How to Ace the Design Test

The first time I did a design test was when I was trying to make it as a freelance designer — and was failing at it, too.

Business wasn’t exactly booming, and I was struggling with finding freelance work that paid. I had plenty who contacted me with the promises of equities, exposure, and sometimes even glory. Neither of which would help me pay my bills. Instead, I decided to work on personal projects, and when eventually, one of them got me in touch with a digital agency, I agreed to apply for a full-time UX Design position there.

Having taken most of my short education as an apprentice I experienced the fleetingness of promises in the business world the hard way. As a result I’d developed a healthy skepticism towards anything without a signature on it. Or at least, so I thought.

Because it wasn’t exactly healthy skepticism when I agreed to do a design test as part of the application, but rather the fact that the agency seemed determined to take me on and the process itself was more of a “formality.” The test was a “classic” take-home assignment of designing a travel insurance app which I had around three days to do.

Design Task

An existing client (not a real client) is finally ready to take the next step into the mobile world and has commissioned us to create a native app for IOS and Android. Currently the client has a very profitable insurance business targeted 15-35 year old Scandinavians. […]

Your task is as follows:

Explain and visualise the user flow from start to finish for two different user stories: 1) A customer is planning a trip and want to make sure the insurance is optimal and 2) A customer is traveling in Vietnam and is requiring assistance because of a medical issue.

The client want to change the design so feel free to come up with a new style. Include: Wireframes/UI Design/Prototype.

Present your ideas and use your portfolio to convince the client that our bureau and you will be the best one for the task.

The take-home Design Assignment from the Agency

I remember thinking it was a weird assignment as user experience design doesn’t really exist without, you know, users. I also found myself wondering if they were really expecting me to design an app in just three days. But with no time to think I threw myself over it. Feverishly, I was trying to emphasize with non-existing users and unfamiliar situations while at the same time researching travel insurance, planning the app architecture, thinking up features, and brainstorming about visuals. I was enlisting the help of anyone within earshot and would’ve worked myself to a pulp if that hadn’t included my sister. Her idea of helping was a bit different as she chose to instead begin questioning the whole thing to the best of her abilities:

“Why do you have to do a test?”

“Haven’t they seen your work?”

“Haven’t they read your article?”

“Do they even pay you to do it?”

– My sister’s questions to which I had no good answer

My sister is an industrial technician at a large manufacturing company and sometimes I envy the straightforwardness of it. To her, a design test makes as little sense as an extra asshole on her elbow. She proceeded to grill me “big-sister-style” about the assignment and when I admitted to already having worked on it non-stop for a day and a half, she said:

“If you work non-stop they won’t get a realistic idea of how far you can get in three regular working days. Stop working; what you have now is more than enough.”

Reluctantly, I complied because while I of course really wanted the job, I couldn’t argue with my sister’s logic. If the assignment was a way to test my process and skills as well as work speed and efficiency, spending more than the equivalent of three working days would be cheating — myself most of all. It would set the bar far higher than I would be able to live up to as a regular, full-time employee. But most importantly, my sister had succeeded in voicing the one issue which was nagging in the back of my mind.

While my business might not exactly be booming the one client I had was in fact paying me to work for them. I was even turning down other potential projects because they were completely unpaid. Hell, I’d even written an article about it just one month prior to the design assignment.

Could I even justify that the digital agency — who probably had way more capital than all of my clients combined — did not have to pay for my time? Simply because it was a “test assignment” they had “made up” as part of their hiring process? I was having a serious case of double-standards.

The hiring process ended up involving two or three meetings plus the design assignment itself and attending two events, one which lasted from morning to noon. It lasted an entire month and may have gone on for even longer if not for pressuring them for an answer. When finally their conclusion came in and it was a rejection, I wanted nothing more than to send them a bill.

Instead I had to painfully realise I had done exactly what I was arguing against in my own article: I’d taken on an unpaid design assignment after all. I’d endorsed the very thing which made me struggle as a freelancer in the first place. And though I eventually found full-time employment in another company this first run-in with the design test wasn’t going to be my last.

Fast forward well over a year, I found myself longing for a new job. Recent events in my career such as being featured in a magazine and invited to talk at two design conferences had boosted my professional confidence. So I felt somewhat sure of myself as I re-entered the job market.

At first I applied for standard, full-time UX and Digital Designer positions. Some were in design agencies — I figured one bad experience shouldn’t exclude the rest — others were in regular companies or start-ups most of which initially turned me down. I figured, alright, maybe it just wasn’t a fit.

Sure, I can take rejection. I’m an adult.

And by that I of course mean I’ll process the crippling self-doubt by screaming into a pillow and eventually fish for compliments from my boyfriend.

But then I spotted a freelance Product Designer position in a start-up and applied for it. A few days later I got a reply which to my surprise wasn’t the usual rejection or invitation to a first meeting. It was a design test with a deadline of six days later. Apparently I first had to solve the assignment, turn it in and pass the test before I could even be invited the very first meeting.

Task 1: Share your thoughts about the use of design systems.

Task 2: Design a date picker for OurFeatureTM

Based on the attached Sketch file you should design a date picker that allows the user to filter the content of the list by date. The user should be able to filter using predefined variables […] or by customer date with start and end dates.

Please design these five views:

  1. A view with the date picker in its default state (default of your choice).
  2. A view with the date picker being expanded with all filter options available. This will correspond to the “first click” view.
  3. A view where the custom date option is selected.
  4. One or more views where start and end dates are being set.
  5. A view where the selected dates are shown (date picker in closed state).

Don’t work on the content of the list – it’s only the filtering function / date picker we want to see in action. The design should be done for both wide desktop and mobile view. The design pages should be delivered to us as links to a mobile and a desktop prototype (use Marvel, InVision or your favourite prototyping tool) and the Sketch file with your updates. 

Please note that the needed fonts are attached. 

Design Task

Mouth agape in disbelief, I read the entire thing. Several times.

There were so many things wrong with the test I wasn’t even sure how to react. I didn’t know this company at all or if they were even legit. And yet they were expecting me to apply my knowledge and skills solving a very detailed assignment for them for freewithout even having met them. For the chance of maybe a meeting.

On the bright side, I got the chance to do what I should’ve done for my first test; I sent them an offer with my hourly rate and the estimated time the assignment would take. I asked them to let me know when and if I could start.

Their reply came in fast saying they understood why I didn’t want to work for free but they couldn’t pay for the assignment. They offered a “compromise” where I could spend whatever time I thought was fair and send them the result of that. I wrote an equally arrogant reply to their arrogant request.

Hello again.

Unfortunately I’m not sure of the reliability of a company who wants work done but by default won’t pay for it. I’ve learned far too much of past experiences with that type of assignments when I was an independent designer to accept it. 

Instead I prefer to work for companies who will gladly pay for my work. And who, through their feedback, seem genuinely happy with the results. I’m thinking that, plus the projects I have online, my current article in Net Magazine and the nature of the conference I’m to be a speaker at this October, should be enough to determine the quality of my work. 

I hope for your understanding. 

Despite feeling like I’d dodged a bullet it was only a small drop in a vast sea.

I continued to apply for design positions as the stubborn warmth of late summer slowly gave way to the golden colours of autumn. Two companies soon turned into being potential matches when the first meetings went well.

At one place the chemistry was especially good, it was also an established brand and I got the sense there was a lot I could learn. At the other place which was a bit smaller I could get a good salary, pension and up to three or even four work-from-home days a week. So when they both required me to do a design test… I wasn’t as sure how to react to it at all as I’d been before.

The first place required a third meeting of no less than two and a half hours for the test — not including travel time. That meant I’d have to take a day off work for it and lose a full day’s wage to do a test for another company. The other place simply sent me the assignment as a file.

Design task

Make a design for an invoice editor that has the exact same functionality as the invoice editor inside OurProductTM but uses the style and some of the interaction patterns found on The point of the task is not to make it perfect and use too much time on it. The design should not be final, but give us an impression of your ability to use a defined style when creating a new product. 

On one hand, I have my principles and usually following them takes me places I’m better off being. I don’t live under the illusion my work is for a higher purpose; I work primarily to get paid even though saying that makes you a villain. But if I’m paid what I want I’ll do all I possibly can to live up to those expectations. And if I’m not then I just won’t be able to deliver the best results.

If that makes me Maleficent then so be it.

A shocked Maleficent saying; "No pay?!" Then, adding with an impish smile while rolling her eyes; "Oh dear, what an awkward situation."

On the other hand I also knew there was potentially a lot to be gained if I did the design tests. So I couldn’t help but wonder…

Was this really just what it would take to find work — good work?

Was I just being stubborn and difficult?

Was standing up to my beliefs actually ruining everything for me?

Should I just bend over?

Is that what being an adult means?

Drop the soap and just get it overwith…?

So yeah, I googled something like “how to ace the design test” and tried to imagine a reality with none of my principles… And a sore backside.

Google search field, typing "How to take it in the a" then deleting and instead typing "How to ace the design test"

At first, I found search results that promised to teach me how to do design tests to impress the likes of Apple, Facebook and Google. I had once before been dazzled by the idea of working somewhere really fancy, like the digital agency from my first design test. And in a way it was the same situation I was in right now with two attractive positions.

But my search also led me to all the skeptical articles speaking out against the design tests. In an article arguing design tests are bad interviewing practices I found a very relatable Twitter thread about the unrealistic expectations of it.

And in another article arguing it was time to kill the test entirely, the author reached all the same conclusions I had, experiencing the tests first-hand.

“It’s just a mad scramble to invent a product one night after a long day at work.”

Time to Kill the Take-Home Design Test, Susan K Rits

I already had some serious doubts a test would do anything to help me demonstrate my creative thinking and meticulous craftsmanship in delivering constant, solid design solutions and results over a longer period of time.

But none of it changed the fact that they were expecting me to do it for free.

So I asked myself if that was really the kind of company I wanted to sign my name onto and work for. Someone who demanded I prove myself further at my own expense when they were the ones who needed me. It of course didn’t take me very long to realise I already knew the answer and one company I could turn down due to their office location. Which left the second company who’d sent me the test as a file, the one with a high salary and pension. It was a pretty sweet deal so I decided to give them another chance.

I wrote them an email offering another meeting instead where we could dive deeper into one or more of my projects. That way, they could ask me whatever questions they felt the test should’ve answered about my work. To top it off I think I even suggested a contract with a shorter notice of discharge in the trial period — which meant they could pretty much dismiss me from one day to the other within the first three months. But when they kept insisting on the test I decided at least it wasn’t for my lack of trying and I turned them down as well.

“It’s a good thing to be true to yourself and show them you’re a serious person who can bear with their unserious idea of doing 3 days of work for free.”

– My dad, when asked if I was crazy for turning down the test.

Standing by my principles, however good it might feel, meant once again I was back to square one. So I began bracing myself that I might not find new employment for a while and instead kept busy with talking at conferences and renovating one of the rooms of our house to be my new Cave Monster Cave.

When least expecting it, I suddenly became aware of a company through a colleague who’d been to a job interview there. I sent them a spontaneous application and went to a meeting with their VP of Product in which we mostly talked about renovating old things and the importance of sword-fighting as part of a child’s upbringing.

A few days later, I was invited in for a second meeting with some more people attending and despite my excitement, I focused on just trying to be myself. I talked a bit of my current position but I was also very nervous and unsure if I was even doing very well. At some point they just started asking a lot of questions such as how I’d improve the dashboard of their system which allowed me to do a whole lot of talking. I was also asked what tools I use, how I go about my work, how I collaborate with others. How I took criticism and also how I would defend a design decision. We even talked about all the really important stuff such as which is the best role-playing game — Dragon Age: Inquisition or The Witcher: Wild Hunt? The chemistry was definitely there.

The position was offered to me shortly after and I gladly accepted. Not once did we talk about a design test. I ended up working at the company for almost a year where we completely redesigned the entire platform, bringing it into the 21st century. Best of all, I met some fantastic people and because of them did some of my best work yet before moving on.

Despite my good ending, I still feel frustrated on behalf of those who don’t have the stability of current employment in their job search, as I did.

I feel anger towards the companies who are taking advantage of that hopelessness and desperation you begin to feel after so many rejections. Above all, I feel resentment towards other designers, with centuries more experience than me, who defend the tests. They should know better than endorse free labour because how in the hell does that help any of us?

I became determined to write an article with a message of my own — one that wasn’t in any of the search results on Google.The real question to ask.

Because though I largely agree with the arguments against the test none of them address the real problem. They only treat the symptoms of the underlying condition that made me struggle as a freelancer in the first place.

If a company really feels the need to test a potential candidate, well, that does kind of make me wonder why they are considering them to begin with — but that’s  their business. I don’t always agree with a client, boss or an assignment and though I’ll always let my opinion be known (whether it’s wanted or not) I still do what I’m told if it’s part of my job. The issue is not in the test itself.

The real problem is the general misconception that a professional delivering a service — no matter what for — should not be justly compensated for it.

Let’s see that again as a quote:

The real problem is the general misconception that a professional delivering a service — no matter what for — should not be justly compensated for it.

And once again as a gif:

“Why is the design test not compensated?”

That’s the question we need to be asking ourselves. When we produce something as professionals and especially at the behest of commercial institutions or private companies it does have a value. We have a value.

We’re applying know-how and skills acquired through hard-earned experience, expensive courses or long educations. Some of us have given up precious time with family and friends to study and hone our skills. All of this is not suddenly rendered worthless simply because an assignment is “made up” or just because it’s for a “famous” company that you’d be “lucky” to work for.

Fuck the fame.

We need to have more professional pride and confidence — to think better of ourselves, than that. We need to be more like Michael and his cleaning company, who, when I asked him for a Cleaning Test straight-up refused.

“How to ace the design test”?

Let’s just start with at least not doing it for free.

The design tasks demonstrated in the article are altered versions of the originals. The emails with Fluxx Cleaning have been translated from Danish to English. I informed Michael, the owner, that I was only proving a point for this article and he was very kind to let me use his very admirable reply.

Thank you for reading!

I hope you enjoyed the article. If you did, you know what to do.