Are design tasks ethical in a job interview?

Young designers often complain about doing design tasks to get a job. It can feel like doing “free work” or “giving away ideas”. Some designers even think they should be paid for their time. Ok, wait… you want to be paid to do job interviews?! Let’s back up a bit, because if you agree with that, you’re making a big mistake.


Before we get into this: what is a “design task”?

Let’s say you apply for a job, and the company picks your CV from the pile, likes your portfolio, and they contact you. You like them, they like you, great! This could be your next career move! Exciting, right?

But instead of asking you to come in for a face-to-face interview (or maybe after the first interview), they ask you to do a bit of design before moving forward. For free. And they get to pick what you will design.

What the hell?!

On the surface, this might seem like a shitty deal for you, but only because you don’t see the big picture.

Note: this does not apply to freelance work. This article is only about design tasks to get a job. If you are a freelance designer and someone wants a “taste” of your work before they “decide” to hire you, tell them to fuck off. But be polite. Say “please fuck off, good sir, and have a nice day.”

The reason this “free work” conversation comes up over and over is, ironically, because designers are only thinking about their own time. If they considered the big picture, designers would realize that there is actually no risk of doing “free work” regardless of whether it is ethical or not.

(For now, I will ignore the fact that a UX designer’s job is to see things from other people’s perspective, and focus on the practical bits.)


Quick Story…

Once upon a time, I was being interviewed for a senior design position at a multi-billion-dollar company. After 5 individual interviews with people from several countries, they asked me to put together a presentation, and flew me to another country to meet the team. 

After the presentation they wanted to debate some thinking that was more concrete, so they gave me a second design task on the spot — a simple registration flow for an app. Yes, in the meeting. If you think that design tasks are just a way to steal your work, then you must believe that this company are the worst idea-thieves in the world. They weren’t squeezing me for free work — they had spent a lot of money to get those free ideas — they wanted something to discuss!

After discussing the second task, they were interested in hiring me, because they understood the value I could bring to the company.

Imagine if I had said “you just want free work from me” or “ok, but you have to pay for my time.”

After several interviews, and bringing the team together, and flying me somewhere?!

Really? Diva, much?


Let’s break this down:

1.) If your ideas are worth stealing, you’re worth hiring. There is more where that came from! If they already knew you were the best candidate, they wouldn’t give you a design challenge. They would save themselves some time and give you the job. The design task is your time to shine.

2.) It’s not “real work” because you are designing in the dark. In reality, you are designing with very little information information, no user testing, no business input, none of the confidential stuff you will know when you work there, no sense of the technical challenges, and a very short time to think about it. You will almost definitely design things that are not practical to build, that are based on false assumptions, and are not as good as they could be if you had more time. And everybody knows that. Just relax, and do your best. That’s all they want to see.

3.) If the hiring manager isn’t a designer, they need something concrete to discuss. They want a demonstration of what you do! In real life, you will work with non-designers a lot, and they want to make sure you can do that. It’s like if you had to hire a stock broker, or a carpenter, or a drag queen party host. Do you feel comfortable giving someone a permanent job based on their “long-term market analysis” or their artistic feelings about woodworking, or without seeing them perform? No because, you don’t know enough to discuss it. Non-designers want you to do a task so they have something realistic to talk about, and something they can discuss with their team. Help them hire you!

4.) The better a designer gets, the less they care about “giving away” trivial ideas. Designers have lots of ideas. Every day. Great designers will brainstorm and ask questions over lunch, just because it’s fun to discuss the problem and there is no chance that you can execute their ideas like they can. And, if you really think your best work will happen in a job interview (no chance), you’re probably not that good. Nothing you design for a job interview is going to change the business. Sometimes the best thing you can do in a design interview is think of something clever that they already thought of. You are showing that you are insightful and that you understand the business. Therefore, relax. If you do create a design that can change the business, see #1.

5.) If you are afraid to share your ideas, you’re probably not right for the job. If I was interviewing a candidate and they didn’t want to talk about design unless they were being paid, I would assume that they either a) have no idea what they are doing, b) only care about the money, or c) are too self-centered to be thinking about other people for a living. Either way, you’re not gonna get the job. When they hire you, are you going to hide all your best stuff? Are you only going to do your best work for a ridiculous salary? If you really like designing stuff, and problem-solving, and discussing design, and — most importantly — if you really want the job, get your hands dirty! It’s a small price to pay for years of working on cool shit. 

6.) Remember: a design task means you are being taken seriously. If I give you a task, I am creating work for myself, because I have to review your task when you’re done. That means you will only get a task if I am seriously considering you, and probably only if you are one of the “finalists”. I don’t want to see work from people who seem like they suck… so the design tasks are for the people who might actually get the job.

In my opinion, those are 6 excellent reasons why you should not be afraid or offended by design tasks in a job interview process. That being said, it’s not always worth the time and effort to create one of these tasks.


There are always a few idiots out there.
DON’T do the design task if:

1.) The task or job is very vague. If the job description covers a wide range of tasks, from front-end coding, to user research, to advertising design, to marketing automation. Run, don’t walk, away. The company has no idea what they are looking for, and therefore they have no idea what “good thinking” looks like. You don’t want the job anyway.

2.) You aren’t given a reasonable amount of time. Personally, I like giving design tasks that can be done badly in an hour, or fantastically over a weekend. If the design task takes more than a few days worth of free time, ask for something more reasonable, or don’t bother. One little feature is fine. One standard page, like a registration form, is fine. Something like “how would you solve problem X” is fine *IF* the problem is specific, simple, and realistic, like “how would you add a field for a phone number in our existing checkout page?”. But if someone gives you a task like “how would you change our app to attract more power users?” or “design a new on-boarding flow that is smoother” or “draw the customer journey for our product” or “wireframe a design that will get people to spend more time on our site?”… that’s too much.

3.) They don’t know what they want to see. To test this, just ask what they are looking for! A good, normal answer is something like “we just want to understand how you think” or “we want to see how you normally work” or “we want something to discuss with our team”. All totally reasonable and practical. But if they say something like “we want to get some external input on this problem” or “we have never worked with a UX person before and we need some examples” or “you won’t get paid for this audition, but we’ll send this video to producers and get you jobs that pay $1000 to $4000 per day” or something like that… you might be in the wrong place. 

4.) They want you to sign something first. No, no, no! If they don’t want to pay you, and the job isn’t yours yet, and you have to sign some kind of agreement or contract before you can do the task, they ARE trying to steal your work. Get the hell out of there. (Although, for the record, I have never heard of this happening in real life.)

If you really, truly, genuinely think they are trying to squeeze work out of you for free (very unlikely), and you have given them detailed examples of your previous work, and they pass the simple tests I explained above, and you have offered references that can vouch for your skills: be open about it. Say you’re not down with that and make your exit in a puff of smoke.


In summary: Stop worrying about someone stealing your ideas! Go get that job, where you can learn to multiply your ideas every day!

Still worried? Ask me about it on Twitter.