A Guide to Design Challenges for Product & Visual Design

Design challenges help demonstrate processes and creativity, and push the skills of the person taking the challenge. This guide provides suggestions on how best to approach a challenge, and should help those taking the challenge be more considerate of the process.

Use your time carefully

Every challenge should come with a specified time limit (e.g. 4–8 hours), so be sure to user that time correctly. Refer to the brief to understand where the primary focus of the work should be, and what level of fidelity to aim for. Do they want a sketch, to see processes, or a fully-fledged working prototype?

This is a project-lite, so spending too much time on it could reflect badly on you. The person sending the challenge is not expecting a polished, flawless piece of work so don’t be too hard on yourself and don’t over-deliver.

Note: Avoid including the time to create a presentation or deliverable in that 4–8 hour window.

Avoid ambiguity by asking stupid questions

Read the brief, re-read the brief, and ask as many questions as you can. The person who sent the brief should be available at any point to ask questions, so do not feel like a burden by asking these kinds of questions:

  1. When you say ‘mass-market,’ what does that mean to you?
  2. What kind of users would you expect to be the primary audience?
  3. Should I make any assumptions the intended audience?

Asking questions like this shows your desire to understand the brief, and that you are considering many possibilities. Once you have answers to these questions, try rewriting the brief in a way that resonates with you.

Journal your process

A design challenge is not just a measure of your creative skill, but on how you got to the destination. Take photographs and write down what you are doing at certain points in the process. You should ask yourself ‘am I taking too many photos?’ at least once during the challenge. Spoiler alert: you aren’t.

Save these photos and notes for the final presentation of your work. In the end, your process is what people will pay you for.

Do some planning and sketch away

Once you understand the brief, you should be able to start planning the work by grabbing some post-its and thinking about functionality and user flows. List out the pages you might need and the functionality on each, then move around post-its to refine it.

If you need help during this portion, you can ask friends, families members, or your buddies on Twitter to check over it with you. Some questions you could ask are:

  1. What would you expect to do on this page?
  2. Which function would you be most inclined to use here and why?
  3. Are there too many options here?

Once you’ve refined the flow and functions to a point where it makes the most sense, you can start to sketch the pages and functions out to get a feel for it. Pay particular attention to layout and functionality, and making sure it fits with the tone of the project and hits all marks in the brief.

Set the tone for the design

The brief should influence how the design looks, so read it carefully to understand the expected tone of the visuals. Is it mass market? Should it appeal to the elderly? Should it be easy to understand when someone is panicking in line?

Once you understand the expected tone, develop a color palette and choose a font to match the tone. You could even think about developing some rules about how these are used, but don’t go overboard on it, and remember this could evolve at any point throughout the process.

Start creating the visuals or prototypes

Depending on what the brief asks for (static screenshots or prototype?) then start to work on the designs at the most appropriate fidelity, developing the visual language further as you work through.

While the expectation of final deliverables will not be too high, make sure the use of color, typography, hierarchy, and spacing is consistent and precise, with bonus points on clean, interesting, and creative layouts.

Be sure to consider common patterns or design on platforms (e.g. Apple Human Interface Guidelines or Material Design) and try to avoid producing designs that follow trends or copy work too heavily.

Research and refine

Your ability to perform research and analyze the results of said research is an important part of the product design process, so at least one round should be performed in the challenge. It’s not always expected that the designs should be refined after research, but the process and analysis should be shared.

The easiest way to do this is to build a prototype in Marvel or InVision, then go and ask a few people in a coffee shop to take a look over it for you. This should take around five minutes per test, and give you ample information to analyze.

Once you have performed the user testing, write down your key takeaways, what you could do to fix it, and refine if you have the time available.

Be prepared to rationalize everything

All designs exist to serve a purpose, with the most beautiful applications or websites only being useful if they solve that purpose in an elegant manner. As such, every aspect of your delivered design should have rationale and stand up to scrutiny.

Your designs aren’t expected to be infallible, but there should be a discernible motive behind the spacing of a panel, the font you’ve chosen, or the way in which a user traverses from one page to the next.

Present your work

The challenge isn’t completed until you have written about it and delivered it to the person who provided the challenge. Gather everything you have done and present it in the way you have been asked. It should outline:

  1. Your working process(throughpictures and notes).
  2. A small visual language outline(fonts,colors, and any guidelines you set yourself).
  3. The final product(prototype/ layout).
  4. Any additional rationale.

Send it along with a message thanking your mentor or interviewer for any feedback or advice they might provide, and wait for the jobs to role in because you are done. Congratulations, you rock. 🎉