OPEN DISCUSSION: Unpaid Design Internships – A Viable Option?

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So you’ve graduated from college with a shiny degree in Graphic Design or other commercial art/media degree – you’re excited to jump into the job market and apply your skills and be challenged!

Amidst your heavy job hunting, meeting with local agencies and sending work out, you notice a fair amount of postings for internships in your field, both small & large. Many are unpaid and targeted for undergraduate students only, but some look like viable opportunities to work with your dream agency So here’s the question – is it prudent to apply for unpaid internships or should you focus on entry level positions?

Internships can be an invaluable opportunity for young students/designers to gain real-world knowledge and skills that a classroom can’t provide, and often lead to fantastic jobs.

However, they can also be traps for free/cheap labor from employers who aren’t really looking to browse upcoming talent and fill full-time jobs. Recent graduates, desperate for working opportunities in a skinny job market can sometimes fall into fruitless unpaid internships, many of which are illegal as seen here in an article by Steven Greenhouse of the NY Times.

Many, if not most graduate degrees in commercial art/design require some sort of internship or hands-on, real world work opportunity that has students applying on-going knowledge for a studio, agency or production shop. Many students have worked 1-2 (or more) internships during their college years already.

What do you think?

Is it prudent for recent graduates to chase after unpaid internships or should they focus on entry level positions? What about seasoned designers with 5+ years working who have been laid off? Are unpaid design internships ever a positive alternative to paid positions? Share your thoughts and add to the discussion.

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About Andy Burdin

Comments

  1. I’ve been thinking about this myself. I have a degree in music production and I have some professional credits in my industry but nothing consistent yet.

    I look at an internship as a way for the company to see what it’s like working with you. Even if there’s not an position open at the time you are interning, chances are once a position does open up the company will hopefully pick from previous interns.

    I am curious to what others say about this, especially being able to support yourself before the internship starts and during it.

    • @Joe Clar,

      Thanks for responding Joe, I agree that internships can be helpful for industries to gauge new and upcoming talent.

      I too will be interested in hearing people’s responses, especially in regards to supporting oneself during your internship (if it’s unpaid or very low pay).

    • @Joe Clar,
      Thanks for the response. I would say that, while unpaid internships are a great way to learn a little and perhaps get your foot in the door, there have got to be other opportunities that offer good experience but also pay you for the work being done.

      Aside from being illegal, I think companies that hire you just to offer you “good experience as pay for your work” are cheating the system. Just my thoughts though.

      What do you think?

  2. Unpaid internships have their pros and cons (as everything).

    Starting from the bright side: a good thing is that the fresh graduate will apply what he has just finished to study and will face for real how the design world spin. He well see how to manage projects and how to deal with clients. He will also improve his skills as designer and gain new knowledge from the experience of other senior designers. He will then gain visibility as designer and start to gather some good work to show in his own portfolio. This things will help him in setting up is own freelance activity (if is what he’s looking for). Otherwise if he’s only looking for an employee work in a design studio, maybe working hard and proving his abilities, the studio where he’s doing the internship will then employ him.

    The dark side of unpaid internships are, naturally, that the graduate will not be payed and that he will have to take the risk to be overloaded of work and tapped.

    In my opinion having some work done for free could help the designer in his first moments in terms of improvement of the skills learned at school and the execution of high-quality works to showcase in the portfolio. This is true both for internship work and for a startup freelance activity.

    It’s important to note that we work to earn money and live well. So naturally it’s important to establish how much time to dedicate to such unpaid collaborations and/or free works. Being balanced, in our world, is a keyword. We must never loose our soul as designer. Never be blinded from the easy-money jobs and, in the other hand, never give away our professional work as donuts.

    • @Unique Design,

      Thanks for the reply – there are certainly pros and cons to internships! I’m sure it’s every young designer’s hopes to land an internship that has strong possibilities of leading to employment. Hopefully we’ll get more insight and responses.

      Thanks again.

  3. I have two opposing thoughts on the issue.
    1. What are you willing to invest to learn? Be it learn what kind of agency you’d like to work for, which aspect of design you prefer, or learn a new skill to add to your toolbox? Unpaid internships can offer the opportunities to continue learning. No, they’re not paying you in money, but you get to learn like you did in college without paying tuition. What service or sacrifices are you willing to make to invest in that kind of learning?

    2. Whomever you work for, paid or not, is going to most-likely get something out of your work. Why not get something for your work as well?

    Having been there, I prefer a low-paying job to an unpaid internship. If you must do something free, and can’t find a well=paying job in your field, find something temporary that puts bread on the table and volunteer doing something in the area of design you’d like to go into. Then you still get paid, but the expectations are not above your willingness to commit.

    • @Ryan Haworth,

      You bring up some good points here, valid on both sides of the spectrum. There’s huge opportunities at some of these internships. I’ve worked a couple and the amount of experience I absorbed and learned at them was far more than I’d learned in months and months of classes!

      I think it’s prudent to research the agency/company you’d be working for, contact previous interns and make the best decision possible. If it’s financially sound to do it, go for it! I absolutely agree.

  4. All honesty, if you fresh out of college, and the opportunity is a great one, why not. You don’t have much to lose at this point in your life and you can embark upon an opportunity that can open doors for the rest of your life. I say, however, do your due diligence about the company before you commit. Make sure the company is a reputable company with a successful track record. Other than that, go for it and see where it takes you. Right now in my life, I wouldn’t mind an internship with a good company. It will help me develop new skills.

    • @Sydrena,

      Good point – when you’re in school or freshly out, it’s a perfect time to pick up these experiences. Who knows where they could lead you? Thanks for the reply.

  5. I think that everyone has had some great points about the pros and cons of unpaid internships.

    I work for a very small publishing company that does not have a budget for paid interns. As an in-house designer, I am in charge of running the mentorship/internship program and I my main focus is to make sure my interns are learning valuable skills and can walk away with some great samples of their work.

    One of my biggest pet peeves about internships is when interns are used for busy work that no one else in the office wants to do, which is probably how I ended up running the program.

    In the end it really is about what you get out of it and how much effort you put in. I’ve had interns that had no motivation and therefore walked away with little usable experience and others that did some amazing work and have expressed their gratitude for the skills they learned that they were able to use in future positions.

  6. With the amount of unpaid internships that seem to be kicking around these days, I see it as a fine line between opportunity and exploitation…

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