Redesigning the Design Interview

Sam Provenza
Feb 1, 2017 · 5 min read

I recently went through yet another long term interview process for a design role without receiving an offer. We had a great initial phone screen. They invited me into the office for a 4-hour interview to meet the team. Next, I did a small project that I presented in person. For my final interview, I sat down for an hour with the CEO and founder. I liked everything about the position, the team, and the cold brew on tap in their kitchen. They told me that I exceeded their expectations early on. When they informed me they decided to go with another candidate, it was disappointing to say the least. This wouldn’t be the last time I spent several weeks having a company court me only to ultimately not be the right fit. It took almost a year for me to find the job that I finally accepted. While this came down to me being extremely picky about what I was looking for, I did learn a lot going through such an extensive job application process. I wanted to share a few positive things in hopes that I can redesign the design interview.

Almost every interview process I’ve been involved in has included a design project as part of the interview process. Although I love having the chance to showcase my design thinking skills, a lot of companies miss the mark when it comes to design projects as part of the interview process.

Last fall, a potential company gave me a week to work on a project after two initial in-person interviews with the hiring manager. The company asked that I submit the deliverables by email instead of presenting in person. My approach was to showcase the project as a case study and write out all the information I would have presented in person. It was frustrating to not get the chance to present the project in person because as a designer, being able to show your presentation skills and your ability to give/receive feedback is an important part of being an experienced designer. Context is key in communicating the design process and unfortunately, email isn’t the medium for that.

Design is a collaborative process that involves asking lots of questions, sketching possible solutions and testing design iterations until you arrive at a solution that is valuable to both the user and the company. If you want to test a candidate’s design skills, make that part of the in-person experience and have them come in for a few hours and work with the team to solve a design problem. This is a far better way to evaluate a candidate’s design-thinking skills, their presentation and communication styles and see how well the team meshes together.

If an in-person option isn’t something you are able to do and you still want to have a designer complete a project, consider offering compensation upfront. I interviewed with a company that offered compensation for the project portion and it was refreshing to know that my time was valuable to them. On the flipside, if you are a candidate in this situation, consider sending a video of yourself presenting your project. Not only will you be able to explain your process better but you might stand out more as a candidate.

I was fortunate enough to spend over two years at an awesome company that supported their employees’ goals both inside and outside the office. For me, that included encouraging me to speak at local meet-ups, inviting me to contribute to the company blog, and financially supporting the organizations I volunteered for.

I love when interviewers ask me what I like to do for fun and I have the chance to tell them that I volunteer as a Chapter Leader with Girl Develop It NYC. While this may have little to do with design or the role I’m interviewing for, it shows I’m involved with my community and passionate about things outside of work. Both of these things are positive attributes for designers and employees in general. And as an employer, you get the added benefit of hiring someone who will be getting positive exposure for your company and brand.

When companies don’t ask about my interests, it shows me that they are only interested in filling an open position. Take time during the interview to find out which Meetups your candidate goes to, what activities or hobbies excite them, or what their goals are for the upcoming year. If you find yourself in an interview process where the interviewer seems to take no interest in your life outside of work, this could be a red flag. Try to incorporate it into the conversation if they don’t ask.

Looking for a new job can be an exhausting especially if you are already working full-time and freelancing and learning new skills and volunteering and… Between scheduling phone and in-person interviews, you also have the stress of worrying about getting fired for taking too much time off at your current job. Add on a lengthy design project to that and you can say goodbye to any free time.

The companies that were able to work around my schedule throughout the entire interview process were the companies I liked best. Sometimes that involved coming in at 8 am or staying after 6 pm so that I could avoid missing work. Sometimes it was letting me know the entire interview process upfront so I could plan ahead to make up time I would be missing. When you are looking for a job, courtesy goes both ways. Companies that were willing to work with my schedule showed me they were more likely to be flexible if I became an employee.

Be willing to be flexible with every candidate’s schedule especially if your process involves assigning a design project. Showing that you actually value a their time can make you more attractive to involved candidates.

As a designer in the interview process, be honest and don’t be afraid to ask for things like compensation for design work, rescheduling the interview before or after normal working hours or for feedback after an interview that didn’t lead to an offer. I’ve found that the companies willing to go that extra step are the companies worth working for.

Good luck to everyone who is looking for something new in 2017!

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