Making the Most of a Design Internship

Woman writing a note on a project board

So, you’ve landed yourself an internship — congrats! You’re on the path to becoming a better designer, and for that, I salute you. Feeling nervous about how you’ll do? No problem, I’ve got you covered with a bunch of tips to help you make the most of your design internship and, equally important, not annoy the studio who’ve bravely taken you on.

Try to save the studio/agency time

Be mindful that the studio does have live projects that need a lot of attention. You shouldn’t let this hinder you from asking questions, but make sure that they are worth the time. In other words, if you can find the answer in 5 minutes on Google, don’t distract the designers from what they’re doing. After all, it takes 30-minutes for someone’s focus to restore on a project once distracted.

Make sure too that you’re following the studio’s schedules, systems, processes, presentation styles, and so on. These are integral to any studio, and while you should work things out in your own way, make sure they are easily translatable into their frameworks. Besides, you’ll learn a lot from following in their footsteps.

Ask questions

If you don’t ask at least 5 stupid questions while on your internship, I’d say it was a wasted opportunity. As mentioned above, you should make an effort to reduce the number of silly questions you ask, but as an intern, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll have your fair share.

Some questions may feel stupid but can be really helpful, like asking how to get “those long lines in the textbox” on InDesign (They’re called paragraph rules, and the shortcut is cmd/ctrl + alt + J — you’re welcome). And others really are stupid, like asking permission to sketch your ideas. On the bright side, you’ll have some of the team laughing or cracking a smile.

Be the first there and the last to leave

There’s nothing that shows dedication quite like getting in early and leaving later than needed. I went by the rule of 10–15 minutes early, and staying longer (usually between 15–30 minutes) to get a little more done. Please, do not get in earlier or stay longer than that. It’s cool the first time, but sometimes it’s just too much.

This may not work in all studios or for your scheduled workdays, and you certainly don’t want to make the studio fight to kick you out for hometime, but if there’s an opportunity to do so that the team would appreciate, go for it! Just consider the team do want to go home too.

Make notes

Sounds like a no-brainer, but there’s been plenty of times I wish I had made a note of something before. Naming systems, ways of working, methods of explaining, and all the little things designers tell you can be profoundly insightful and actionable. If you’re not already a note writing legend by now, it’s time you start. The last thing you want to be doing is forgetting crucial information needed for a project or having people repeat what they say over and over again.

I’ve found over the years, that notes on paper only work well for when stuck into a job. These help me make little notes like dimensions, requirement checklists, colour codes, highlighting crucial details, sketching concepts, and generally anything that isn’t substantial research. For dense research, I’ll stockpile it into a Word document or Google Doc, before cutting the fat and setting into an InDesign deck to help clarify and focus on the most essential information. For my own personal thoughts, song lyrics, design and art ideas, personal epiphanies, to-do list, and any notes I want to be able to look back on quickly over the years, I will use Notes on my Mac and iPhone for ease-of-access and effortless syncing. Google Keep and Evernote are also worth looking into. Give this a go, try to get into the habit of note-taking, and experiment with your own preferences in how you do it.

Get to know the team

Here’s a regret of mine — I wish I had made more of an effort to get to know the people I worked with. When I was interning at Stills, Smörgåsbord, and Elfen, I was so focused on trying to make a good impression, to not waste their time, and to be as big of a team player as possible, that I almost overlooked the importance of socialising with the people kind enough to afford me this opportunity. I talked and joked with them, of course, I wasn’t mute, but I wish I had created a better work and social balance.

Each team I worked with had their own unique social culture and were more than happy to invite me into it. Studio breakfast catch-ups, project celebrations, drinking and theatre performances, quirky greetings, inside jokes, and all manner of weirdness and mischief natural to the average designer or creative type. These really gave me an insight into the kind of studio and people I worked with, and how we kept pushing the work out while retaining this sense of community.

It may be business as usual at a studio, but don’t shy away from a little fun and mayhem (within reason). Make jokes, relax a little from prim and proper professionalism, and challenge them to a game of darts or pool if they have it. If you need to focus (which you do), then organise something outside of work hours. Life isn’t all about work, and nor should your relations be with your team.

My biggest mistake was that I made little effort to stay in touch with everybody after the internship ended, and when I did contact them, it seemed more like I was after work than being authentic. Even now, years later, I wonder how they are, but it feels like it’s too late for me just to pop up (probably just me being silly). Don’t make the same mistakes as I did. Work hard, be human, and keep in touch.

Read all of their books

Books, glorious design books! Design books are often pretty expensive, and if you’re a design student or graduate, chances are you have little money at your disposal. So make the most of the studio’s library and get stuck in! Have a good stack on your desk, some related to the projects you’ve been tasked with, and others solely for learning or admiration. This will help you not only with design, but it will invite you into the design philosophies and perspectives of the studio you’re in.

If you’re stuck or find yourself clueless as what to pick up, just ask one of the team. Tell them the project you’re working on, something you want to improve, or simply ask for some of their favourites. They’ll be more than happy to help you out, and it’ll give you something to fangirl over with them — bonus intern points!

You are a risky potential asset.

Let’s get real here — you’re a risk. Yes, the studio has seen your portfolio, met you, and offered you the internship, but they still know very little about you. Let’s say I’m a design studio. Here’s a list of reasons why you’re a risk to me:

  1. I don’t know how quickly you can work.
  2. You could make mistakes and cost me money.
  3. I don’t know how accurate you are.
  4. You could absorb far more time than I expected.
  5. I don’t know you as a person.
  6. I don’t know how hardworking you are. Will you be heavily distracted by your phone (this happens plenty) or will you get stuck into the work?
  7. Will you be helpful, or will I have to put you on an artificial project (yes, this does happen)?

I know it can be easy to focus on yourself in a situation like this. You want to make the most of it, stand out, and prove yourself, but be mindful of how you may be a risk. Look at things from the perspective of the team, and mitigate those risks as much as possible. The team will appreciate you more, and you will learn the incredibly valuable skill of risk mitigation for both business and design.

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