Working for free at an interview?

I applied to a company, and they asked me to agree to do work for a current project as part of the selection process. This to me sounds very fishy. I mean what’s to stop the company from saying ‘screw you’ and just use my ideas and not hire me.

Has anyone else ever had to do this. I think this working for free stuff is exactly why our industry is devalued. I mean a portfolio should be enough evidence for a job. Nobody would ask an engineer to solve a problem for free before starting a job, so why should a designer work for free?

Any help is appreciated

They do ask engineers to solve questions sometimes… ever hear about the notorious Microsoft brainteaser interviews? Even the interviews, and prep for interviews, takes a lot of unpaid effort… I don’t see that big a difference.

I think you should weigh the pros and cons of doing a trial bit of work. If it’s a couple days, and you have nothing better to do… why not? it will only add to your portfolio and at the very least you might learn something from the experience. If it’s more than a day or so, they might be taking advantage of you.

I did a 24hr design challenge for a interview once, got the job, and it opened a lot of doors for me in the long run. I consider it well worth my time. If I wouldn’t have gotten the job, that designwork would have gone straight to the corefolio.

I think it depends on how much work they are asking for and also what your level of experience is. If its something you can do in a day or two then it might be worth your time. If its a week long thing, then I would say no way.

Also if you’re a young designer with little to no experience then maybe a school portfolio is not enough. If you have a long job history then that work in your portfolio should speak for itself.

By the way, if you do some work and they like it enough to use it, why wouldn’t they hire you? This is a worry I have heard of before and to me they would choose someone if they were taking your work.

In my current job I did a short project for them before the interview, and a really short test during the interview. I got the job and the work was well worth my time.

I would think a portfolio and contacting and checking several references should be sufficient. I too feel this is a bit fishy.

I wouldn’t be as worried if this was not a real project but some test of your CAD skills or something like that but if it is a real project they are working on then I’m not so sure this employer’s intentions are legit.

It’s becoming more common, and I share your frustration, but acknowledge that they’re useful. I’ve done a few, and reviewed a few. In at least one case, we flipped a thumbs-down to a thumbs-up based on their test result, so it worked out in the employees favor.

Where this can cross a legal/ethical line is when the work applies to their business, or if it requires substantial (more than a weekend-worth) of effort without compensation.

Have they asked you to sign over the rights to your work? If not, the copyright remains yours–and you should remind them of that fact with a copyright notice on each of your deliverables. This puts them at risk, but I’ve seen it done.

For half an afternoon or a day’s worth of work I think it’s reasonable. Especially if you are not delivering a completely thought out concept or presentation. I had one interview where they had me come in for half a day and sketch out some ideas for current projects they were working on and model some objects in Rhino. It is a little bit insulting to think that your portfolio isn’t enough, but people also want to see HOW you work too. As I’ve told non-designers about what we do time and time again, it’s not what you know, it’s how you apply it. They are going by your portfolio, not your resume. It would be different if we were accountants and they could look at our resume and say “Oh you have such and such certification, you’re experienced in preparing taxes.”

I’ve did a trial day once when I was out of school. It was great because we mutually realized it wasn’t a fit. It is unlikely that you would come up with anything of extraordinary originality on the project coming in cold… but if you did, they would be foolish not to hire you.

I’m not a believer in the free work to determine if you should be hired.

Industrial Design is one of the VERY few industries in the entire world where your portfolio can speak for you.

Many other “paper” jobs require a Resume, and References. Perhaps there are some major highlights, or some quantified results that positively affected the company that you can present if you are in Accounting, etc. Otherwise, it is a timeline of positions you had, roles you’ve had, and things you’ve done… all in text… 10 pt Times New Roman.

With Industrial Design, you can literally SEE the ability of the individual. The portfolio should walk the viewer through complete projects, outlining the various steps, illustrating their thinking and ability for this position.

I’ve turned down positions because they asked for on the spot work before hiring. I am more than happy to charge my freelance hourly rate for the work, then present it for review… or as mentioned, they are welcome to view my portfolio for free, which is why we all have them.

What you don’t see in a portfolio is how long it took them to do the work, or how much help a teacher may have had in the finished product. For a young designer with no or little experience I think asking for a short reasonable test project is a good idea.

The very first designer I ever hired misled me with his portfolio. He showed an impressive project but stretched the truth about his involvement.

I was too trusting and I got burned.

I think tests are going to become the norm, and I think it’s because of the changing nature of our profession.

As the field of design grows into new areas (my business card now says “Interaction Designer”) and the pace of change accelerates, and as projects become increasingly complex and team-based, your portfolio or education becomes less relevant. They’re still important, but not as important as actually seeing how you work on a specific type of problem, by yourself, right now.

As part the interview for my current job I was asked how I would go about 3D modelling a component which a customer had a sample of and my work had to “reverse engineer” the part and model it up for casting. I was employed partly because the guy previously doing my job couldn’t do it.

The irony is that I had to explain to my predecessor how I would go about modelling up the part which was too hard for him, so it was up to him to judge if I was able to do the CAD part of the job. :laughing:

I was also hired because I have materials and processes knowledge, sketching skills and the rest of the industrial design skill set. The ability to do complex surface modelling was definitely a deal maker though.

Half an hour of “free work” should be enough for the employer to know what you are capable of. If you are worried about intellectual property just put a fat signature and date over the image, so that it would take some reasonable photoshop skills to get rid of it.

Maybe their hiring process is different, they probably liked your work but they want to confirm that you are indeed capable. I would try it out, at least you get a month experience that will help you some other time.

If, say, Astro Studios interviewed you and 5 other people, then asked you to do a sketch test due the next day, I’d guess 95% of the people posting here would do it … maybe the effort put out depends on the jobe?

The company I did the work for was unfortunately not Astro, but it was a sketching test and was not a gruelling - actually it was fun. They asked me to take a camera and come up with next years model, then split it out into 3 tiered products. It’s something that would make a good 1HDC really. I guess it could feel like a high stakes exercise, but what about when you get the job and have to deliver?

I do agree with Taylor when it comes to independent projects as a freelancer - it would be a bad precedent to do any free work. Also, everybody wants a designer fresh out of University that can design like a pro but get paid like as student - there’s something to be said for developing people that you think have potential but aren’t quite there yet.

Hey thanks for the suggestions guys. I’m still undecided about the position. I guess if I was more desperate about finding a job I would do it in a heartbeat. However, it’s not just a basic sketching exercise. It’s more of a package exercise where something has to fit into something else with ‘x’ dimensions’. It’s not as if they are asking for sketches, they are asking for dwg or dxf files of pdfs. I’d gladly offer them suggestions on how I would solve the problem, but I don’t want to solve their problems for free.

I don’t really believe in working for free. Oh well.

The engineering analogy, IMO, is comparing apples to oranges. Asking a fresh eng. grad a few basic questions about materials, basic control theory, or dynamics is one thing. Asking someone to turn over dwg and dxf files (with potential actionable IP) is totally different. The engineering grads also walk in with little more than a GPA and solid interview skills - and that is typically enough to get hired (at a salary thats at least 20k higher than an avg. entry level ID these days). There’s typically no portfolio to assess their problem solving process and no one asks them for a parametric CAD model to test their “skills.” But these fools want you to hand over the rights to an idea for a chance at employment? Please.

If I were you, I wouldn’t hand over any files for that job or any other one unless I had a signed contract in place, 50% up front and an invoice attached to the deliverables. You have to place some value on the hard work that you put into developing your design skills, even if the employer sees you as another unproven grad with a lot to learn and ways to go to productivity. With the awful economic situation and the gross oversupply of young designers that universities pump out , employers will continue to push the envelope with regards to prospective hires. I understand their concerns and the risks with hiring new people. You could produce crap for the next year a be giant waste of time, energy, and financial resources. Tough. They can always hire you as intern for a trial period at min. wage with no benefits. Hiring involves big risks on BOTH sides by nature - just ask all those ex-Enron employees.

Some legit firms would hire you freelance on contract and try you out for a short period of time. It’s like a paid test drive.
I would feel better about that than doing free work.

I’m with you there… I personally feel that a try out project isn’t that big of a deal, but they should at least pay you for the hours.

My company sometimes requests a candidate design a test project to see how the person works and thinks. I thinks this is a great idea. Sadly there seem to be many applicants out there with work in their portfolios for which they greatly overstate their contribution. This is why there is great risk in hriring anyone whom you haven’t seen them do the work and discuss it in real-time, or know and trust someone who has worked with them. As for “free work”, from the point of view of the employer: the chances that someone off the street will generate an earth-shattering, usable design concept in our field in a day are nearly zero. It is just like an extended interview question or personality test. It is the highly stressed design manager’s time that is valuable not yours.

I agree, but in do think the employees time is (or at least can be…) valuable as well. Interviewing should be a fit check for employers to employees, but also as an employer interview for the potential hire - they need to decide whether dedicating their time for a particular company is best for them. Having a potential hire spend several hours or more on a trial project should be compensated in some way. Bringing new people on board costs money to employers, and if they can’t narrow applicants down to a compensateable number for trial projects or decide to chew up peoples time for free, then it says something about the company