Unpaid design projects for evaluation before hiring?

During a recent interview during my post-layoff job search, I was asked to complete multiple unpaid design projects for evaluation. I was told that all candidates were doing this as part of the interview process. After getting the opinions of a few design colleagues at other companies, I (politely) inquired how/if intellectual property was going to be addressed, and was told that no agreements would be signed, and the projects were a required part of the evaluation process for candidates.

Are these type of projects becoming more commonplace? I understand that companies do take a gamble when hiring someone, even with a strong portfolio, interview and references, but I am also concerned that I am giving my work away for free. Anyone else see any ethical or IP issues with this, or it this practice becoming the new norm?

Design “tests” are becoming more common. It seems a degree, a resume and a portfolio only gets you in the door these days, and I can understand why, having experienced design tests on both sides of the interview desk.

At my previous job, I was asked to do the famous Cooper Interaction Design test. At my current job, I actually proposed during the interview that they test me, since the position required a specific skill I didn’t have documented experience with (web app design.) In both cases, the tests worked to land me the jobs.

On the other side of the table, my very first hire bullshitted me with an impressive portfolio piece. It was only later that I learned he played a minor role in the project. Since then I’ve always included some type of test–usually just a verbal question or two about how they might solve a specific design problem. Example from when I was hiring a designer of medical IV pumps: “Did you see the news about how the Air Force accidentally loaded live nukes on a plane and flew it cross-country? How could design have prevented this accident?”

But you’re right, there are ethical and legal considerations. I’m no lawyer, but they way I see it is that first, they’re not paying you, so you maintain copyright of everything you produce (you can remind them of this fact by putting a copyright notice on all your test work.) This means THEY’RE the ones at risk, because if they decide to use any of your work, they’re liable to you. This is why employers should ALWAYS give a test project irrelevant to the work they do.

If they’re crazy enough to ask you to design something directly relevant to their work, and you’re uncomfortable, simply let them know you have copyright concerns and ask them to choose a different non-relevant test to judge your skills by.

Offer to do a test project for them for a fee. This way, they are receiving work that they can use and you’re both testing each other out to see if your work style is compatible with theirs. Consider it a first date, but they foot the bill!

Thats a good idea, it is farily common for companies to ask for spec work, and sometimes even provide a stipend.

Here’s a nice article

And AIGA’s official position on spec work.

Thanks, guys! I really appreciate the insight, and both the article and AIGA’s official policy will definitely come in handy the next time I come across this issue.

Yup, spec work is all too common, but all inherently bad, IMHO. If your portfolio developed over countless years doesn’t show what you are capable of either it’s not that strong or the company doesn’t really understand design.

For a job interview, I would never do spec work. However, that being said, to muddy the waters a bit, in professional practice, spec work is somewhat different, and is looked at like pitching.

The big difference, is that the work by a professional for a pitch/spec is specific to that project. It allows the client to see your take on it and the specifics of the brief. Spec projects for a job are more of a way to either a)get free design (possibly not that likely that anything usable would come from a new grad looking for work without the full brief/understanding of the project), or b)check up on your portfolio or c) ???

In general, I’m a big opponent to all spec work, though I have done one or two spec designs for potential clients if it was financially responsible to do so (wasn’t that busy and the client could be a good catch, or got paid for the time), or the project was outside of what I normally do (ie. I did one concept round for a mobile phone device while my portfolio is almost all footwear).

As a student however applying for a job, I’d be a little more leery. Your portfolio should be strong enough to represent your skills. The design firm should know what they are looking at and how it typically corresponds to an applicant’s actual skills. Put it this way, if it’s about hiring the right guy, why not throw a few $ at the top 3 candidates (going by the going rate for pay for a junior would be only a few hundred $), for a small project and be above the board for all.

All said, I know how an unemployed student can look at the opportunity costs (doing spec work for nothing vs. having no job or nothing else to do) and realistically make a case for it. What is important, is to realize that it sets you up in a position of possibly always doing work for free (your boss asks you to work the weekend with no overtime on a project, and you want to keep your job, do you do it? how about working till midnight every day for a month? where do you draw the line…?)

I’ve always toyed with the idea of doing an impromptu, on the spot sketch exercise when interviewing applicants. It’s not about the final design (applicants can take the sketch), but seeing how someone can throw down on the spot, in a hurry, under pressure… never have had the chance to actually do it. Something like a 5 min design comp. I believe a lot can show in 5 min or less…

I’ve got no problem with Q&A design approach questions like CG mentions, those should be a part of any good interview.

for more on the spec issue see-



I’d say that if they want to test you, just hire you for the day as a freelancer and throw you $200 for the work. That’s a drop in the bucket for any business, the applicant doesn’t feel used, they get to see your “real-time” work, everybody wins. After the day, they can give you a response within a week or so (assuming they have other candidates coming in during the week).
I’ve had to do that for a couple of long-term freelance jobs and it works out fine. For them to require a full project (especially if it’s something they could use and not just a random test project) is outrageous for a business to be doing. They’d have to pay $200 just for a lawyer to walk through the door, they can throw a little something to someone that’s about to join the family.
I’d almost see that as a warning sign of a place that’s going to be nickel and diming about everything and possibly not someplace you’d want to work at for very long.

4-6 hours is not that bad of an investment, after you have spent so many unpaid hours putting together a portfolio, researching the company you’re interviewing with, customizing your portfolio, etc…

It’s a good point that your portfolio should show that you can do the work, but there’s also the efficiency of how you do it. A guy that can produce a stack of good ideas in 24 hours vs a guy that can do a handful in the same time is not always shown in a portfolio

In a fair world, you would get paid for the work you’ve done, but life and business are not always fair. When the managers at the design companies send out SOW’s and proposals for work, they do not always land paying business - it’s almost the same thing (except of course the managers are paid). If the work is part of an ongoing project, which I’ve seen consultancies ask prospects to create and are used for paying project, they really should be compensated

Once after showing a portfolio with over 100 products in produciton I was asked to do this and refused flat out. I volunteered to talk about the test project they proposed but that once pencil hits paper I get paid via a pre- agreed proposal. They backed off and we had a nice chat and I got them as a client. However if I was just starting out I might have donated about a half an hour only.

I have found that as an independent many people only see your physical deliverables as having worth and tend to try to take advantage to one degree or another.

I’d do the test project, but let them know you are putting it immediately in your online portfolio and that of course you own the work… and now you have something nice to show their competitors…

I’ve done this before - it went straight on the website. the thing is, with design, nothing is ever wasted. If I do it for no money, it’s just extra stuff for the site.

BUT having said that, when I get asked to do it, it can put me off.

I got asked to do some work a couple of weeks ago, an evaluation project, for free, so did a background check on them (someone I used to work with knows them). I got the impression they might not pay for any of it. So be careful, if they want you to work for free, they might think they’re going to get the whole project for free. You should still ask for an upfront fee for the rest of it.

I’m with skinny on this, one paid day is better, also if you break down the project into stages and communicate regularly, showing them development constantly, then it reduces the risk to them that the work might not suit them.

I’m working on a patented design right now, it is a difficult project, so I’ve been doing a couple of hours every day and we have had a phonecall most days to discuss the renders and latest progress. it’s working well, the client feels more confident than they would do had I just ‘gone off’ to do the work for two weeks and had no contact.

I’ve done one of these once, and it was a real hustle to do this on top of a regular job, but in the end it got me an even better job… so I considered it well worth it.

Later on I did find out that it was used to spark the in-house guys imagination on a project, and they had several applicants doing the exercise, so they probably should have kicked a little compensation over to us. I might have felt differently about the entire exercise if I didn’t get the job, but back then a little quick turnaround design practice probably did me good anyway

Hey cg,

I’m just curious-- how could design have prevented that?

By designing Skynet… couldn’t help it.

I think by applying some really simple, diagnostic problem solving. Not necessarily design, but the common sense core of questioning what current;y exists that underlies both design and engineering. Were the live nukes properly color coded as such? Are they stored in a unique location? Who has authorization to load them? Could they be locked with a key or a code that only a select number of people have? and so on.