The tech industry is built on free work. For every CEO like Mark Zuckerberg, who has said he clocks a relatively modest 50 or 60 hours at the office every week, there are hordes of workers putting in endless unpaid overtime. That’s called “crunch,” and it’s often viewed as a routine part of doing business. And while that problem is well-documented, less frequently discussed is the free labor many people have to complete to land a job in the first place.

Writers, editors, and other artists may be familiar with the arrangement. They call it “spec work” and blast the practice in public tweets. Developers sometimes call it “homework,” and journalists may be used to “edit tests” when they apply for work.

If your job title includes terms like “UX,” “UI,” “product,” or “design,” what you get is called a design challenge (or exercise). For example, LinkedIn has asked applicants to design a new version of the network for high schoolers. Expected deliverables can range from a written critique to a polished, interactive product, and assignments can take anywhere from two to 13 hours to complete.

Theoretically, these challenges can be paid or unpaid. As a professional with a masters degree and more than seven years in the design field, I’ve had precisely one that was paid. My peers consider me lucky.

Being able to say no is itself a privilege.

Of course, the concept of the design challenge was created and is offered with good intentions — usually by smart, caring, and professional people. But unpaid design challenges can exclude those most in need of work.

You can push back. Because like many processes in tech, what worked in one case doesn’t necessarily work for the systems around it. It doesn’t scale.


Being able to say no is itself a privilege. But even if you have mad money, think of the campsite rule: You should always leave a place better than you found it. How does your decision about whether to complete an unpaid design challenge affect the candidates coming after you? Maybe you can do free work, but not everyone can.

There’s a large subset of the population for whom a dozen extra hours of work, especially work that requires focus, is a luxury. I mean, really — it’s most people.

Take, for example, single parents and working parents — especially women, who spend up to 30 percent more time caring for their family than their male spouses. Consider adults who care for aging relatives, people with hours of commuting every day, or those who work long hours or a second job. Think about people with disabilities or health problems.

When unpaid design challenges are on the table, the young and footloose have an advantage, perhaps one that outweighs the factors of skill, ability, experience, and talent.

Hiring in tech often overlooks privilege to the detriment of diversity and representation. An interview may come out of a chance meeting at an alumni association or include a “hang with the team,” or late-night drinking. A design exercise assumes you are privileged with time to offer.

What Is to Be Done?

I can’t tell you to turn down a design challenge, even an unpaid one. As much as being able to put in unpaid work is a privileged position, so is being able to risk losing a chance at work.

How might you, along with the employer, intentionally design a better option within the constraints?

But you still have leverage. By the time a design challenge is on the table, a company has expressed interest in you. Don’t make your response a refusal — think of it as a demonstration of your professional skills.

Mike Monteiro of Mule Design has defined design as, basically, the intentional solution to a problem within a set of constraints. Maybe this is the challenge: How might you, along with the employer, intentionally design a better option within the constraints?

First, let’s be good designers and think about why design challenges exist and what employers hope to learn. Hiring managers have said they assign design challenges out of practical constraints to see what kind of work an applicant can realistically produce, and because they want to see “how you think.”

“We really want to see if we can work with that individual,” says David Buchanan, a senior UX designer at Solutionreach. Nicole Thayer, another senior designer, was more specific, saying that a design challenge can help her “see what UX skills a candidate went to first — whether they immediately developed a feature set for a potential app, did some observational research, or asked clarifying questions.”

A proper portfolio review may be a better option. Peter Merholz, a product consultant with more than a decade of experience, says he hasn’t included design challenges in his years of hiring.

“You cannot create an exercise that accurately and actively models real work,” Merholz says. Instead, he’s used portfolio reviews during phone screens and in-person interviews. He admits that doing this properly takes training, which some companies aren’t willing to undertake.

“It’s a problem of training people to unpack portfolios,” he says. “So companies use design challenges to compensate.”

Design challenges may be a compromise for the company, but that doesn’t mean you should compromise for them. For starters, you should never contribute unpaid work to a for-profit product, like that LinkedIn feature. Just say no, but explain why: It puts the company at risk, it sends a bad message to jobseekers, and it doesn’t align with how you want to behave in your profession.

You could propose instead doing an exercise that’s purely hypothetical — how might we better schedule conference rooms, for example. This avoids the legal and moral hazard.

This isn’t a total solution. It’s still free work and therefore exclusionary. And so many hypothetical take-home design challenges are pulled from a common list. I can’t tell you how many familiar “solutions” I’ve seen in young designers’ portfolios; cribbing is going to happen. As a result, these kinds of exercises may not offer genuine insight about the applicant.

Perhaps the most efficacious and ethical option would be to propose — radical in a digital age — working together in person. Some companies, such as Pivotal Labs, do this: A small design challenge is incorporated into the in-person interview. This means they actually learn what it’s like to work with you. Even applicants who don’t have extensive portfolios can shine, and your time is spent more efficiently. They might even feed you lunch.

If you find yourself in this situation, try to take some power back by saying that you need to know what criteria the exercise is being judged on and by asking if there are other ways they are evaluating you. An alternative, if that power dynamic isn’t your bag, would be to offer to present a prepared portfolio review.

Of course, they could also just pay for your time on a take-home challenge. Like I said, it’s happened once before.

In any event, perhaps the tide is turning.

Louis Elfman, director of data visualization at CoreLogic, says, “I no longer believe in take-home design exercises,” adding that, as an applicant, he felt they were artificial, inaccurate, and not a good reflection of one’s skills and abilities.

Once he was in a position to hire, Elfman made sure that design challenges were not a “deciding factor” in the process. Similarly, Tom Kerwin, UX researcher at Zopa, felt that unpaid design challenges were “deeply unfair.” His company eventually abandoned them.

In fact, an applicant to Kerwin’s company, when faced with the prospect of a design challenge, wrote a thoughtful letter explaining their decision to decline the challenge. The result? The company jumped at the opportunity to add this designer to the team.