The pro guide to taking on design interns

Clearleft (opens in new tab) originally started an internship programme after a chance encounter at Adaptive Path in San Francisco left me chatting to one of the studio's graduate interns.

After a few minutes it became clear how valuable the opportunity had been, and how much it was shaping this person's future career.

It felt like an obvious extension to the outreach work both our companies were doing, so I decided to set up our own internship structure when I got back from the States.

Giving experience

Internships were already a fact of life in the US, but a lot less common in the UK - at least among the design agencies I knew. So I didn't really know how to go about setting up a programme. What I did know was that I wanted to give people the experience of what it was like working for Clearleft, rather than just making the tea and answering phones (although there was a bit of that to do).

From the outset I was clear that our interns should be paid a living wage. They would start gaining experience on internal projects before graduating to client briefs. This would allow them to work alongside members of the team and be treated as such. However we didn't charge out their time, which meant both the interns and clients were getting a good deal.

Why internships?

So what was in it for us and, by extension, other agencies considering starting an internship programme?

On a practical level, interns can take some of the pressure off a small agency by helping out around the studio or doing internal projects you wouldn't normally get done otherwise. So we've used interns to help with our event sites, run usability reviews on internal tools, and produce instructional screencasts for some of our products.

For agencies unsure of whether they're ready to grow, interns can be a low-risk way to test the waters. They can also provide a pool of talent if you do decide you need to recruit. However, it's important to be honest with interns about their chances of landing a job from the outset: I've seen too many companies dangle the carrot of gainful long-term employment, only to snatch it away when the internship finishes. So we've had more than a dozen interns at Clearleft, but only given two people full-time positions (a few more have attracted freelance gigs).

Youthful energy

One thing we really enjoy about internships is having some youthful energy in the studio - somebody who hasn't become tarnished by the industry just yet. You'll find they end up questioning a lot of received wisdom, and this forces you to think more carefully about the way you approach problems. In fact one of the best ways to grown as a practitioner is to have to explain and justify your approach to a novice – one of the reasons apprenticeships were once commonplace.

But the biggest benefit for me is the sense of achievement you get from helping somebody progress their career. We've had some incredibly talented people come through the Clearleft internship program and they've all gone on to do amazing things. Some are now working for well-known companies such as the BBC or Google, while others have gone of to carve out successful freelance careers. All have become an indelible part of our company history and lifelong friends of Clearleft.

Words: Andy Budd

Andy Budd is a user experience designer, partner at Clearleft (opens in new tab) and curator of dConstruct (opens in new tab) and UXLondon (opens in new tab). This article was originally published in net magazine.

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