You’re reading an excerpt of Land Your Dream Design Job, a book by Dan Shilov. Filled with hard-won, personal insights, it is a comprehensive guide to landing a product design role in a startup, agency, or tech company, and covers the entire design interview process from beginning to end, for experienced and aspriring designers. Purchase the book to support the author and the ad-free Holloway reading experience. You get instant digital access, commentary and future updates, and a high-quality PDF download.
As I mentioned previously, design exercises are not without fault, and as a candidate you always have a choice whether or not to accept one. Sometimes companies allow you to swap one design exercise for another—for example, instead of the take-home exercise, doing a whiteboard challenge.
Or you can choose to forego the design exercise altogether and end the interview—sometimes this is an option if you’re interviewing at other places and this one isn’t worth your time, and they’re not budging on pushing back the timeline.
caution Beware of companies that try to get free work out of you via a design exercise. The design exercise should be different from their business and the deliverable shouldn’t be a fully coded concept that can be implemented. That said, the companies who have challenges that are similar to their business aren’t necessarily trying to get free work out of you. Sometimes they don’t know how to evaluate designers and therefore they create a challenge similar to their business because they’re the domain experts.
At the end of the day if you have concerns or suggestions—these are all great points to bring up with you recruiter. Try to better understand why the company is doing a take home exercise and what they’re trying to achieve. Some companies are also starting to compensate their candidates for the design challenge thus making this interview type a little more palatable.
If you do choose to accept this challenge, you can play to your strengths by highlighting your potential in practice—that is, if you weren’t encumbered by constraints, what would your work look like? Maybe your current job didn’t offer you the right environment to prove yourself, or you think your portfolio isn’t an accurate representation of what you can do now. It happens. Now’s your chance to show off those skills.
Design Exercise Format and Criteria
Typically, candidates are given a few days to a week to complete the take-home assignment. Usually recruiters warn candidates not to spend more than “a few hours on it,” but in reality many candidates spend a fairly significant amount of time. After all, if you really want to differentiate yourself, you have to put in the work.
So you’ve got a design exercise on your hands and the clock is ticking. To make sure your solution is adequate, you’ll need to make sure you understand the evaluation criteria. Every company will vary, but typically they look for:
Process. How you approach and solve ambiguous problems.
Craft. Strong interaction design and visual design work delivered in a short amount of time.
Creativity. Generating divergent and out-of-the-ordinary ideas quickly.
Prioritization. Converging on critical concepts that lead to impact.
Sometimes companies also use different types of design exercise formats when they want to zero in on a particular skill. For example, some may focus heavily on visual design aspects, while others may want you to focus more on interaction design. Typically this will be specified in the design exercise prompt.
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And yet some companies may not have a rigorous process established (usually in startups) and they may not really know what they’re looking for in an answer. These can be the toughest take-homes to crack, but usually, following the design process to a tee and showing how your process has yielded new and interesting solutions helps put them at ease.
Nine Principles for a Successful Design Exercise
There are no shortcuts, but you can increase your chances by:
Practicing. If you’ve never done a design exercise, practice by finding a problem you’re interested in. Give yourself a deadline, write a prompt, do it in the allotted time, and give yourself an objective evaluation.
Understanding context and questions. Get to know the constraints and how your work will be evaluated.
Going above and beyond. After understanding the baseline requirements, see how you can exceed expectations. As Paul Graham says, “The best protection is always working on hard problems.”
Letting the narrative guide your presentation. It’s not about the technology or the process—it’s about how all the work you’ve done helps the customer lead a better life.
Showing and curating process. Generate lots of ideas and be deliberate in what you focus on. If it doesn’t make your narrative stronger, leave it.
Talking to customers. Actually talk to people. Yes, this will be a biased convenience sample, but having rough customer feedback is better than none at all. Scrappiness is a virtue.
Synthesizing findings. Show the meaning you’ve extracted from disparate data sources to frame the problem accurately.
Treating it like work. Imagine you’re already working at this company. How would you approach this challenge?
Delighting the client. When your foundation is solid, can you add a cherry on top that leaves interviewers in awe? Or in the words of Ueno, “When someone asks you for a coffee, bring the best one you can, but always add a piece of chocolate.”
Start with Context
OK, you have your design exercise prompt. What should you do first? Since this is a high-stakes project, it’s important to get context up-front to save time by executing in the right direction.
What Is the Final Deliverable?
What are they looking for? Is this a mobile app, a sitemap, a research brief, or a desktop app? Are they looking for you to show your skills in interaction design, information architecture, research, visual design? This should be clear from the prompt.
important When you’re working through a design exercise, know when to take shortcuts and know when to go bespoke. Creating every asset from scratch may take a long time and may not be necessary.
Even with clear prompts you’re still bound to have questions. That’s a good sign. Generate a list—reread the prompt and think how the answers can help you move faster when you’re heads down on a challenge.
How Collaborative Do They Want to Be?
Interviewers might be willing or expect to provide feedback during the course of your work. You should both be on the same page as to how often you can reach out, to whom, and what feedback you will get and when.
When Is the Deliverable Due?
Structure the deadline to your advantage. When I had a lull in work, it was easy for me to focus intensely on the design exercise to get it done. Other times I’ve taken a day off or pushed back on the start date of the exercise so I could work on it over the weekend.
important You only get to do the design exercise once, so make sure your submission is the best it can be given the timeline. If you are employed but don’t feel like you have enough mental energy to take on a design challenge, take a day or two off. Design exercises are already hard; don’t put yourself in an impossible position of running out of time.
What Are Your Options?
Design exercises are time intensive—some companies offer the choice of a whiteboard challenge instead. I took this option when I was already doing two design exercises. This saved me time—while delivering high-quality work for the other two, the third interviewers felt they got everything that they needed from the whiteboard.
How Will You Present Your Work?
Usually, at the end of the design exercise you’ll present at their office. Typically, to save time your presentation will be part of your final interview. If possible, try to get a sense of what you’ll be working with: their room set up, monitor, seating, and so on. It’s always good to know your context and be prepared with backup in case their tech fails.
Here is a sample design exercise solution that I completed a few years ago. This presentation (as well as the rest of the interview) helped not only secure my offer but led to a higher design level than I anticipated and a higher salary as well. The prompt asked to design a car dashboard for an autonomous vehicle. For this exercise I didn’t have that much time (about five days) so I had to skip my usual approach of asking many questions up-front and started working right away.
As is usual with any design briefs, I began by reframing the problem. Instead of “designing a car dashboard,” I wanted to think about the experience broadly—from the car’s interior to its exterior and how the car can be part of a larger ecosystem. I sketched a few different directions before settling on one, which I fully fleshed out, and lastly, I sneaked in a surprise at the end of my presentation.
Looking at Analogous Domains for Inspiration
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