I don’t do interview homework, and neither should you.
Now, I know this might ruffle some feathers — and that’s okay. We can all agree to disagree, even on the internet! In defense of this thesis, I will tell you what I think are better ways to present your work to prospective employers.
As you set out in your design career, you will encounter companies that will ask you to conduct take–home tests and challenges, possibly after spending many hours interviewing you. You will be tempted to oblige, especially if the homework comes from a company you’re very interested in working for.
Homework requests are well–intentioned, and meant to provide a way to evaluate your skills and potential. However, homework is far less effective than reviewing your design portfolio, listening to you present your work in person, or collaborating on design exercises during an interview.
Homework requests are not respectful of your time and experience. Would you ever ask a professional dentist to “polish one or two teeth, and we’ll see how it goes?” Or ask your professional hairstylist for a free haircut, with the caveat of deciding later if you want to pay them? Of course not. It should be no different for a designer.
Unless you’re brand new to this game, or are lacking specific technical skills that you need for this role, you should politely decline to do interview homework.
Instead, offer to walk the hiring manager through your past projects. They want to understand your role in the work, and the thought process that led to your decisions. Always do this in person.
<Insert Caveat Here>
As I said, I do recognize that there are a few situations where a take–home assignment makes sense:
- You are a student, or recent grad, without much real–world experience.
- The hiring manager is looking for a very specific, technical skillset that you haven’t mastered yet.
- Your role on projects is unclear, or murky at best.
- Your portfolio doesn’t highlight your thought process.
Outside of these situations, there are five (no, three sir!) highly effective ways to showcase your work: 1) share your design portfolio, 2) walk hiring managers through a past project in person, and 3) participate in exercises with the hiring manager and team during an interview.
1. Put together an online design portfolio
Your portfolio is probably the first opportunity you have to introduce yourself to a hiring manager. Remember that first impressions matter greatly—make sure you have a website that’s simple to navigate, showcases your best work, and gets the visitor to your work as quickly as possible.
It’s important to limit the number of projects in your portfolio. You want to show hiring managers your best work, and it’s also a good idea to only keep your most recent work on public display. Set up an archive of past projects, or have PDFs of projects available to share on a service like Dropbox. You can even link to those PDFs directly from your portfolio (see an example here).
As a general rule, I keep my portfolio limited to 9 projects at a time. There is no hard and fast rule here, but I personally wouldn’t go beyond 12 (unless you’ve been very successful at this, for a very long time).
Here are some questions that you can answer to arrive at the optimal number of projects in your portfolio:
- Is this some of my best work?
- Is this some of my most recent work?
- Are any of these projects significantly stronger than the others?
- What is the impression that a visitor will get when viewing my work?
- Are my first and last projects strong?
Here’s a common mistake that I see designers make: they forget to describe their role in the project, the contributions they made, and all of the associated information with a project (company, year, awards you won, links, etc).
Beyond this basic information, you should write a concise, compelling story about each project—one that highlights your process, decision making, and ties the work together from end to end.
Pro Tip: Don’t forget to include a link to your resume, with contact info!
2. Present your past work in person
On the occasion that a company does ask me to complete interview homework, I politely decline. Note the use of the word politely—this is important! No one likes an elitist, and the key is to suggest other ways to evaluate your skills. One of the best ways is to share your projects in person.
Part of the problem with interview homework is that it forces you to work in a vacuum. No one works in a vacuum!
There are multiple advantages to presenting your work in person:
- You have the opportunity to establish a good rapport with the hiring manager.
- This is the perfect time to talk through your thought process. Weave those nuggets of process into your presentation!
- This is your chance to connect the dots from your past work, to the work you will be doing at this company.
- If any red flags come up for the hiring manager, you’re right there to address them. Be prepared to defend your work!
- Probably 75% of this process is determining if you will work well together with the existing team. This is the moment to let your personality shine!
Note: this statistic is based entirely on my opinions, not actual research.
3. Participate in design exercises during interviews
The fifth (no, three sir!) method of evaluating a designer’s skillset—commonly used in technology companies—is to ask a designer to participate in an exercise during the interview.
You may be asked to participate in exercises such as white boarding, designing an imaginary user interface, or solving a problem related to the company’s challenges. These in–person exercises are much better than homework: they offer a way for the interviewers to see how you think and collaborate. These exercises also respect your time, which is important — you’re undoubtedly interviewing with multiple companies. Remember, your time is valuable!
The key here is that you’re participating in person. Again, you’re not working in a vacuum—this is designed partly to see how you’ll work with the existing team. Remember that this process is not all about you (we know you’re awesome, but you can only control so much in life). A huge part of the interview process is to find out if you’re a good fit within the team.
So, when asked (or when you offer) to participate in a design exercise in person: keep an open mind, be energetic, and ask lots of questions! Remember that the interviewers are not necessarily looking for solutions. They’re trying to get a feel for how you collaborate with others, what your thought process is, and how you might gel with the team.
In general, these types of exercises should produce low–fidelity workflows, wireframes, or design mockups. Be wary of any company that is soliciting polished design work for their own products, services, or clients.
Google Ventures has a great article on this topic, and since they’ve done such a great job covering it, I’m going to shut up and just link to it:
You’re a professional—stick to your guns.
Your time is valuable, and you don’t work for free. You wouldn’t walk into a pet store and ask to “borrow this hamster for a day, to see how I like it.”
On the flip side, you’re not an elitist snob. You’re more than happy to share your work in person. Politely decline the offer to do interview homework, and focus instead on telling a great story about your work—in person.