Making an Internship Program that Works
Work is piling up, staffers are stressing out, and there's nowhere near enough slack in the budget to hire another full-timer. Bringing in a freelancer is a possibility, but the constant in and out of short term workers is making it tough to build a fluid team dynamic. What this studio needs is an intern: energetic, creative, full of new perspectives and skills, committed to a whole summer's worth of 50 hour weeks. And cheap. Maybe free.
At first glance, an internship program seems like a godsend for a small, overworked studio, and with the right preparation and management, it can be. A good intern can bring all the advantages mentioned above and then some, but a bad one is a drain on time and resources with little to show for it. Getting the right one and keeping him or her productive is a tricky skill that plenty of employers have had to learn by hard experience. Those who've never handled interns before will want to take stock of their own needs and capabilities before diving in; finding and managing one is significantly different from finding a staff designer or other permanent creative employee.
For starters, interviewing for an internship is a skill unto itself. These are kids mostly, with enthusiasm, talent and fresh perspectives, but less professionalism than an experienced creative. Extra perspective is necessary when reviewing their portfolios and resumes: a little less weight should be placed on proper layout, finish and adherence to convention, and a bit more on seeing through to the potential underneath. Unlike a staff employee, a good intern is defined less by a polished skill set than by ample stores of confidence and a boundless capacity for learning.
Getting to know local design schools is probably the single most effective step toward accessing a good pool of interns. They know their students better than an interviewer possibly could, and will push their best and brightest toward the studios with which they have the best relationships. A smaller, locally active studio will probably find the best pool of potential interns this way. Most art and design schools have an office or at least an administrator in charge of arranging internships. Some are small and informal, with pay, school credit and hours open to negotiation, while others (like University of Cincinnati's well known co-op program) are established, carefully managed affairs, where long standing arrangements with employers ensure a steady supply of qualified candidates.
"Local" is a relative term in this highly connected age; an office with national or international notoriety, or one based in a city that attracts designers from far afield anyway (New York, San Francisco, London, Barcelona, etc.) will probably get bombarded with portfolios from around the world at the merest mention of internship availability. The trick in this situation is to filter through the rough to find the diamonds, either by designating a staff member to scan through recent submissions (a rather pleasant job, actually) or, again, by making contacts at design schools. Many studios have found through trial and error that certain schools produce interns that are a good fit for their needs, even if they're nowhere nearby. Companies that rely heavily on design for their competitive edge, like those in sporting goods and consumer electronics, often have formal relationships with top American and European design schools, bringing dozens of star students in each summer; the interns in these programs are generally well-paid, and the experience gained is an invaluable addition to a resume, so it's a fiercely competitive process.
The subject of how much, if anything, an intern gets paid is the subject of much debate. From a strictly economic point of view, it would be foolish for an office to pay for something that could be gotten for free. Internships add so much value to a new graduate's resume and portfolio that literally thousands of students are willing to work unrewarded for months at a time. There are other considerations though.
The first major problem with not paying an intern is the very real possibility of getting what you paid for. Money is a great motivator, and acknowledgment of competence and value is even better, so a small wage or stipend can do wonders to impart a sense of integration with the team, and maximize productivity. It all depends on what the studio wants to get out of them, of course - there's an alternate school of thought holding that interns should not integrate with the team, and instead are best left tucked in a corner, grateful to do whatever small boring jobs nobody else in the office has time for. For studios seeking this type of relationship, a non-paying position is ideal. It ensures a clear boss/worker dynamic between the intern and everyone else, and an easy break at the end of the internship period.
In a broader philosophical context, there's a long-range reason to create a paid internship that might be more compelling. Many critics of "design eliteism" have pointed out that the paucity of good design for the lower-income masses is partly a result of the middle- to upper-class backgrounds of most designers - frequently, those who were able to work wage-free in an expensive major city for several months as part of their education. While there's a strong argument that working for no money is just another part of investing in a good education, students relying on financial aid to fund their way often have no choice but to earn money over the summer or immediately after graduation. If nothing in their field can pay some part of the rent, a summer at Barnes and Noble will at least net some cash and discounted Taschen books. Providing no pay eliminates a large and potentially valuable batch of students from the running: talent-rich, highly motivated, and cash-poor.
Paid or not, managing an intern takes a certain finesse not present in the normal employee relationship, with equal parts mentor, slavedriver and counselor in the mix. Interns need more direction than staff, and are often more effective at small, quantifiable tasks, at least in the early days. Coming straight from an educational environment, they're accustomed to an "assignment" mentality, so it makes sense to take advantage of this mindset by clearly stating what deliverables are expected from a given task, and when they're due. Interns are also potentially the hardest workers in the office, accustomed to coffee-fueled all-nighters and tough, cutting critiques. Given a real sense of team involvement and the occasional sympathetic ear, an intern can put out an astonishing amount of work. More than with any other type of employee, though, the quality of that work is largely a reflection of the quality of management. In this sense, an intern is like the school they came from: the more their employer puts into them, the more they get back.
Note: This article was originally written by Carl Alviani