Assessing job applicants in the design industry: to test or not to test?
Creative industry professionals weigh in on whether it is effective and ethical to test designers as part of the hiring process.  



Julian Brown RGD, On The Chase!

Lionel Gadoury RGD, Context Creative

Cathy Ledden RGD, Ledden Design

Wendy Millard RGD, Empire Life

Stussy Tschudin RGD, Forge Media + Design

Theresa Casarin, Client Services Manager, Creative Niche


How do you evaluate job applicants? 


"At Forge, we typically aren’t doing tests for designers, but we have a one-hour skill test for developers. Applicants are asked to complete a multiple choice test and a code analysis to help us determine their level of expertise. The test is done at our studio and there is no compensation for that time, as it’s all part of the interview process. We also conduct half-hour tests for environmental graphic designers, where applicants are given a design problem and are asked to come up with a written or sketched solution." Stussy Tschudin RGD


"We don't do tests on potential hires. We rely on the interviews, portfolio review and any references along with my personal network to understand if a candidate is a good fit. Then we have the probationary period, first three months of employment, to really see if we're happy with the new hire. For new grads I try to have them on placement with us to judge their skills, fit and flexibility. I also touch base with my contacts before bringing the new grad in for their thoughts on fit too. I don't think the pre-test is a fair way to asses talent, skill and fit." Wendy Millard RGD


"I've used tests on occasion when hiring web designers, but these focus on coding skills and not design per se. I've never tried testing for graphic design proficiency. At Context, we approach design as a collaborative process and we don't sub-out design assignments, so testing for talent in an isolated manner is not something we'd consider." Lionel Gadoury RGD 


"Creative Niche has a set of propriety assessments and we have administered clients' assessments on their behalf. In some instances we will ask candidates to complete a web development or production assessment to evaluate hands-on skill level with HTML, CSS, Photoshop or InDesign. This can be helpful in cases where a candidate may be transitioning from one discipline to another or if they are still building on their work experience. We share the results and find that candidates are curious to know how their skills stack up against their fellow creatives. We do not compensate candidates for their time, however in cases where complex, project-based assessments are administered by our clients, time would be compensated." Theresa Casarin 


What do you learn from a design test that you wouldn't learn from a portfolio interview? 


"I personally find I get enough information from applicants by reviewing their portfolios. Most importantly, by hearing the applicant talk about the work they have chosen to include, I learn how and why they did things. When there are multiple qualified applicants for the same position, a short design test might highlight how the different candidates approach problem-solving." Stussy Tschudin RGD


"An assessment is a great benchmark to test on-the-job and practical skills. Having candidates complete these assessments is a good way to vet their technical abilities for job success, however, it’s important to note that it is not the only factor in the hiring decision. An assessment mainly provides a glimpse of the candidate’s expertise or strengths. It can also provide insight into how quickly they can adapt to an environment, the quality of the work they produce and how they go about completing assigned tasks." Theresa Casarin


How does design testing differ from spec work?


"When we ask designers to complete a test, all the work is purely fictional and for evaluation purposes only. The work will not be for any “real” project (not commercial nor pro-bono) and therefore the test work would not be used in any way, shape or form beyond a review by the interviewer." Stussy Tschudin RGD 


"If the test is a sample assignment that could potentially be used commercially, then a fee should be agreed to in advance and the applicant should be paid so as to avoid issues of spec." Lionel Gadoury RGD 


"If the “assignment to be completed” is used for any other purpose than evaluation, such as billable work and you are not compensated, this is big red flag. If someone else profits from your completion of the assignment, then this creeps into the area of spec work. Work performed for free, is a big no no!" Cathy Ledden RGD 


"The biggest distinction between an assessment and spec work is really the format. An assessment is like an exam or test and it should be clear what skills are being evaluated. Candidates should also be able to complete an assessment in a reasonable amount of time; for example, Creative Niche’s assessments take 60- to 75- minutes to complete, depending on the applicant's skill level." Theresa Casarin


How can applicants tell if the task they're being asked to complete is ethical? 


"I’d advise emerging designers to look for work on established industry job boards, like the RGD website, to minimize the chances of coming across prospective employers who are looking to exploit young talent. If you believe that the work you are asked to complete for a test is going to be used by a client, and therefore make money for the prospective employer, avoid it 100%. Even if the work isn't necessarily making money, but is used for some sort of extra freebie or holiday card, the fact that it is being used at all demonstrates the employer is willing to exploit you (and every other candidate) as an unpaid resource." Julian Brown RGD


"The test should have a clearly stated time requirement, and the applicant must decide whether the position is worth investing that time. They should also make sure to keep ownership of all intellectual property and confirm that the work is not being kept by the company for commercial use. If the test does involve contributing to commercial work for the company, then there should be adequate compensation for the applicant." Stussy Tschudin RGD 


"My advice is to seek the right fit by carefully considering what the role to be filled is and the culture of the studio. If a test is a part of the vetting process and will not be used commercially or without any rights being sacrificed, then it may be acceptable – it becomes a personal decision at that point." Lionel Gadoury RGD 


"You have to gauge what is being asked of you and how much time the assessment will take. It’s reasonable to ask the employer what will be assessed and why. Two ways to gauge whether it’s a good idea would be: 1) if the same assessment is used for all applicants as a benchmark, and 2) if the assessment itself and the time required to complete it are reasonable. But always go with your gut - ask yourself: does it feel right?" Theresa Casarin   


"Tests are about ensuring applicants meet a measure of knowledge or standards - the RGD exam is a good example of a test that is supported by the association. An assignment should follow the same intent: the assignment must be the same or similar for every applicant and the purpose is to “evaluate” a designer's skill for the work performed by the company. In the case of an employer test, ask yourself if taking the test is worth it, keeping in mind that you may learn something about the company, which gives you the opportunity to check out the culture and decide if it is a good fit. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Focus on why the prospective employers are asking you to jump through these hoops, and if this seems fair, prepare and enjoy the challenge. Learning never stops." Cathy Ledden RGD 


What advice would you give an employer for ensuring their hiring process remains ethical? 


"Employers who ask applicants to complete a design test should create their own fictional exercise that touches on the essential skills required in the position for which they are hiring. They should clearly communicate a time limit (no more than 4 hours seems reasonable) and also make it clear that the work being completed will be used solely for evaluation purposes." Stussy Tschudin RGD


"I see more merit in testing for production-oriented roles, whereas creative roles are more nuanced. I suggest that reviewing portfolios, CVs, in-person interviews and contacting references are more suitable than task-oriented tests." Lionel Gadoury RGD 


"It is in the best interest for employers is to be clear on the intent of the test and to outline the process. This enables the applicant to be prepared and will likely produce more accurate results, saving valuable time for both parties. Ideally, in all cases let the applicant know the purpose of the test or review and if possible, conduct a simple debrief to review the results. The best way to encourage good behaviour is to exhibit it, so forward thinking companies will make an effort to communicate." Cathy Ledden RGD 


"Employers should be prepared to clearly communicate the objective of the assessment and be respectful of the candidate’s time and effort. It’s important to treat each candidate fairly. It is also key for employers to share the results of the assessments with the candidates. If someone doesn’t meet expectations, they should be given the opportunity to learn from the assessment and try to improve their skills." Theresa Casarin