdote of interesting thing → case study

I transferred into design from a different major and it was difficult figuring the nuances of what classes to take, how to find internships, and how to talk to designers despite feeling like I’m wasting their time. I thought, I couldn’t be the only one, given the lack of school support and design-specific resources.

I expressed this frustration with one of my professors and they asked if I’d work on a design curriculum project. I actually got the idea of this article from that project that stemmed from personal curiosity and wanting to help other design students. This wasn’t a traditional re-design or create an app but still had all the elements of a design case study. It took about 9 months of design and iteration to release it and linked is the finished doc 📄.

Here was my process (click to enlarge):

Final words

A lot of this article is procedural and slightly abstract. That’s because case studies are what you make of them, even if they’re non-traditional. Hopefully the examples inspired how you can pivot non-design projects to case studies. Happy case-study-ing!

Lastly, if you somehow came across this article, I think you’re awesome. Here’s a slide from the lecture that I think applies to everyone reading :-)

Words of affirmation for the win
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