Given an unpaid full project as a part of the interview?

Hey Core,

I’m a mid-level experienced industrial designer with solid previous experience at very successful companies.

I recently had a well-known corporate company reach out to me for a position they have open on a growing team. I expressed that it sounded interesting and that I’d be happy to talk more about it. A week later, they’ve given me 4 short (30-60min) phone interviews with different team members and seem really excited about the prospect of working with me.

They caught me off guard today when they requested to schedule the travel for an on-site/in-person interview, but also requested that I work on a project from them and bring it to the interview. I have an established portfolio of work, successful products in production, good references, all of the phone interviews went really well, and it was expressed to me that they do not have any other candidates currently, so I’m confused as to why they want such a large project for the on-site.

Make no mistake, I’d be more than happy to work on a small aspect of a project with them to demonstrate a specific skillset if that’s what they desired, but this is a FULL front-end discovery project with a very broad scope. They would like everything from user research to narrowed-down direction and concept sketches (you know… the kind of thing that people get charged money to have done). I’d have less than a month to complete it too, which would be a fast timeline if I was working on a team, let alone by myself. But they haven’t offered any resources, contacts, or even a small budget, so I’d be using all of my own equipment and time for it.

It’d be one thing if I was seeking a job with them, but they were the ones that reached out to me. I’ve got my own job, outside work that I do, and my home/personal life. I’m not sure when they expect me to work on this for them.

When push comes to shove, I can and probably will do it. They seem like a great company, and I wouldn’t mind working for them based on the interactions and information prior to this. It just seems like this an inappropriate step forward and I’m not sure how to respond.

Sage advice or previous experience?

A test project is not an outrageous ask, even for executives, but typically it is something that might take a few hours, not a month. This seems a little over the top to me. I would not do it unless it was a total and complete dream job.

And honestly that’s what I’d expect- a few hours to a few days at most. They’re asking for something I’ll need to work on at a minimum of a couple days per week until the interview to complete in a way that I think reflects my work.

Definitely not my dream job.

I wouldn’t consider someone wanting me to work for free as a dream job.

As for the OP, I would put it back on them to tell you what is the objective of the task and why your current portfolio doesn’t fulfill that objective. I am assuming you have examples in your portfolio of user research and concept sketches.

That sounds like a pretty good idea. I do have many examples of what they’re asking for in my portfolio, so my initial impression is that they’d like to see what these methods look like in the context of their product(s).

That is what they would be hiring you for, you have a job, an established portfolio, and references, if they can’t deduct from that and the interviews that you’d be a good fit then they suck at talent assessment or are trying to get free work/ideas.

To be fair maybe you don’t have any exact examples in your portfolio or it is in more of a niche industry where designers with the proper expertise isn’t easily found and they do want to see you apply to it with a project. As a hiring manager this is the position I am in when I have a position open, but I don’t require applicants do a project, I assess whether they know design process and have the skills required to apply themselves to our niche industry and let training do the rest.

It is not uncommon to hear of stories where designers and design professors bribe their employers for a position here in Asia. The give and take of the design employment world is not what it was 10 years ago. Your story exemplifies and adds to this new reality.

Kick backs, bribes, extortions and the generalized over reaching of ethical boundaries is the new normal unfortunately. It is making it difficult to operate with a high degree of integrity as many cannot afford to pay the price of admission and are forced to capitulate.

I think what they are really after is measuring how your work generates synergy with their design group. How do your ideas mesh with theirs and how do you fit into the dialogue of a project and its impact on the team. You can turn this around on them. Look at this opportunity to get to know each one of the team members through your work. Use this project to interview them and see if your ideas spark the kind of synergy that you could work with if you decide to accept their offer. Use your project to measure their potential and their worth as you discuss the nuances of the project in your final interview.

I think this would make a lot more sense if you were actually working with their design group, instead of doing your own thing and then presenting it.

To me the scope of the project seems way to big for a “test” and already could be considered a contracting project. Especially if you rock and your development is of serious value.
I think to get invited to do a little project is not a bad idea but I would expect to be invited to the company for say a 2 day, all expenses paid workshop.
This can be very helpful for all involved. Working with the team in the day and hanging out with the team at night. I have done this and while I declined the job in the end, I still very much appreciated the initiative.

They are not just interviewing you, but you are also interviewing them. As far as I understand, you have only met them on the phone? I think a meeting in person is an absolute necessity before any commitment of this size can be made.

Don’t do it. You are working, you have a portfolio, they reached out to you.

I’ve been asked this a number of times prior to second stage interviews. I don’t feel completely comfortable with the process - particularly if you have another job that demands your attention / priority. There are only so many hours in the day, and only so much ‘quality’ design time you can devote when you finish your 9-5. My other concern is what happens to the IP.

Of the 4 or 5 test projects I’ve done, a couple did pay at a freelance fixed rate. The 2 that didn’t pay were very big companies, both expecting a polished presentation off the back of a 2 week design project.

On another occasion, I was asked to complete a 30 minute design challenge during the interview. Another gave me a 30 minute CAD test. These seem better ways to quickly assess ‘real world’ skills under time pressure.

From an IP standpoint I would be super clear that the entire project would be made public in my portfolio within 24 hours. You are not under any contract or agreement and the you have not been compensated.

As someone who has done this before I would say set very tight time parameters for yourself regarding the work and then stick to it. Also make sure you mention this timeline in the project. I wouldn’t spend a lot of time since they probably just want to see how you would approach a project and your mental process. I would also say that whatever you wind up doing make sure that you can add it to your portfolio and it’s more something that YOU want to do rather than something for them. I’ve got at least two different portfolio pieces that were created from this same process.

The link below is to a video that I created while applying for a position with an Ad agency “Think Tank.” The interview process had been dragging out for almost 6 months and I was just over it so when they asked me to do some work I kind of made this as a “F__ You Guys.” Turns out they appreciated the brashness of it and hired me almost immediately. Turns out the job and I didn’t jive so I found work elsewhere after 10 months but they check it out.

It’s strange that they were the ones to reach out to you yet are now setting a tester project. Did they mention how you appeared on their radar? Saw some work online, Linkedin search, colleague recommendation?

Personally I would rather have an in-person interview to meet the team and be shown around the studio/workspace to get a feeling if it would be a right fit. Then go off and do a tester project that lasts a few days. I could imagine it would be a far greater waste of everyones time to do the work and then get in to the office and it feel off…

I went for an interview the other week at a small studio headed by a well known designer. He was impressed with my folio but was concerned that my body of work didn’t show complex surfacing abilities in CAD which he required. He also uses Rhino where as I predominantly use Solidworks, so he set me some homework to model up an existing design in both pieces of software as a test.

I set aside two evenings and got the work done pretty quickly as I knew I could do it, unfortunately my best projects just didn’t showcase those skills. As I am on the junior end of the spectrum I was happy to do it, I was only copying something anyway so it wasn’t too strenuous - if I had to use more brainpower I’d have grumbled a little bit.

We recently had a designer that left us that did a project like that to get his new job. He showed me the results and clearly he wowed them. I am personally against the idea of doing this to a candidate but it’s not necessarily a scam.

Hey, I wanted to give an update to everyone-

Thanks for all of your advice, to begin with! I hadn’t encountered something like this before, so the insight was particularly helpful.

What ended up happening:

I responded to the company asking if they could clarify the objective of the project. I explained that I’d like to make sure I speak to any deficiencies they felt like were presented by my portfolio, resume, and interviews up to that point.

They responded that they just wanted to see what my process and project would look like if I was working for them and had been given a specific problem statement from them.

I replied that given the timeline (less than 2 weeks at this point), resources, and my current capacity to do the work each day would prevent my from accurately presenting a project that would complete that objective. However, I thought that I could give them a good preview of it with a sort of micro-project of sorts, and I laid out a plan where I could complete a small amount of each bit of the process to give them an introduction and feel for it. I explained that this wouldn’t result it any rock-solid concepts, but it would complete the objective of understanding my process within the context of their product. I had the whole plan nicely laid out, worked in collaborative elements where I could have them involved in the process (approvals and insights), and even suggested, that we plan a small user research example and ideation session while on-site so they could see how I conduct that and what insights I would pull from it. I explained that I felt like this would complete their objective and allow them to get a good idea of how I worked within the context of their product. I asked that they let me know what they thought, and we could figure out the best way to proceed.

And then… silence for 3 days.

I contacted them yesterday asking for an update, and they asked to call me today. They called me today and decided to forgo the on-site interview without explanation!

It’s really no sweat off my back. I had a couple of red flags that were already making me lean towards turning down the job, even if they had made a really good offer. So, this just made it easier for me. I had a different high profile company contact me and this cancellation allowed me to schedule an on-site with them (no project, and actually is one of my dream jobs), so it worked out for the best in the end.

Edit: I should note again that as scammy as it sounds, I’m sure they were not just looking for free work. They are a well-known company, though not well known being innovative. They’re recruiting someone that can bring them new insights and concepts, but they’re managing these groups and driving their concepts with sales and marketing. I think they decided to forgo the final interview because they saw how upside-down my user driven process was in contrast to their current setup. Tough luck. If you want to reach markets you haven’t reached before, you’ve got to do things you haven’t done before.

I think your approach was professional, intelligent and insight full. Well done.

Sounds like it worked out for the best then. That is great.

This. Statement. Is. On. Point.

Glad it worked out for you in the end and that they didn’t waste more of your time.

I’m curious though, how did you deduct that sales and marketing drive concepts and design there? I’m asking, because as an interviewee you are also an interviewer, what questions should designers ask to draw out who in the organization calls the shots when it comes to design decision making? Sometimes it is obvious, and sometimes it’s not, but I feel that as a designer, gauging this is extremely important in terms of job satisfaction and career growth.