The pro's guide to design internships

Getting your first design job will often be the biggest challenge you face in your career. A design internship can prove an invaluable stepping stone, helping you gain the real world experience and contacts that will land you your first position. 

But getting an internship itself isn't easy, and nor is making the most of it once you're there. Follow these top expert tips, though, and you'll soon be on your way to kickstarting your design career. Make sure you also check out our guide to how to transform a design internship into a job.

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01. Research, research, research

Design internship

Absorb every piece of information the company has made available on its website and blog

It's hugely important to do your research on a company before you apply for an internship. As well as swotting up on clients, projects, history and the like, make a list of questions you'd ask at an interview. These questions will make sure they know your expectations - and will help you grasp theirs as well.

This research will also prepare you for the size and strength of the design team (or the department you're interning in). Be prepared is the motto here.

02. Assess your finances

Can you afford an unpaid internship? Can you afford just expenses? Do you need a paid internship to make things viable? Or, if the studio of your dreams offers you an unpaid internship, can you scrimp, borrow and eat budget food for the duration?

The rights and wrongs of unpaid internships are a big talking point in the industry - but many are now paying, even if it is just a very minor amount. Obviously, though, the more flexible you can be, the more opportunities will open up to you.

That may seem earth-shatteringly unfair, but it's how things are, and you need to decide what you're prepared to sacrifice to advance your career. At the same time, you'll do no one any favours if you fail to turn up on day three of your internship because the ATM won't give you any money for your travelcard.

03. All about timing

You may not have considered the matter of when to do an internship as important. But it will certainly be beneficial to you to, and the agency at which you are interning, if you come on board at a time that, for example, isn't bang on deadline for the studio's biggest ever project.

Yes, you want experience of the pressure of a deadline, but you don't want your new 'colleagues' to be so engrossed in hitting the printer deadline that they don't have time to work you through a process. And we all know, when you're trying to get something important done there's nothing more frustrating than someone on your shoulder. So when you have your interview and you're asked if you have any questions for them, that might be a good subject to raise.

04. Wear the right clothes

Design internship

It's best to avoid the extremes of either smart or scruffy office wear

Wearing the right clothes - once you have an internship - is vitally important to fitting in at an agency. Whilst a suit may be a little over the top, it's best to err on the side of smart if you're unsure.

Unless you discover something to the contrary, you shouldn't go wrong with smart jeans, a smart shirt or blouse and some nice shoes for your interview. Even better, drop the person who organised the interview an email and ask. You may be a student or recent graduate, but there's no need to reinforce the stereotype of scruffiness.

05. Don't be exploited

Once you start your internship, if you feel as though you're being exploited, say something. For example, there's nothing wrong with being asked to make the tea or going to pick up lunch for people, but if that's ALL you're getting to do, you're obviously not going to get much out of the experience.

You were asked to join the company because of your potential and skill as a designer, not because of your culinary and delivery boy skills. Remember you should be treated as an employee, not a servant. It can be difficult to say anything in these situations, but be confident and assertive and you will get more from your placement.

06. Get mentored

If you can, try to find a mentor at your internship. This will not only help you get to grips with what a particular day-to-day design role is all about and could even form a friendship that could lead to different roles and collaborations. Although forming these bonds can be very difficult if your internship is only a few weeks, do what you can because it can really help build your career.

Don't be afraid to ask someone directly if they will be your mentor - they'll have been in the same boat at the start of their career. Even if you say no, they may suggest someone else to approach. And if that doesn't happen, you still won't have lost anything.

07. Be part of the studio

Design internship

Take as full a part in the work of the studio as you can

Make sure you approach creative directors and senior designers - or anyone you work with - in a professional, yet friendly manner. Creative directors will give away much more than you'd ever believe - they want to share their skills and pass on advice to a new generation of designers. Don't be afraid to be nosey, ask what you may think are obvious questions and above all, make sure you're learning new things, not just using skills you already possess.

08. Make time for regular meetings

It's very easy to get carried away during an internship, working on a project or trying to prove yourself. But, make sure you ask for regular meetings with different people in the studio.

Yes, people are busy, but they will give you time if you schedule it. It's important to get feedback to get an idea of how you are doing - and also to address any concerns you have in a more formal way.

09. Try and take away portfolio pieces

Easier said than done, but if you're interning and have been assigned a role on a certain project, try to think of it as not only a chance to impress the studio and the client, but also a chance to bulk out your portfolio with real-world pieces.

As long as you're honest about the part you played in the project, the studio will usually not mind you using it in your online portfolio or physical book. But do check with them first!

10. Stay in touch

Design internship

Interns are soon forgotten - so keep in touch regularly and make sure you're not

Make sure you stay in touch with the studio after you've finished your internship. Sure, you don't need to visit on a daily basis or send a Christmas card, but the odd email and promo mailer will certainly not hurt - and if you performed well during your internship there may just be an opening for you on a freelance, or even full-time basis.

Words: Rob Carney

Are you currently a design student? Then you need to read The Design Student Handbook, your definitive guide to breaking into the design industry. Created by the people who bring you Computer Arts, The Design Student Handbook is on sale now in UK stores and online.

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