What Happened To The Good Old-fashioned Interview?

Recently a few of my designer friends (the ones that wear sunglasses indoors) have been attending interviews as they look for new jobs. I’ve been stunned by the amount of times they’re asked to submit some kind of visual response to a brief as part of the application process.

There are so many reasons why I’m completely against requesting a visual as a method of employing a designer. I’ll try and explain some of those here but I also thought it was worth including some other many viewpoints that responded to this tweet that I put out yesterday…

What about my portfolio?

I think my main issue here is that a designer’s folio has usually taken years to put together. A lot of blood, sweat and tears has gone into the creations that you see there. A good designer will take a lot of pride in discussing the creations that you see, they’ll talk about the problems that they faced, the way they dealt with them, they’ll talk about the successes, they’ll also talk about the bits they’d do differently next time. When you ask for visuals as part of an interview, you’re asking for that designer to use whatever spare time they have to create something, you’re not giving them a fair chance.

It’s all gone a bit X-Factor

If you can’t successfully judge a candidate based on however many interviews is the trend these days and the portfolio of work that you’re seeing, then to me that just says that you’ve got some issue with your decision making process – maybe you’re not asking the right questions. I can’t help but feel that as soon as you set a mini-brief everything else goes out of the window and it’s all becoming a little bit X-Factor.

8 years out of the game

Although I’ve not been for a design job interview in over eight years now, I like to think I’d stand firm on this one. I’m passionate about what I do and I’ll talk all day long about the work I’ve produced but I’m not going to walk away from an interview and produce days of work in the hope that it will help swing the needle in my favour. Getting a job is a two way thing, it’s a mutual relationship and a request for a visual is entirely one way.

I think my stance if the situation ever came up for me (which I’m hoping it doesn’t) would be to question what the reason was, and what they were hoping it would show them that my existing work doesn’t?

Even though it’s been a number of years since I attended any interviews, I’ve personally always treated them (mentally) as though I’m interviewing the business. I’ll ask a lot of questions while I’m there and see if I think the business is a good fit for me, it’s incredibly important to do this. I’ve finished interviews in the past and withdrawn from the running immediately afterwards as I didn’t feel it was the right fit.

Generally there was a mixed response to my tweet, many designers thought it was unfair whereas the design agencies didn’t tend to see an issue (which is as expected).

I was really pleased to hear from Timothy J Reynolds on this one, a designer whose work I have admired for a long time now. I’m not actually sure how he spotted the conversation but I’m glad that he joined in. He’s so against it, he’s actually set up a website that ‘outs’ spec work…

A numbers game

Ultimately, I think it’s a bit of a numbers game and agencies are getting away with it because there are more designers looking for work than there are jobs available. That doesn’t mean that it’s right, but for now, it seems to be the way it is. If you want to read the full conversation and all the responses on Twitter, I’ve included a link below…

Read the full conversation


Phil Millward:

12 Nov 2014 20:57:59

Nice article, I have just recently completed said task for an agency interview.

Although my portfolio was good enough to gain an interview, then sit through an hour long conversation discussing my work, experience and approach to design, I then got set a task for a second stage which I put many hours in as it was a great opportunity I was keen to do it. My thought process was if you really want something you need to put in the time to get it, so after I presented it and sat through another hour of questions they said it was a no as it wasn’t as creative enough but my personality was good and they thought I would fit in well with the team. So I’m guessing it must of been off the mark, although if my folio was good enough for a an interview and to be called back again then I feel I've been judged on one task only - even though I've ticked most of the boxes. Plus the fact that generally there would be a full team working on the task that I was given. I have mixed feelings about the whole task thing, as after going through it I feel like it was quite unfair.


12 Nov 2014 21:22:49

Hi Phil,

Thanks for the comment. It sounds like you’ve basically just been through a worst case scenario and I’m sorry to hear that. I really don’t think it sets the tone very well to ask someone to work in isolation like that and then use it as the strongest judgement point.

If the situation cropped up further down the line do you think you would do it again?

Phil Millward:

12 Nov 2014 21:42:44

Thanks and I agree with what your saying, a three month probation should be enough really to prove your worth.

Would I do it again? Unfortunately I feel I am going to have to as it sounds like it’s gonna be the norm these days, with design being such a flooded market with so many designers going for one role without doing it I guess I would not have the chance to move on, which I really want to at the minute. The other thing about it is the amount of time it takes prepping your latest work, then having the interview and two weeks or so later coming back again. I am glad that I am not the only one in this situation anyway so good to hear a good argument. It reminds me of the whole argument about juniors working for free just to get agency experience.


13 Nov 2014 11:36:10

I think it will only become the norm if designers capitulate and agree to do the work. I realise it’s difficult when you want a job but perhaps strength of conviction to not do spec work, while giving solid arguments as to why, would swing the pendulum in the candidate’s favour.


13 Nov 2014 11:40:54

Hi Craig, you’re absolutely right and I like to think that’s exactly what I’d do. I could never say for sure unless I was in that situation though, and I hope I never am!

Gary Bradley:

13 Nov 2014 14:16:35

Hi Dave. I think that there are two key issues here. (1) Why are these agencies compelled to see a prospective employee answer an internal brief? (2) What are they hoping to learn from such an exercise? Having been on both sides of the interview process I think I can empathise with both the interviewer and interviewee.

The Agency perspective – I would suggest that the introduction of a ‘live brief’ to the interview process has come about due to a lack of trust in what an agency sees in a designers portfolio and what the designer tells them. A portfolio sure tells you many things, but what it can’t provide are facts. Such as timescales, who else was involved in the work, how well did they work with the client/team or indeed if it is the interviewees work at all. That all comes down to trust in what you are told is accurate. I’ve interviewed lots of designers and recall one that included work in their portfolio that I knew a friend had produced at a different agency several months earlier. I’ve also seen a well presented, high caliber portfolio which sadly didn’t translate into a great employee.

Two techniques that I have witnessed and strongly opposed was to invite the candidate to sit and work with the team for an afternoon and work on the live project, making a contribution or replicating a task given to one of the other designers in our team. The other was to ‘script’ technical challenges for a candidate to complete in a set time-scale, such as produce one side of a flyer to a print ready spec/quality. I have a huge problem with this and setting the ‘live brief’ scenario, and it is this. The interview process is a pressure cooker situation. Few people genuinely thrive on. So how accurate is the candidates performance likely to be when put under such high stakes, compared to their above average or best days work in a ‘normal’ working day scenario. Creativity should be nurtured and embraced to get the most of an individual and a team. Creativity and high performance is unlikely when a ‘gun’ is put to a persons head. In my humble opinion asking for a ‘live brief’ seems like a poorly conceived counter measure for a lack of trust. At the very least agencies should clearly outline the interview process upfront and state that a ‘live brief’ will be part of the criteria. Candidates can then make in informed choice as to whether the time involved is worth the investment or are able to schedule the additional time in.

The Candidates perspective – Being a creative is a tough gig, we all know it. You have to work hard staying not just current with none traditional skills but also fight for a rewarding career in a crowded market. Interviews are time consuming, and take us away from earning or having to juggle time off from your current job. For those of us that have the talent and graft for a living it can seem like an insult to ask for more of our time when applying for a job. How well can an agency really find out about me from an ad-hoc micro time-scale project that will have to be fulfilled in-between my current commitments at short notice! Its not the best way to start what should be a healthy and productive working relationship.

My preference has always been to invite candidates to apply to an interview process that was clearly outlined from the start, and stipulated how much time we would require of them. We would interview on portfolio and personality first, and then select two or three candidates who would be invited back to work on a (paid) freelance basis for a week or two in a more normal day-to-day scenario as a team member. Naturally candidates worked on separate days to one another. And it wasn’t always possible if the candidate worked in a full time post already. Sometimes we had to hire on a gut feeling and on the strength of their portfolio. Once the right candidate had been identified, we offered them a 3 month trial with a view to a permanent contract. There are still aspects about this that have flaws, not least because there is still a higher degree of pressure (you’re still being tested!), just over two weeks. But we felt that was enough time to see enough of the qualities we were looking for and treat designers with the respect they deserved by paying them for their time. Its not a case of pass or fail, just seeing qualities and potential that could add value to the team.


13 Nov 2014 16:32:26

Hell of a comment Mr Bradley!

I understand why the agencies do it, I just think it’s a big, big ask and actually not even remotely similar to what the real working environment would be like. I constantly talk to the other designers around me, get their feedback on ideas and visual elements. You’re never going to get the best from someone when you totally isolate them.

The paid freelance basis makes a lot of sense but how achievable is it for someone in a full-time role to take a week or two off to do this?

I see both sides, I just don’t think the current way, or the that way that seems to be the current favourite is right at all.

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