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Interviewing Insights: Design Tests

by Taylor Slattery | July 19, 2022

In the past, I’ve advised young designers—and would extend the advice to designers at any level for that matter, against doing spec work. For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s short for speculative work, in which the part being speculated upon is whether or not you’ll be paid (you won’t be). This tactic is usually used by companies and individuals who place little to no value on creative work and take advantage of those who simply don’t know any better or are desperate to get their foot in the door. Designers are promised things like exposure or paid work in the future in exchange for work upfront, but these promises are usually empty.

That being said, there is one situation I consider to be an exception. While interviewing for creative work, it is not uncommon to be asked to complete some form of design exercise. In terms of deliverables, these will often look a lot like work you would normally expect to be paid for, so it’s understandable if you feel uncomfortable proceeding, but I do believe these fall more into a grey area. Ultimately, the decision is yours to make, but should you choose to continue, here are some tips to keep in mind to make the most of the experience.

First, take a minute to think about what it is they’re trying to evaluate. By this point, they’ve seen your work and have had a chance to speak with you, so they’re familiar both with the quality of work you produce and have at least a rough understanding of the kind of person you are. The fact that you’ve been asked to complete a design exercise means that they found both to their liking, which is great news for you. So what does that leave us with?

Speed and process. The design exercise will have some sort of time limit. This may be in the form of a due date or a specific amount of time you’ll be asked to complete the exercise within. If the test is to be completed at home and instructions state you have a maximum of 6 hours, it may be tempting to spend longer than the allotted time to refine your work and create something impressive, but it’s best to stick to the rules. Remember, they’re already familiar with the type of work you’re capable of, what they’re looking to gauge is how far you can get using the parameters they’ve set as a measuring stick. Depending on exactly what it is you’ve been asked to create, it’s unlikely they’re expecting you to produce a highly polished product. What will be evident, however, regardless of how much time you’ve been given, is your process, or lack thereof.

Your focus throughout the exercise should be placed on communicating your thought process. Start by outlining a strategy. Make sure you understand the parameters and make a clear note of the deliverables. From here, your job is to be diligent in tracking your train of thought as you progress through each stage. Show which dots you’ve connected and how each insight has informed your decision-making. The ability to clearly communicate ideas and explain your reasoning is important for working as part of a team, so you’ll want to demonstrate these traits in every way you can.

Beginning the exercise with a brief research phase is a great way to show your thoughtfulness and lays the foundation upon which all of the following decisions are made. For example, say you’ve been tasked with generating a few examples of social content for a coffee roaster’s upcoming spring blend. Researching the brand’s existing blends, sources of the beans, and competitors’ approaches to similar products would provide you with a wealth of information and visual motifs you could use to generate social content and copy.

Once you’ve completed the exercise, the last thing to be wary of is the manner in which you choose to present your deliverables. It should go without saying, but the candidate who submits a well-constructed deck, complete with brief explanations of their reasoning is going to be taken much more seriously than the candidate who submitted four loose jpegs as an email attachment. Use the deck to illustrate your thought process and take the audience through the exercise along with you. Avoid adding a wall of text, though. Aim to provide just enough context to make your rationale comprehensible, while reserving some of the more detailed info, should you be asked to present your work.

Decks also offer an opportunity to share some personality through your branding. This not only offers insight into how you view and conduct yourself, but shows that this isn’t your first rodeo. Further, because the deck has all of your contact info, there will always be a way to find you in the case of your work changing hands or someone stumbling across the file at a later date.


Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.


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