Any interview situation can be nerve-racking. What if you freeze because a certain question takes you off guard? What’s the right way to answer to increase your chances of getting the job you’re interviewing for? And if you’re the one doing the hiring, how do you know you’re asking the right questions to find the best person for the job?
To take off some of the pressure, we’ve reached out to design leaders to give you exclusive insight into the questions they like asking in job interviews for designers. This is a list of questions you can expect to come up during interviews, what interviewers can learn by asking them, and how to prepare for them. If you’re on the recruiting side, you might also discover a question or two you haven’t considered asking prospective designers before.
Let’s get started.
1. “Can you tell me about your most significant achievement?”
“It follows the performance-based hiring system developed by former recruiter Lou Adler,” Ian explains. “This recruitment method is particularly well-suited to the hiring of designers as it focuses on identifying candidates that are interested in both taking on challenges and opportunities for growth—essential attributes of the best designers.”
The key to answering this question is preparation, Ian advises. One of the reasons he recommends designers maintain a web design portfolio of case studies is that it helps them get their stories straight for an interview.
Producing a portfolio makes questions like this a breeze, as you’ll already have some well-rehearsed stories to choose from.
“Producing a portfolio makes questions like this a breeze, as you’ll already have some well-rehearsed stories to choose from,” he points out. “Referring to the case study for your chosen project, you’ll be able to clearly and succinctly describe your employer or client, the problem that they asked you to solve, and who you worked with. You’ll also be able to share the challenges you faced, how you (and your team) dealt with them, and the final project outcome, preferably referencing specific measurements where possible. Finally, you'll also be prepared to explain how you grew as a result of the project, and any lessons learned.”
You might also like: How to Build a Great Design Portfolio — Shopify Designers Weigh In.
2. “Can you tell me about a project that didn’t go as planned?”
Of course you should be prepared to talk about your successes, but user experience designer and consultant Sarah Doody stresses that you should also be prepared to discuss projects that were challenging.
“When you answer this question, show your maturity as a designer and professional by being reflective,” she suggests. “For example, in hindsight what could have been done differently? If you’d had unlimited time and budget, what would have been the best way to approach the project?”
Sarah also advises to not just focus on what didn’t go as planned, but also consider why it didn’t, and how you and the team got into that situation.
“If part of the answer to this question has to do with decisions by stakeholders that were out of your control, then eloquently convey that,” he recommends. “But don’t slam colleagues, clients, or other contributors!”
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3. “What has been your biggest f**k up? And what did you do about it?”
“I love asking this question,” she explains. “It really takes people off guard, and their answer gives you an interesting insight into the kind of person they are. I might be ruining the element of surprise by telling you about it, but I’m looking to see if people can think on their feet and are honest, trustworthy, and accountable.”
I might be ruining the element of surprise by telling you about it, but I’m looking to see if people can think on their feet and are honest, trustworthy, and accountable.
Jane gets the best answers when somebody tells her a story about taking a risk, failing, and learning something from it.
“It’s good to take calculated risks,” she points out. “It’s how you grow as a designer, and it shows me you have the entrepreneurial mindset that helps you succeed in a fast-paced high growth start-up environment.”
Other answers focus on occasions when people have simply messed up, such as CCing the wrong person, losing something, or accidentally deleting entire files.
“I’m not particularly bothered about what they have done (as long as it’s not illegal) but I do care about how they have dealt with the fall-out,” Jane clarifies. “Did they own up to the mistake? Did they try to cover it up, or did they face the problem head on? Did they panic, or did they come up with a solution?”
“People’s behavior in these circumstances will give you a good insight into their personality and how they will be as a colleague. I’m looking for people that own their mistakes, keep a cool head in a crisis, and who have a bias to action and problem-solving rather than panicking and doing nothing. The final reason that I ask this question is that I get to hear some brilliantly funny stories!”
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4. “What’s the role of a product designer?” (or, “What does design mean to you?”)
Product designer Artiom Dashinsky, author of Solving Product Design Exercises, argues that a lot of designers think the role of design is mostly around aesthetics, and that design schools, visual-centric design communities, and businesses hiring designers are responsible. While he acknowledges that visuals play a big part in design, he likes to ask this question because it positions design as a problem-solving tool and a way to achieve business goals.
“Even if this question doesn’t come up, as a candidate you will want to clarify your opinion on it, because you don’t want to work in a company which thinks about it significantly differently,” he explains. “It’s the same from the interviewer’s perspective—this is probably the most important aspect both sides should agree on in order to work together successfully. If there’s a misalignment on this topic, the rest of the interview might be irrelevant.”
This is probably the most important aspect both sides should agree on in order to work together successfully. If there’s a misalignment on this topic, the rest of the interview might be irrelevant.
Artiom says that the best designers in product companies know they have been hired to be part of teams that are responsible for business objectives, whether that’s through marketing, operations, sales, or support. That’s why he recommends framing your answer from a business perspective.
“I believe that a designer’s role is to translate business objectives into solutions that help the company succeed. In order to do that, a designer provides the company’s customers with solutions that solve their problems. To achieve that, a designer will apply design ethics and advocate for the user’s needs.”
Artiom also believes that designers should learn more about such an approach to build a successful career, as it wouldn’t change your mindset if you just claimed it during an interview and didn’t learn more about it. He suggests watching a great talk by Bobby Ghoshal on this topic, or reading his book on preparing for design interviews and practicing product thinking.
5. “What do you enjoy most about working in design?”
Jason Mesut, founder of consultancy Resonant Design and Innovation, points out that though there’s no right answer to this question, he likes asking it because you get to see the candidate when they ‘light up’.
“Too often interview questions seem designed to catch people out, but I always like to get people comfortable,” he explains. “I want to see them at their best. I want to see where their passions lie.”
The answers you could get range from the support of meetup events to specific parts of the design process or approach candidates use.
"This sort of question can help you see when someone is being sincere and where they really are most happy."
“You can then drill into the answers more and see work that they hopefully enjoyed doing,” Jason advises. “Find out why they enjoyed it. This sort of question can help you see when someone is being sincere and where they really are most happy. It can also help you understand how they could connect to other people in the organization.”
6. “Have you revisited your key success metrics since successful launches? How are they the same or different?”
Katrina Bautista, a Senior Product Designer on Shopify’s Platform team, often gets brought on to do two types of design interviews. One is a design deep dive, which digs into a candidate’s critical thinking and passion for design as well as their hobbies and curiosities. The other one is a portfolio review. During that type of interview, Kat often finds candidates focus on the outcomes and successes of the project.
“That’s logical, since of course you want to show the happy endings and outcomes,” Kat explains. “However, some of the best interview discussions I’ve had come from talking about the hardships and the ‘not-so-happily-ever-afters’, so I ask a few questions along those lines after a candidate shows me a deep dive into one of their portfolio projects.”
Asking whether a candidate has revisited their key success metrics since the launch of a project offers a different way of discussing failure or coming short of goals.
“It avoids the premade traps of ‘what’s your greatest weakness?’ sort of questions,” Kat points out. “If a design candidate is able to show that they stayed connected to their work after launch, it shows maturity as well as a grasp of the reality—no work is ever really finished, and it’s meaningful to keep measuring our launched work so we can improve. It also helps assess if the designer has a data-driven, outcome-critical mindset and cracks open any veneers of vanity metrics like ‘we got one million visits at launch… but no return visits’.”
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7. “What is the invisible part of this work? Can you describe it to me?”
UX designers tend to have clean, minimal outputs, so Kat also likes to ask about the invisible work, such as research, tech debt, or organizational influence that the designer needed to flex.
“Candidates are often nervous during portfolio reviews,” Kat explains. “Sometimes they may put on extra bravado to combat this, which might seem like ego. When I go into the ‘invisible parts’ question with candidates, often I am able to see if they’re a generous team player and able to give credit to their teammates, while also owning their own work.”
Sometimes the simplest or most mundane UI designs are the visual output of a well-executed program of stakeholder management, user research, and team coordination, Kat adds. These are assets in a designer that aren’t always easily unearthed in a portfolio slideshow.
8. “Can you talk me through some project work that best illustrates your process and your favorite type of solution? They don’t have to be the same project.”
Jason Mesut also might ask about a favorite solution for a complex interaction or rich data challenge.
“Too often job descriptions and interview questions are generic,” Jason admits. “In the more recent hiring roles I’ve had, I’ve been keen to find the specific points of difference and make sure I am expressing these in the interview. But more importantly, in a portfolio review, I want to ensure that I am hiring against those specific areas and asking to see work examples that map to those.”
When Jason worked at strategic UX design and front-end technology agency RMA Consulting, for example, he was very interested in people who had experience in designing for complex applications with rich interaction.
“I was keen to see any examples of that type of work to drill into,” he remembers. “If a candidate didn’t have that, it was fine, as long as they didn’t bullshit. I would just find something similar in their work to probe around.”
9.“Have you ever had to come to a compromise or make trade-offs with a team you were working with? How did you navigate that interaction, and what was the outcome?”
For Aaron Irizarry, head of Design Operations for Commercial Design at Capital One and co-author of Discussing Design: Improving Communication and Collaboration through Critique, it's also crucial to find out if a candidate is a team player.
As designers, we have to work with varying teams and partners in the product design process,” he explains. “As a result, there are a number of opinions, needs, agendas, and politics that can come into play as we work to deliver products and experiences.”
When he conducts interviews, Aaron looks to see how candidates navigate less than ideal scenarios or relationships while continuing to push the work as close to the ideal outcome as possible through compromise and trade-offs.
“I have found that if we aren’t careful, it can be easy for idealism to override our commitment to our goals,” he warns. “With this in mind, I think it’s very important for designers to have realistic expectations about their work and partner relationships. Designers who can successfully navigate the compromises and trade-offs with partner teams stand to have a positive impact on the desired outcomes of the team or organization.”
10. “What was your favorite day at work in the last few years and why?”
“I’m not looking to catch people out,” he clarifies. “I like the question because it makes people think about the happy times in their existing job—and there are almost always happy times!—when they are actively interviewing for a different role. I also like the question as it can reveal a lot about how people think about their impact at a company, whether they frame it in terms of their own achievements, or how they impacted their team or customers.”
The not-so-great responses to this question focus on the achievements of the individual, Alastair explains. They focus on their own ambition rather than the ambition and outcomes achieved by a team. The great answers to this question shine a light on how someone positively impacted those around them or customers of the company they worked at.
“Maybe they helped grow a graduate designer into a lead designer, coaching and mentoring them along the way and creating the right environment for that person to thrive and realize their own career potential,” Alastair suggests. “They should rightly be proud of it. Or maybe they led a difficult project through ups and downs, reflecting on their own mistakes, focusing on the team’s achievements and ultimately how the project impacted key customer metrics in a positive way. Again, this is something to be proud of.”
Alastair also loves this question because when people answer it thoughtfully and with passion, it unearths the intrinsic motivation that drives people. This is key to understanding if they will be a real team player or just a lone genius that could disrupt your team.
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11. “Can you describe a day in this job three months from now?”
“Over the years we have crafted a somewhat unrealistic representation of what it’s like to work in this industry,” he cautions. “Depending on how seasoned the folks you’re talking to are, they might feel that the delta between expectations and reality is a bit extreme. It’s important that potential hires see beyond the perks, podcasts, post-its, kombucha on tap, and high-end coffee, and understand the deep thinking, collaboration challenges, and to some extend the stress associated with that uncomfortable feeling of being out of your comfort zone.”
Claudio therefore always loves hearing what people understand and hope their work will be like. He then gives them his understanding of what was realistic or not in their description. There is no real prep you can do for this question, other than having a mature understanding of the position you are applying for and the work the team does.
Of course, our list is by no means exhaustive. Everyone favors different interviewing techniques, and so it’s impossible to know what exactly awaits you in the interview room. You may not encounter some of the questions we’ve covered above, but it’s good to be aware of them and come prepared. Invest time in producing your portfolio, and be ready to talk about successes and challenging situations you’ve had to deal with alike. It might just give you the edge over the competition. And as an employer, these questions should spark some inspiration in what to ask during your next hiring cycle. Good luck!
What questions have you found particularly useful during interviews? Let us know in the comments below.