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Art by Yegor Meteor

The ultimate guide to hiring with design exercises

Earlier this year, our friends at Sharpen.design shared some tips to help designers spot and navigate unethical design exercises in an interview. Today, they’re offering a helpful guide for design hiring managers to attract top-talent with the use of legitimate design challenges.

Looking back with more experienced eyes, I now realize the early years of my career were beleaguered by unethical hiring practices. From requests for free work, to promises of exposure, my early-career interviews read like a “what not to do” list for hiring managers. Nearly a decade and a stint at Google later, the business impact of ethical hiring is more clear than ever. Spoiler alert: it saves money, lowers stress, retains talent, and speeds up the hiring process.

In this guide, we’ll cover how to ethically screen applicants with design challenges, how to incorporate design challenges into onsite interviews, and some essential advice for evaluating design challenges with empathy.

We’ll also share a design challenge format that distributed teams can use in their hiring process, a free tool to make coming up with design challenges effortless, and a high-level summary of the business impacts of following these best-practice tips.

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There are three key points in the hiring process where design exercises are most effective: as a screener just before onsite interviews, during onsite interviews, and as a “collaborative design exercise” which is particularly useful for remote teams.

A great use of a design exercise is seeing how the designer approaches creative problem solving—not just the evaluation of the end result. You don’t want to create a high-pressure, hostile, or abrasive setting that would prevent them from explaining their process. Be sure to let them know that thinking out loud, asking questions, and self-critiquing are what you want to see—literally invite them to do so. Don’t expect them to do 72 hours of work to prove something to you, either. A 2-3 hour project is enough to produce something that you can critically evaluate with great results.

Reassure the designer there’s no one answer you’re looking for, and that you only want to understand more about how they solve problems.

Even if you feel comfortable asking questions in a certain way, others might not. The empathetic thing to do is level the playing field and be transparent about your expectations.

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Spec work, or “speculative work”, is when companies request free creative work “for evaluation purposes”. Aside from being unethical, it’s a terrible thing to let into your hiring practices, as top talent will consistently exit the interview process if approached for spec work. If you’re curious about learning more about spec work, here’s another article on the Dribbble blog that discusses it in depth!

Instead of resorting to spec work, use a fictional creative brief to ensure your business gets no “end result” value from the design exercise other than evaluating the designer’s problem-solving abilities.

Ethically, it’s important that fictional briefs don’t too closely mirror your own business.

Ethically, it’s important that fictional briefs don’t too closely mirror your own business—although the task itself can absolutely represent their potential role responsibilities. If you’re hiring a web designer for your food delivery business, ask them to do a small web design project for something like an art gallery, not a bakery or pizza chain. Design exercises, when used effectively, aren’t even about the specific end result—but rather, how the designer got there, and how they communicate their design decisions, the principles relied upon, and their overall process.

Don’t want to add one more thing to your to-do list? I made a free tool called Sharpen.design to generate millions of mock design briefs for use in situations like this. You can use it to create a bunch of prompts to use or send, or to let your applicant pick one of their own.

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Effective communication is one of the best tools a designer can use to solve creative problems, but so many interviews focus on transactional conversations instead of collaborative ones. Often times, the only opportunity an interviewee is explicitly invited to ask questions is the end of an interview.

A design exercise is a great opportunity to see what parts of the design process they’re curious about. Starting off a design exercise session by inviting your interviewee to ask clarifying questions, to ponder out loud, and to self-critique not only feels more welcoming and collaborative, but it is also valuable information to learn about their communication style. Finding out if they design in a vacuum, or if they’re really capable of unpacking a design decision, are some of the types of things to learn by doing this.

If you choose to let the applicant self-define a design challenge from a subset of challenges you provide—or by letting them pick one on Sharpen—seeing which challenges they avoid picking can be just as valuable as understanding why they pick whatever challenge they go with. Asking them to unpack that decision, in many cases, can be an incredibly valuable conversation that speaks to their experience, their preferences, and the role they’ll succeed in most.

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Whiteboard design challenges work great when in person, since handwriting is just about as low-fi as you can get. But what about when hiring a remote designer?

While having a designer present an ethically sourced take-home design exercise is straightforward, it also puts somewhat of an emphasis on getting to an end result. Whiteboarding a design challenge out is so effective as an evaluation step because it shows someone’s first steps towards solving a problem—not just the refinement steps.

Whiteboarding a design challenge out is so effective as an evaluation step because it shows someone’s first steps towards solving a problem.

However, you shouldn’t just ask the applicant to photograph all their early steps to solving a design problem, as the context switching might affect how they go about solving that very problem. For example, instead of the UX flowcharts they make when actually working on a problem, they might try to produce more visually appealing flowcharts that don’t actually represent their process.

Instead, you can explicitly invite them to not overthink the form of the early stages of their work. Sometimes people feel the need for permission to be authentic in certain situations, so let them know that the scribbly, quickly-drawn rough rectangles we all make are perfectly acceptable. “Messy and rough early-stage stuff is perfectly fine,” I’ve reassured designers in interviews. “No point in polishing a stone before it’s pulled out of the ground.”

As a format, ask remote applicants to discuss a design challenge 1-on-1 with you prior to starting. Over-index on exploring the problem space, having them extemporaneously explain their process and why they’d approach the problem that way. Next, ask them to create low-fidelity artifacts, along with the iterations needed to get the concept to the fidelity most parallel to what they’d actually be working on, within a reasonable time frame. Setting a low time frame, such as an hour, can mirror onsite whiteboarding exercises reasonably well. At the end, have a discussion about the decisions made instead of a hard evaluation of the output. Problem-solving ability under pressure—not the artifacts themselves—should be the focus.

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Hiring designers can be tough. Finding a designer with great craft, culture fit, and role-specific experience is even harder, and oftentimes, is super expensive. Using ethical design exercises and treating applicants with operational empathy isn’t just good practice; it makes a ton of business sense too.

For one, top talent knows what to look out for. Using spec work to hire designers all but ensures the designers who know their stuff will avoid you like the plague, and will advise others to do the same. The industry’s a small place after all.

Second, team culture starts with who you hire, and making empathy part of the first interaction a designer has with your team can help it remain a part of your team. Good design is ultimately about having empathy for who experiences the end result, so if there’s another human on the receiving end of the work your team does, it’s probably a good idea to be aware of and grow your team’s empathetic qualities.

Third, when done right, design exercises can be a really efficient way to see how someone’s whole skill spectrum measures out: from design craft to soft skills. Keep your exercise short in scope, and use it as a topic to have a conversation about—not a singular piece of work to stake a whole interview on. It lowers the scope for everyone involved, lowers everyone’s stress, and it gets at the core of what designers ultimately do: we communicate.

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Design interviews should be a conversation, first and foremost. Don’t put undue pressure on your applicants, and don’t ask them for free work—just like how you shouldn’t do that to people outside of the interview context. Use ethically sourced design exercises to evaluate how they solve problems, not just the end result. When in doubt, ask yourself, “if you were in your applicant’s shoes, would you continue through this?”

Your hiring process will be more efficient, less expensive, less stressful for everyone involved, and it won’t repel the top talent you’re trying to hire.

At the end of the day, who would want the opposite of that?

PS: Shout out to Yegor Meteor, the creator of the Dribbble Shot used at the top of this article. For visual consistency with his incredible illustration, I sampled the colors he used to make the divider images. All credit to him for creating the color palette used in this article!

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About the author: Arman Nobari is a self-taught product designer, developer, and portrait artist. He’s the co-founder of Sharpen.design, a research-backed practice design prompt generator.

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