5 examples of unethical design interviews & how to navigate them

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In this post, our friends at Sharpen.design shed light on how to spot an unethical design exercise during the interview process, while also offering some helpful language to use when it comes to responding to the hiring manager.

“For your next step in the interview process, we’d like you to redesign our homepage as a test of skill,’’ a friend recounted to me, clearly uneasy about the ethics of the request. They were applying for their first full-time design role and really wanted to get hired, but they couldn’t shake the feeling that they were being asked for free work.

Luckily, you’re not powerless if you find yourself in a similar situation.

While usually unintentional, companies often ask for “spec work”, or speculative work, as part of design interviews. This means any creative work, of any size or medium, submitted by designers to potential employers or clients, before a contract or payment agreement is secured. Until a contract is in place, they can go MIA as soon as you send over the goods.

Making fair design challenges can be difficult for first-time or fast-moving hiring managers. Encountering a spec work request isn’t necessarily a red flag, though it might shed some contextual light on other elements of the workplace.

So you’re better equipped to spot and navigate situations like this, here are five common scenarios of poor ethics and how to deal with them.

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1: If spec work is requested

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While it might not have ill intentions, this qualifies as a request for free work. The company would have materially gained from you doing that design, even if they didn’t choose to offer you a role. It would be perfectly fair to request a different challenge in this situation.

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You could also use a free tool that I made with a designer-friend, called Sharpen.design. It’s a design prompt generator that makes millions of prompts, for use in interviews or just to practice with.

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2: Insisting on free work

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If they’re a person who’s qualified to evaluate design work, it shouldn’t matter the exact task they have you complete. Being pushy with a spec-work request might be a red flag, but you can finesse the situation like this:

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Alternatively, if you’re feeling uncomfortable or haven’t ever drafted a design contract, you can ask to confirm with design leadership that this is expected.

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Hint: Even if design leadership says spec work is ok, it isn’t. Use your new access to a leader and insist on being paid for that work.

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3: Wanting your source files

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There are very few reasons why a company would legitimately need to see your source files. Giving away source files is bad because they can change 1 or 2 elements, keeping the majority of your work, and call it their own.

My time working at Google showed me that no designer is without messy source files, so unless there’s some absolutely critical thing about source files they’ve mentioned, consider replying with this:

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Remember, companies can ghost other just as easily as people can. Always get a contract or a written & signed agreement of some form before sending over the goods.

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4: Pay you with exposure

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Companies that don’t have the budget to pay contractors aren’t ones that particularly evoke trust, and for that reason, this request is a whole basket of red flags. Your design work is worth paying for, and unfortunately, rent can’t be paid with exposure. Simply put: get a contract or move on.

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Exposure is for camera sensors – not design work. Even if you’re in the early steps of your career, you deserve to be paid for your work.

Always. Get. It. In. Writing.

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5: Design “contests”

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Nope. Hard pass. Design contests are largely a thinly veiled request for free work, even if it’s hosted on a popular website. Pitting designers against each other for a single job devalues the work of all designers involved, and devalues the industry as a whole. It’s always ok to end negotiations if you have a bad feeling in your gut. Here’s how we’d handle this one:

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Even if the work would be for a famous client, it’s best to pass on something like this from a business perspective. Design careers aren’t made from giving work out for free.

Wrap-Up

Other professions operate with a strict allergy to spec work. You wouldn’t ask for a cup of coffee, and offer “recommendations to all your clients and friends” as payment, for example.

While the spectrum of ethics is much larger than the scope of this article, you aren’t a bad designer for insisting on contracts, non-spec evaluations, or the protection of your source files. You have the right to say no, and you don’t owe anyone anything until a contract is signed.

When in doubt, get it in writing.

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About the author:

Arman Nobari is a self-taught product designer, developer, and portrait artist. He’s the co-founder of Sharpen.design, a research-backed practice design prompt generator.


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