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When to Ask a Designer Job Candidate for a Design Test: Should It Be Paid?

Discovering all the skills a potential new hire possesses can be difficult. To truly vet candidates, some design firms, art department heads, and hiring managers have taken to using design tests, which they describe as test-runs for the aspiring designer. The problem with design tests is that they are intended to put design knowledge on display but do the opposite in practice.

Design tests were not invented in the design world and, contrary to popular belief, they demonstrate a lack of experience on the part of the hiring company. In case you haven’t ever had to sit for one before, these tests are not the multiple-choice kind. They’re complicated – frequently impossible or nearly so – design questions that are meant to be illustrative vehicles to showcase the talent’s work process, creativity, and professional knowledge.

It may seem like a great idea at first, even a good way to break up the monotony of a standard interview, but there is a multitude of reasons why design tests are a waste of time for both the candidate and the hiring company.

From the designer’s perspective, a graphic test is just unpaid work. Not only that but the pressure to single-handedly invent and plan the implementation of a design project without any of the normal parts of the process in place. Design is not meant to be done by just one person with no testing or feedback, so giving a candidate a specified time period to work alone will not yield promising results.

That bodes poorly for the interviewing company as well. The design test doesn’t replicate a normal graphic designer job description. It won’t give any information about a potential job candidate’s ability to work on a team or fit within the office hierarchy. Plus, if you think a designer who really needs or wants to work with you is going to limit themselves to normal working hours during the time allotted for the design test, you’re dreaming. They’re probably going to be wrecking their sleep schedule to come up with an untested solution.

The design test is a huge indication that the hiring company either isn’t familiar with design or doesn’t have senior talent knowledgable on the subject in charge of hiring designers. You should be asking yourself, “What does a graphic designer do?” and thinking about how best to find a candidate who will fill that role best. There’s nothing you can get from a design test that a competent interviewer couldn’t learn by asking poignant questions based on a graphic designer’s resume during an interview.

Fortunately, there are plenty of other, better ways to discover the information people incorrectly claim a design test delivers. They’re more interesting and make interviews more energetic and illuminating. Read on for an in-depth discussion of the outdated design test and what your company should be doing instead.

Woman standing pointing to a piece of paper.
Design tests aren’t the best way to confirm the details of a graphic designer’s resume.

Knowing which designer will be the best fit for a job won’t be easy if you don’t understand what they do. So, what does a graphic designer do for a business? A graphic designer job description typically involves creating visual tools for communicating your product or service. Think of an ad campaign that affected you or left a lasting impression on the public memory. Those Volkswagen posters and famous campaigns are implemented by a whole creative team, but the graphic designer is the one who puts it all together.

Graphic designers can also work on things like user experience and usability. In fact, they should rely on usability tests at some point in their design process. All this is very generally within the wider umbrella of graphic design work, but what does a graphic designer do in modern companies?

Modern business is increasingly dependent on the internet and things like phone apps, point-of-sale programs, and digital databases. Graphic designers have a hand in crafting all of these things and more. From promotional material to mobile apps and websites, graphic designers have a hand in all of it. They might be temp web designers or they could be full-time staff in the art department, but almost all companies have some kind of designer on their team.

What Exactly is a Design Test?

Hiring managers and department heads understandably want to see how candidates operate before spending time to onboard them. Design tests are used to fulfill this need, but unfortunately, they’re popular with decision-makers who forget to leave their ego at the door when conducting job interviews.

In a design test, the candidate is given a challenge and a time limit to come up with a design solution. For example, a company may ask the designer to make a design for a new website element or functionality. Widely speaking, candidates are not paid to take these tests. Additionally, the design challenges are not even illustrative in the end because the candidate will go home and work alone for whatever time they’ve been given and turn in an idea that has not been workshopped, developed, or brought through troubleshooting.

Shortfalls of Design Tests

We already know that these tests aren’t creating the same conditions that fit a regular graphic designer job description. That alone should limit their usefulness enough to get them dropped from the hiring toolkit, but there are plenty more ways they fail to deliver in case more evidence is needed.

  • Design Tests Are Often Unethical

This is especially true if the candidate isn’t paid for the work done in a design test. Some companies go so far as to have the candidate work on real problems that their current design team is stuck with. Not only is it completely unethical to pull free work out of a graphic designer under the guise of a job interview, but it could possibly even lead to legal issues.

Paying or temporarily hiring a designer is a way around this problem, but at that point, you may as well just introduce them to the real work of the company as a temp graphic designer and see how they do.

  • Your Employer Branding Will Suffer

Asking people to work for free is never going to be popular. It’s understandably seen as unprofessional. After all, what you see on a graphic designer resume is not easily gotten. It takes time and money to learn the skills needed to produce great design work. The people who have done that hard work don’t want to give it away for free. Even a temp web designer likely went to school to learn their craft.

Remember that people talk to their friends and colleagues about experiences in job interviews. Companies shouldn’t want to be famous for an easy interview process, but being infamous for requiring free labor will hurt your reputation even more. Top-notch designers are proud of their work and you can bet the best of the best aren’t even going to apply to your positions if they know you’re going to ask them to do some work for free.

  • Design Tests Are Unrealistic

The time limit and the assignment itself is almost always not something you would give to a graphic designer who is already on staff, but even if you take pains to make it match the graphic designer job description better, it won’t be the same. That’s because design is a troubleshooting, team thinking art form. Not only is it cooperative, but it’s also iterative, which means it has to be tested and molded repeatedly. Candidates aren’t going to have a way to test the efficacy of their solution and that means you’ll be looking at a design idea, not a fully fleshed-out design. It’s like asking a painter for a sketch or a writer for an outline of a novel.

  • Graphic Designer Resume and Portfolio Work Better

If you think about what you’re asking a candidate to create in a design test, the best possible result will be a finished design idea. But wait, isn’t there a better way to see that result? Of course. You can ask for work samples and portfolios. If you know how to talk to candidates about what’s on their resume, you can get a great illustration of their work ethic and past work experience.

All of these work samples are more likely to have been completed in a proper work environment, not hastily cobbled together single-handedly at the dinner table after the kids have gone to bed. You’ll get a much better idea of how they work if you look at work samples.

  • Design Tests Don’t Foster New Ideas

Many companies say they prefer design tests to work samples because they can present designers with problems they haven’t had to deal with before and see how they perform. As we’ve already mentioned, the parameters of design tests don’t reflect the reality of graphic design work. Read any graphic designer job description and you’re sure to notice the differences.

There are also many tools on the job that candidates won’t have in a test scenario. Collaborators are one example, but there could also be software or proprietary information that they won’t and shouldn’t have access to if they aren’t employed by the company. When designers are coming up with an idea for a design test, they’re doing in several hours what should take days or weeks of workshopping. These tests don’t lead to new ideas, only fast ones.

  • Design Tests Create Power Imbalance

Today’s job market is certainly on the side of the hiring companies but that doesn’t mean the interview has to be adversarial or unlevel against the subordinate candidate. If your hiring process is more collaborative and conversational, you’re guaranteed to get a better and more accurate insight into who the candidate really is. If you use a design test, that’s not going to happen.

Some companies have design tests before they call candidates into an interview. All the time you could be spending discussing a graphic designer resume, you’ll spend listening to a hastily assembled presentation on a half-baked idea because that’s what you asked for.

Should Design Tests Be Paid?

If you’re still considering design tests as part of your hiring process even though they’re inaccurate and time-consuming, the least you should do is pay the candidate for the work that they do. A design test normally asks for design solutions, not answers to hypotheticals. That’s what designers get paid to do and there’s no reason you should expect them to do it for your company for free. It can also eliminate the risk of legal complications surrounding the copyright ownership or creative license to any work created for a design test.

Paying designers to do a design test makes the process fairer, but it doesn’t make it any more illustrative. Plus, if you’re going to pay them and potentially have them sign a contract to work on your website, you may as well bring them on as a temp web designer. You can’t do that with every candidate, but there are plenty of ways to vet applicants and find the right person to test out with a temp placement.

Alternatives to Design Tests

Rather than trying to tweak the structure of design tests to work around the problems inherent to them, try out some of these methods. They’re more informative for the company and more enjoyable for the candidate.

1- Use Case Studies to See Past Work

Case studies are more detailed representations that work samples, although you can certainly ask for both. A case study should have a description of a past project and demonstrate the candidate’s role in that project. Look for sections like a brief that situates the project, a budget to get an idea of its scale, challenges to see how the candidate viewed the project and effectiveness for an overall assessment.

These case studies were likely produced in the same professional atmosphere as the designer will have if they’re brought on board. Rather than seeing a design solution developed in a vacuum, see exactly what a candidate has produced before with case studies.

2- Pay the Designer for a Project

If you’re going to pay for a design test, you might as well get your money’s worth by taking on a candidate for a one-time piece of work. Make sure they have enough time to finish the job well. You can even discuss with the applicant to determine the parameters of the job and how long it should take.

There’s hardly a better way to get a personalized look at how they work. Plus, you’re guaranteed to have rights to whatever they produce. If they’ve freelanced before, just pay them at their daily rate. If they haven’t, make sure payment is clearly stated and agreed upon. The last thing you want to do is have a payment discrepancy.

3- Test Candidates with a Whiteboard Challenge

Rather than giving all your applicants homework, why not ask them to walk you through a design solution face-to-face in an interview? With a whiteboard challenge, you can demonstrate your company’s unique atmosphere by asking tailored questions and see how the candidate thinks in real-time. Rather than asking for a finished design product, you can give them a hypothetical design task and ask them to walk you through all of its elements.

For example, you could tell them that you are having trouble allocating space in the company cafeteria or that managers are having trouble scheduling time off for their employees. Ask them to make an app to solve the problem and see what they can come up with right then. It’s a great way to get the room talking during an interview and a much more revealing look at the designer’s process and personality.

Creative Staffing Agencies and Designer Candidates

The best way to avoid the hassle of these hiring methods and minimizing the risk that a design candidate will be unsuitable is to use a creative staffing agency. At icreatives, we can do all the vetting for you. That way, you only have to interview top-tier creative talent. Whether you’re hiring a UX/UI designer or need a temp web designer, icreatives has the talent you need and we know how to make sure they’re talented and professional.

Using icreatives is an especially smart move if your company isn’t principally a design firm or other creative business. We really know how to source talent at icreatives, so there’s no need to worry if you don’t have an experienced designer on your team already who can determine what talent is best-suited.

Woman in blue tank top standing by a whiteboard.
Use a whiteboard test to see a design candidate’s creativity and thought process.

Design tests are imported from non-creative industries like engineering. These tests can work in more objective fields because there is a right and wrong answer, but design and other creative fields are more open-ended. What does a graphic designer do? They put an appealing face on your company and its products or services. There can be many ways to solve a problem with design so testing it with a small, rushed project is not going to reveal much about a candidate.

Not only are design tests ineffective, but they can also be unethical and may lead to complications with regards to ownership. Fortunately, there are plenty of alternatives to design tests that will give you the information you need to make a hiring decision. Whether it’s for a temp web designer or a permanent member of your art department, using a creative staffing agency to fill a position will save tons of time and energy for any company.

If you have any problems filling designer roles, icreatives is ready to help. Contact us to streamline your hiring process today!

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