Project as part of job application: how much time to spend?

I’m just graduating from ID school and applying to an assistant design position . After the first interview I have been asked to complete an assignment as a part of the application process. I was given two weeks to design a set of three things. How much time do you think I should allocate to this project? I really want the job but have other commitments that are competing for my time…

I would be extremely cautious of this request. - You should not be doing work for free.
Your portfolio (should) say enough about your skills as a designer to make such a project irrelevant.
If the firm is unscrupulous there is certainly a possibility that they are just fishing for ideas.

I agree with Van. You might respond by asking if there is a certain skill they’d like to see more examples of.

Funny story, I was asked to do this once as well. I didn’t do the project because I was an intern for the hiring manager about a year prior. I’m not a fan of this “job requirement”.

+1 for the replies. The answer of how much time you should be spending do a free project = 0.


Once again we get into the realms of free work to prove your worth.

In my fist year of uni there were 100 ID students… I think about 30 graduated and of those 30, about 10 were repeating 4th year or had missed a year because it became too much. That gives you a 70-80% drop out rate.

Graduating from ID should show your worth.

Also, to put it into perspective, I’ve already been paid a deposit for ‘on the side’ work I haven’t even started yet.

I can’t stress this enough: DO NOT EVER DO FREE SPEC WORK AS A CONDITION OF HIRING. All it does is devalue your work, mine, and the entire design profession. This should be taught the very first day at design schools.

Let your portfolio stand for what you are capable of. If it is something that represents you and you are proud of it, then that should be enough. I only stress this because I have been burned in the past from this exact same situation. I have never heard of a ONE situation where someone did a project for free that led to a job offer. It’s great to be eager and ambitious, but you should be incredibly insulted that a potential employer would ask you to work for free in order to qualify for the job. These employers are nothing but vultures who want to steal your ideas. If 100 people interview they can cherrypick the best ideas from all of the submissions, bring it to an engineer, and bam, free industrial design! This would never, ever fly in other fields. An employer would never dream of asking a salesmen to close a deal for free before being hired, or ask an engineer to build a part, etc. If they want to see how you’d work out tell them you’d be happy to do some freelance work at a reasonable rate.

I disagree.

While I don’t practice this, I have seen it done well. When it comes down to two people, or someone is highly liked but the hiring manager is just not sure if the person has what it takes. I know several people who have done this and gotten jobs from it. It comes down to how much you want the job and how much you trust them. If you have nothing else going on you have nothing to loose.

As far as doing this to a hundred candidates and handing the best ideas to an engineer… Highly unlikely.

I never did a free project, but I did do a “trial day” for free once. I was glad I did, it was a very bad fit for me.

If you say no, you most likely will not get the job. Instead, if it were me right out of school, I’d say I would be happy to do the project for $xK. If you do it for free make sure you let them know that you own the work and that you will be publishing it online immediately if you don’t get the position.

Also, there are really only 4 major reasons you would be asked to do this:

  1. it is down to you and a small group of candidates and they are having trouble deciding and hoping this will help them make the decision

  2. something you did or said made them really want to hire you but your work isn’t quite up to snuff

  3. they liked your work but you didn’t show enough in an industry that was relevant to them

  4. there is some nefarious reason as have been suggested above

If you were to assume even odds, that is 75% that it is well intentioned.

Now none of these are great reasons granted, but valid.

On #1, that is more telling of their decision making process, unless they really have some very high caliber entrants who are all super nice people and they really can’t decide.

On #2, that is really more of a mercy call. Maybe you made an impression on someone… but if your work is not up to the level then…

On #3, if this is the case, you should have done a self directed project anyway to show your ability in their area. I did this both when i was switching from consulting to footwear in 2003 and when I was switching from footwear back to consulting in 2010.

On #4, no way to know until you do it.

All in all, I think the odds are in favor of doing it. Nothing is wasted. It will be an opportunity to create another portfolio piece at the very least, and at the most may get you a job.

I second Yo’s balanced respons.

Actually, just weeks ago, a dear friend of mine was hired in the US based on a project she did during the hiring process.
While she applied for one position, after the test project was presented, the employer realized that she was a much better fit for another department and she go a job there.

The test project was instrumental in making this call. Also it should be mentioned the company in question was one of the larger furniture companies on the market with a lot of reputation on the line.

Well, I have done the project and will be submitting it to the company tomorrow. I spent about 6 days on it. Thanks for the comments & advice. It’s always good to hear different perspectives on grey-area situations like this.

Here’s my reasoning for going ahead with the assignment:

This seems to be standard hiring practice for this company. I know a grad from my program who got this same position out of school two years ago. She was asked to do the same as me and told me to expect it. Because of this, and the fact that this is an established and well-known company, I don’t think that their objective is to fish for ideas to steal. I think they just know how hungry people are for work and are taking advantage of the opportunity to get more information about the potential of possible hires, and to weed out people who aren’t serious about the position or the company. They seem to hire right out of my program for this position, and probably assume we’re just sitting around twiddling our thumbs after classes end. (Not true, I have other commitments too! 15 hour days!) I have made it clear on my work that it is my property. They have close ties with my school, and I think the design community here is small enough that this sort of theft could significantly damage their reputation. (I’d definitely be spreading the word, in a matter-of-fact way) Yo: thanks for the idea about letting them know I’ll be putting it up online. I think I’ll wait until after I know I haven’t been hired to tell them though…

Do I think it’s ethical for them to ask for this? No. People should never be asked to work for free as a condition of hiring, especially by growing, profitable companies. It gives me pause for thought about working for them. However, I don’t think I have another choice. The reality is that there are lots of grads competing for few job openings here, and I need to work!

Perhaps this sort of situation is a good reason to start talking about professional certification or some other way of banding together to set standards around pay for work. Whether it’s internships or competitions or situations like mine, the incentives to ask for and to provide free work are powerful. What are we going to do??

It’s not about free work, it’s about how smart you are at working. The company gave you two weeks for the project, but does it really mean that you have to spend every waking hour of the two weeks working on it? If you can blow them away with one week’s work, that would be all the better. It doesn’t matter how much time you spend on the project. What matters is whether you hit the project’s target.

As far as the discussion about the legality of free work is concerned, look at it this way: if you’re in a "first world " country, and you’re applying for the type of work that is also done in cheaper economies, such as Turkey and Poland, you’re in competition against them. Every 1 hour’s loss that you make equates to 10 hours’ of work that can be produced in those cheaper economies. I guess there’s no doubt that the bar has been raised massively, so companies are looking for people who can deliver good design solutions efficiently. I don’t know any other way to test how good you are at delivering design solutions that are good enough for the company where you have applied. It just happens that you’re in a design industry, where it is exceptionally difficult to evaluate your potential performance.

I’m with Yo on this too.

It’s an opportunity to show commitment, enthusiasm and a capacity for risk taking. It’s also a good way to measure the way you respond to a short track project.

Go for it, and yes, make it clear you own the work and maintain the right to publish it.

Yo is more experienced than me, so I’m going to defer to Yo’s judgement on this point - but I still think doing free work devalues what we bring to the table. This kind of request isn’t common in other industries. But when do we decide we’re being taken advantage of? Where do we draw the line?

Something to consider: spending a long time giving away labor in a job interview sets a bad precedent for other candidates and for the industry as a whole. When employers come to expect long, full design sessions in which you are required (if you want the job) to do an hour or more of work, it can foist issues on us all. I limit the working sessions to an hour and only later in the interview process…

For some reason, the impression in the ID industry has always been that supply/demand is in the favor of employers. Part of this is how we all carry ourselves - if you value yourself and your time, so will others. My opinion is that perception does matter in these issues.

There is a difference between free work and a test of capabilities. What we are talking about here is the second.

I agree with YO. just do it. If you want the job, prove it. If they like your work they will hire you. If they don’t well they aren’t going to steal it now are they. And the project they ask you to do probably isn’t even a real project…just a test. For someone out of school, this is totally acceptable. Spend 10 or so hours…or if you can, and want the job, then more…

In my first interview I was asked to sketch for a half hour and to design a microwave. This was to prove I was fast and that all the sketches in my portfolio weren’t doctored. I’ve seen designers spend hours on a sketch for a portfolio, so when you ask them to sketch quickly you get a different and unacceptable result…

I think this will sort out those looking for free work from those testing your abilities. If you claim ownership and they have a problem with that then money needs to change hands or you need to walk away. I have a friend who recently was asked to do this for an outdoor apparel position he didn’t have a lot of experience in. He was very interested and started the work, but it soon became apparent they were taking advantage of the free labor and he walked away. Worst case is you don’t get the job but you get another portfolio piece, upside is you know you don’t want to work for a place that is willing to pull some shady stuff.

Agreed, if it is a test, there should be no issue with publishing the work.

The on the spot tests used to be pretty common. On the flip side, a friend of mine once interviewed a guy who had fantastic sketches… They just weren’t his, they were mine! People do funny things…