Why 'intern work' exists, and why this is actually OK.
Internships have a pretty bad reputation for being a position where you spend more time photocopying, scanning and making coffee, than you do actually working. Obviously this isn’t the case, and nearly all modern day companies involve you in the nitty gritty of what they do. You spend so much time being out of your depth and being chucked in at the deep end, that when you finally get a chance to make yourself a coffee it is actually a welcome break.
Having said all that, I have now been a design intern at one of the UK’s top design consultancies for just over 3 months, and I do occasionally get given what can only be called ‘intern jobs’. These mind numbingly dull, endlessly repetitive jobs have involved cutting out 100 labels, finding a box to post something in, going to the shops to buy some samples, cutting out 50 cardboard boxes, hand making 30 ice pops from laminating plastic, vacuum forming 40 of the same prototype, etc…etc…etc. But I’ve stopped complaining about occasionally being made to do these things, as the rest of the time I get to work on projects for multinational companies alongside some of the best designers in the country. Basically, as an intern you have to man up, stick it out, and learn what you can.
What I’ve come to realise is that, as an intern, your work falls into 2 main categories; design work and intern work. Intern work is what I mentioned above - boring mindless jobs that could be done by any unskilled labourer around the world. Design work is the complete opposite, and this kind of work can be anything from creating final prototypes for clients, to sketching out concepts that are later shown to company directors.
Intern work has to be the most demoralising thing for a recent graduate such as myself to do. University leads to over £30,000 of debt and 4 years of life spent pleasing lecturers and writing endless reports. For me, I have also spent time running a couple of companies, managing various teams and working on a fair amount of freelance projects. This means I am quite well equipped to get stuck in, and I am more than happy to manage myself, my time and my ability. Intern work is boring, repetitive, unchallenging, soul destroying and needs literally none of the skills or knowledge you developed whilst at university. Often there is no context to why you are doing what you have been told to do, or what will be done with it. There is no real need to think about what you are doing, and definitely no need to manage, organise or plan anything. At times I have spent a few days doing just intern work, and at the end of this you feel completely worthless and often question why on earth you are doing this. Especially when you could instead be freelancing and actually challenging yourself.
But of course you stick through it, as the majority of the time you are designing and working on great projects. You genuinely have the opportunity to input into products that you would never get the chance to do as a young freelancer, and you constantly get pushed to improve in what you do. I can honestly say I have learnt a huge amount in the last few months, and, crucially, I have learnt how to be a designer in a large studio.
But why do interns have to do these crap jobs? And why don’t I just get a job as a junior designer?
Well someone has to do these jobs, and it may as well be the most inexperienced person there. Prototypes won’t make themselves, and cardboard boxes do need to be cut out, and of course you can't expect a senior designer or a creative director to do this. So, logically, it makes sense that an intern will end up doing this. Any company who employs a fresh faced graduate is taking a risk, as an interview can only give an insight into how you will fit into what they are already doing. They are taking you on for 3-6 months, and they can only hope that the risk will pay off and that you will pull your weight. My director has told me about the occasions when this risk hasn't paid off and the intern has been caught sleeping at their desk or simply turning up to work late every day. So, as an intern, you should feel privileged to be there, and in response to this, you should be OK to do work that every other designer there has done at some point.
Another reason why interns end up doing these jobs is that the timeline for a lot of projects is between 12-18 months. So, in the 3 months you're there for, you can only pick up so much of what is actually going on. The projects are usually well into development when you start, so contributing to these, when you weren't there for the initial research, can be incredibly challenging. And when you do get involved in the work, you know you may not be there long enough to actually see it out. This means the senior designers are more likely to ask permanent employees to work on the larger projects, as they know what has been done, and crucially will be there to finish it off.
But of course the main reason is that people assume all the junior, middleweight and senior designers are better than the intern. And more often than not they are 100% correct. The other designers working there will have at minimum 1-2 years experience and therefore know how to execute great work whenever it is needed. So when a small one-off project job pops up, it will go to the intern, as the company won't want to take a more senior designer off a project to do this instead. In short, interns are there to fill in the gaps and contribute wherever they possibly can.
So why did I choose to be an intern, instead of a junior designer, effectively meaning I wouldn't be as involved in projects as much as I would like?
Even after 4 years a University most graduates don't really get to experience all aspects of design, and dipping in and out of various companies that specialise in different areas is probably the best way of doing this. Being a junior designer at 3 different companies in a year would look awful on a CV as it shows zero commitment and may look like no one wanted you to stay. But interning at the same 3 companies shows variation in experience, a willingness to learn and also the ability to adapt in different situations. It basically gives you a chance to learn how various companies operate, to work alongside different designers with vastly different backgrounds and, crucially, to get inspired by many of them. 3 months is just enough to understand how a company works and to learn what their best practices are. And, at times, allows you to see where their failings are as well!
So interning is great and I have never regretted choosing to do it. However companies need to be very aware of how import the balance of intern work vs design work actually is. Where I work, they haven't always got this right, and this ends up leaving me feeling demoralised and unable to contribute anything useful. There have been times when weeks have gone by without the opportunity to learn anything useful at all and I have been treated as an uneducated, unintelligent work drone. Having said that the last month has been noticeably better and, as the consultancies work load increased, they needed me to be more and more involved in the design work that I have always been so eager to be part of. It is just a shame that this had to happen, for them to take a risk on me and to see what I am actually capable of. Hopefully more companies will see that interns are a great way to get new insights, new skills and new energy into any design team at a very very low cost. We are worth the risk!