On Internships

Typically we get about one or two inquiries per day from students or young designers hoping to intern with us. I assume most other firms get the same. Probably more. As semesters and terms start to wind down, that number ticks up. Most inquiries come in the form of email. Sometimes a portfolio or promo will arrive in the mail. Every other week or so we get a phone call. I hate phone calls. So do most other firms. Please take note.

Looking for work is a challenging and intimidating task. You’re going to hear “no” (or nothing) way more often than you hear “yes” so if you don’t have a pretty thick skin its time to start toughening up. My old boss used to remind people that for every day you stay in the game, someone else gives up. The longer you can endure rejection, the better your odds of being accepted. But landing a job isn’t the end of the road, in fact it’s really just the beginning. Here’s why:

Internships are meant to be educational experiences. See the period at the end of that sentence? There’s a reason for it. Over the years (and increasingly in this “tough economic climate”) the educational internship/apprenticeship has devolved into a kind of cheap labour pool for unscrupulous businesses. There are lots of arguments to be made on both sides of the issue of paid vs. unpaid internships, but let me give you the only one that matters:

Working for free so that someone else can profit from your work is exploitation.

Plain and simple.

Earlier this week I interviewed a young woman who had completed a three-month unpaid “internship” in the design department of a UK retail chain (similar to our Urban Outfitters). While there she designed a line of wallets and belts which are now sold in the company’s store and online. She also developed a wallpaper concept which became the decor in all their shop dressing rooms. No salary. No royalties. No credit. She even had to buy the sample she showed me!

One of my former students recently quit her unpaid internship at an otherwise well-respected local design firm. It was a really hard decision for her, but ultimately she realized that allowing herself to be treated unfairly also opened the door to the unfair treatment of others. She just couldn’t live with that. Evidently her ethical compass was more finely tuned than that of her employer, who tried to convince her that working for free was a “kick-ass” opportunity.  But promises of “exposure” “experience” or “expanding you portfolio” are all thinly veiled attempts to assuage the employer’s guilt at willfully exploiting the talent and ambition of the young and inexperienced. Don’t buy into it.

In addition to being paid, internships should offer a valuable educational experience. Dog walking, photocopying, coffee fetching and keyboard dusting are all legitimate tasks but if menial tasks are the exclusive purview of your employment, its not really an internship — its just a crappy job. This doesn’t mean that interns should expect to just design either. In fact you might not design at all. Research, writing, scanning, recording, and production work are all legitimate facets of a design intern’s experience. Ideally your employer understands and has a relationship to your program, has been pre-qualified by your school, and has been advised as to how they can contribute to your education. They’re not going to sit down with you every day and give you one on one tutoring, but they should take an interest in your creative development, and be diligent about providing you opportunities for growth.

For your part, you must be willing to do just about anything, and do it eagerly. You should recognize that a lot of learning goes on in ways that may be too subtle to recognize in the moment. You should be humble. You should be professional and adapt to the working environment your employer has created. You should be resourceful, but also ask questions. You should be respectful, and you should be respected.

For more about the ethics of unpaid internships, please read this article in today’s New York Times.
For more thoughts about landing a job or internship with a design firm, read this article in the SF Examiner.
For a glimpse of what it’s like to intern at MINE™ read our intern’s blog.