The Job Interview Design Challenge
Almost every single designer out there has been put in a situation where job interviews seem to be going well until the hiring teams asks you to do a design challenge.
Depending on where you live, it’s virtually become a norm for companies to ask you to participate in a design charade. Your cultural upbringing might also pressure you into doing the design challenge out of fear of not having a job.
The answer isn’t clear cut.
You have to consider many different factors such as your financial situation, your cultural/familial background and the pressure it exerts on you, and whether the company you’re applying to is trustworthy or not.
First, let us define what a design challenge is.
What is a design challenge?
A design challenge is any artificially-boxed task in which a prospective employee is asked to perform work autonomously towards a goal, for free, while lacking any of the dynamics that naturally occur during the design process.
If you’re in a financially awry situation, understandably, you might feel the need to do anything at all costs to guarantee that you’ll have a meal the next day. There’s very little blame or finger-pointing to be placed on you for deciding that you will take the design challenge.
Saying no to a job offer is usually a bit of a privilege that very few people have, and far too many people fail to realise that.
Consider this, however: By applying to a job, you’ve probably already built a design portfolio.
Why is your design portfolio not enough? You’ve probably highlighted your thought process, and you’re displaying your best work. Your design portfolio is the most comprehensive and representative body of work that highlights your abilities.
I would argue doing the design challenge will be far more costly than choosing to withdraw from the job application process. The design challenge will cost you the time you could have spent searching for another job opportunity or learning a new skill.
Design challenges send the wrong message.
The challenges do not represent what happens in any real-world design scenario. It does not take into consideration team dynamics and company culture. The challenge also sends the wrong message of what to expect to junior-level designers and creates unnecessary stress on the prospective candidate.
The challenge is also a false indicator of company culture fit, and a waste of time and resources for everyone involved. How can a hiring team possibly hope to see if you would be a fit with their work culture based on a challenge that you’re probably going to work on autonomously? You’re unlikely to interact with the team, and even if you do, you rarely ever build team chemistry overnight.
It is non-representative.
You cannot create a successful design in a two-hour sprint. Furthermore, the design process should never take place without a proper understanding of the context it will live in, or the goals it must achieve.
If I tell you to design a kindergarten or the UI/UX of a carpooling app, how would you even go about it?
You have no context, no idea of the goals, the target audience, or the budget limitations. You’re stabbing at the dark and hoping for the best.
I can design a building, but what’s the building supposed to achieve? Who is going to occupy the building? Are there specific disability requirements? What are the zoning laws? Is there a specific cultural context I must take into consideration? What’s the budget?
I can also design an app, but again, who is my target audience? Millennials? Am I creating an app catered towards the blind? What is the app trying to achieve?
You won’t give your best work, and you certainly won’t submit work representative of your abilities. The truth is, whatever you create will be watered-down, and uninformed for most parts.
Which brings us to the next point:
The Design Think Tank
Too many companies will use hopeful recruits as a design think tank. They’ll get free design ideas from you, or directly steal your ideas and claim them as their own.
You’d have given them free work, and they only ever truly stand to profit. The only person losing in this equation is you. You lose the time and effort you spent creating the work.
Don’t fall victim to this.
If a task feels too realistic, then you’re probably doing real work. I was a victim of this myself when I had applied to an architectural/design practice in Dubai.
I wa starry-eyed and hopeful and poured in a lot of effort to give the design studio a comprehensive project within a week. Do you know what happened at the end? You’ve probably guessed already: The studio stole my work.
The company kept ignoring my follow-up emails, dodged my phone calls, and eventually sent me a rejection letter. That’s fair enough, we might not have been a good fit, but a year later, I found my design built in Saudi Arabia.
I’ve stopped doing design challenges after finding out the darker and more sinister side of design challenges. If you’re not careful, you might find yourself falling victim to unethical business practice.
When is it ok to take on a challenge?
I’ve already mentioned it’s not black and white and I’ll stick with it. I wish it were as easy as saying “Always refuse to do free work”.
Perhaps you feel that you’ve already secured the job and that the design challenge is there to help the team understand where to place you.
Perhaps like we mentioned earlier, you might feel financially pressured because you’re in desperate need of a job.
It is up to you to weigh when it is ok for you to take on a design challenge, but I urge you to consider this:
If you do free work, you’re also subconsciously telling the hiring team that the value of your work isn’t as a high as you think.
My rule is to reject design challenges unless I can guarantee that I will receive fair compensation for the work that is in line with the workhours I will be putting in. Ideally, if you’re a savvy enough negotiator, you’d be able to reframe the design challenge into a freelance opportunity. You’ll be happier to do the work, and you’ll have told the company that you value your work.
How do you submit work for a design challenge?
My recommendation is to make it as hard as possible for the hiring company to steal or scavenge your work.
My personal go-to is to save everything as a low-resolution raster image PDF compilation (.jpg files pinned to a PDF), and password protect the file from any editing. I’m not a fan of watermarks, but you can also add one across your images.
Can they still copy the work? Yes, but the team would have to recreate it from scratch.
The reason I recommend you save your work as a raster file is because the design elements within the document will not be salvageable. The password protection makes it inconvenient to create a copy of your screenshots, and the low-resolution (e.g. 1366x768px artboard) raster images mean the company can’t use your work as-is.
I am against design challenges, but you don’t necessarily need to be.
You know your situation better than anyone else.
You should also be aware that any work created during a design challenge will never be as representative of your abilities as your portfolio.
Weigh your options, and if you feel that you must take on a design challenge, then be sure to be on the lookout for sketchy design briefs. Be selective about the design challenges, and only accept them from companies you can trust not to steal your work. It’s fair to participate in a challenge, but it’s also fair to protect your work.
Design challenges aren’t necessarily evil, but they are misinformed. More often than not, when a company asks you to undertake a design challenge, it might be a red flag. A design challenge might mean the company does not fully understand what design is, and this is ever so true with fields such as UX or architectural design.
In either case, do not allow a company to pressure or guilt you into a design challenge if you feel uncomfortable doing one. You never ask an accountant to manage books for free, so why should a designer be treated any differently? At the very least, a designer has a portfolio of work that can be studied.
There’s no right or wrong answer here, and I admit that I am biased because of my own negative experiences with design challenges. I respect the company I currently work with because they never asked me to do a design challenge, they went through my portfolio and trusted me to get the job done, and that’s how it should be.
What about you? Would you undertake a design challenge? Or do you avoid doing them as well when you can?