UI Design Jobs: Why designers should boycott “Homework”.

Every one has been on a job hunt. But no job hunt is stranger than one in UI design. Not only have I experienced this myself, but I’ve been hearing more about these “homework” assignments from other designers too. So what “homework” am I referring to? Let me explain.

Any decent designer has a handsome resume and a digestible porfolio. Most non-designers can look at those two items and have an immediate sense of experience. That’s probably why any design job asks for both to be uploaded to the application — it’s standard protocol. Then there are the requisites. Normally these consist of some process and development methodologies, user research, some words and phrases that are synonomous with ‘intuitive’, a couple unicorn asks (oh, you code too), and then industry standard tools.

So the designer applies, they respond, and there’s an ask…

“We have many applicants, and to help us select the right person, we would like you to do a homework assignment. Please re-design BLANK and send it to us as a PDF, .PSD, and HTML.”

That’s right, a message telling the applicant to go to some website, or open some document, and design or re-design something — for super free.

When did this become acceptable? Are surgeons asked to jump into the OR real-quick to prove they’ve ‘got skills, bro?’ Do architects hand over a rough draft of blueprints before even knowing the client’s name? I’m pretty sure I could do this all day and the answer is always, “no.” Here are my three reasons this is a terrible idea for designers:

Design isn’t easy.

If you ask me to mold whatever I want out of a piece of clay with no requirements except, “do whatever you want,” then the outcome will be art NOT design. Design is created with constraints, it has a purpose… You cannot tell a designer to look at a website and re-design it to look better. ‘Better’ without requirements is subjective. Sure, some say that’s the point of homework: to respond with questions around requirements and how the test will be evaluated. It can also test a designer’s resourcefulness as designers can lean on studies, trends, and best practices to know what’s working well in web design and what’s not. But still, that’s the very tip of the iceberg. These companies make a product, and that product has an audience, users, time to market, money to be made… Over simplified homework is just belittling what real designers do. So what does re-designing a site for the sake of re-designing a site prove? Mostly that you can use tools. Which is my next point.

Tools don’t make the designer.

Find a designer who doesn’t have the Adobe Suite on their resume, I dare you. Want to know the best part of the Adobe Suite? It’s the most over-complicated, busy, and overzealous software on the planet. If a designer knows how to use the Adobe Suite, they can learn to use any other graphic or UI design tool. So how do employers know the designer in question knows how to use these tools? I’m pretty sure that’s what their portfolio is for. Ask a few follow-up questions on how they did example A and B, and boom — confirmed, they know how to use a tool. Of course, good designers can tell a story verbally, with doodles on a wall, or vicariously through other designs, but good designers should also know the industry and its tools.

Design isn’t free.

Sorry kids, nothing is. Work is time, time is money. How dare any employer ask a non-employee to do work for them, ever. If you want free labor, get an intern (that was a joke). But to ask people with a resume full of experience and skill, and a porfolio full of working examples, there is nothing more inconsiderate than asking someone to do free work. All designers should believe in affordable design, accessible design, and consider doing some non-profit or charity design work. But that’s not what’s going on here. This is flat out asking a designer to give away their intellectual property with no pay and no aggreements.

So why is this happening?

I don’t know. I can only speculate. Maybe it’s these stupid articles encouraging this ridiculous practice (see this article or this one). I’ve read them, OK? Don’t try and tell me it’s a good idea with BS like, “but it allows the employer to understand how the candidate uses critical thinking, blah blah.” You can accomplish that with quality questions and through examples of their work. This is design we are talking about, designers have portfolios!

Maybe it’s the employer’s inability to conduct a good interview? The two worst interviews you can get are one where the conductor just wants to confirm they know more than you, or one where the conductor doesn’t know what they’re looking for and somehow it makes you look like a idiot. Maybe the employer doesn’t know how to test the designer’s skills any other way but than looking at a finished product and saying, “ooooh, shiny.”

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s all a big scam. I’ve heard stories where this was true, but I don’t want to go into that. And I’m not one for conspiracies, but I can’t help but think that if an employer pushes “homework” to a dozen designers, that the responses will contain a substantial amount of usable and good design. This means they don’t need to (or at least think) hire a designer because they just received free consulting! Could they really be asking for PSD’s and source files to review how the designer organizes their layers? Maybe, but I can’t help but feel that this all still seems a bit shady.

Designers: Boycott this crap.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter why it’s happening. My first guess continues to be that employers aren’t knowledgable or savvy enough about how to interview designers. But I’m not writing this to solve employers’ problems and help them conduct a better interview. We can do that another time. I’m writing this to create a coalition of designers against “homework.” Hell, give it an acronym! That’ll prove a point. What’s “designers against homework?” DAH? Perfect.

So there you have it, designers. Next time you’re on a job hunt, and someone asks you to “prove it” with slave labor, just yell, “DAH!” like a crazed lunatic as you flail your arms wildly running off into the sunset.

Or better yet, just reply with a work proposal. Make sure you give them your highest hourly rate.

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