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Holger Jacobs: The dilemma with internships

In the last five rounds, we talked about some issues and topics, that are usually treated very differently in design studios. Are interns equal parts of a team, are their capabilities valued enough by their superiors or do they just rank really low in the food chain? Do they only have to do things, that nobody else is keen on doing? What kinds of restrictions are being put onto them and what kind of chances are they given? We are delighted to shed some light on these topics and hear some additional thoughts from Holger Jacobs from Mind Design in London. We stumbled upon a text by Holger in our very first research phase and came to realize, that it has been shared quite broadly and been recognized with great interest. When we asked Holger, whether we could use it for our project, were really happy to hear, that he was not only allowing us to use it but also gave it a little update.

If you have your own valuable points on the topic, or want to share some additional insights, we would be more than happy to hear from you.

The dilemma with internships (an update)

I wrote the following little article many years ago; I think it was in 2011. Since then many people have referred to it, and some interns even applied because of it. My views have not fundamentally changed. However, eight years ago I started teaching, and I like to add to the point I made about the role that design education may play. First of all here the original article:

We had many interns in our studio over the years and learned as much from them as they hopefully learned from us. We always treated them like everyone else in the studio and paid at least £350 per month (even at times when we were struggling). We followed their careers and are still in contact with most of them. Until recently I thought internships are a good arrangement from which everyone benefits. However, nowadays there are so many student’s, graduates, even postgraduates entering the internship circuit that the situation has started to affect (and change) the design industry. Not necessarily for the better. So what is the problem with internships?

  1. The industry is becoming dependent on interns. Especially in difficult economic times, design companies might recruit interns as a cheap short-term workforce. It is worrying to see how this has already developed in the fashion industry where there are sometimes ten interns to one designer, working long hours and weekends. The other problem is that when the cost of “staff” becomes less, design agencies can charge low fees and undercut each other’s prices. It doesn’t take long until even clients figure out how the game works. We have been asked to undertake projects for ridiculously low fees where the clients already suggested: “maybe your intern can do it?” Those clients should approach graduates directly, not design studios. Without any overheads, a few hundred quid might be ok for a graduate and could mean the first step towards self-employment. We all started like this.

  2. Interns are killing off the very jobs they want. I am not saying it is the interns’ fault; they are in a catch 22 situation. However, from a purely commercial perspective why should a design agency still employ a junior designer when they can have three equally qualified interns doing the same job for free? Many interns are far too qualified or have been doing their rounds for much too long. There seems to be real pressure on graduates too to complete as many internships as possible in order to increase their chances in finding a real job. This might not be about gaining additional experience anymore and becomes just a trade-off of adding another studio name to the CV in exchange for a bit of unpaid work. Especially internships that last only a week or two seem completely pointless. What can someone really learn in a new environment in such a short time?

  3. The colleges are not taking their responsibilities serious anymore. Why do so many graduates still feel the need for more experience? Are the colleges not responsible for preparing students for “real life”? Colleges nowadays are taking on far too many students in order to fund themselves through fees. Many courses have three times the number of students than they used to have five years ago, but the number of tutors has not been increased. With that many students, it becomes difficult to teach real practical skills, like designing grids, print preparation, etc. It is much easier to let students loose on developing ideas and concepts. Certainly, this is an important point of studying but then again who needs so many clever little geniuses? In real life, only around 20% of a project is about developing the actual idea. I do not really see why design studios should compensate for the shortcoming of the colleges; neither should the colleges shift their responsibilities towards the design industry.

  4. Small studios are not a training camp for the big world. Most interns want to work in a small studio because they assume that those are more “creative” and somewhere between art college and the big agencies. What they often forget is that small those studios hardly ever employ new staff and usually struggled quite a bit themselves to achieve their “creative” status. All small studios started at some point with very little experience from nothing with just one or two semi-reliable clients. They took risks, made many mistakes, worked through quite a few bad jobs and put up with difficult clients to pay the bills. Instead of assuming that there is a shortcut to great creative freedom or a half-way house between college and the big world, graduates should just be braver and start their own thing. It actually seems easier nowadays to find your first client than getting a full-time job. The more small design studios there are, the better and we have always been happy to help if someone asks for a printer recommendation or how to structure an estimate. The sad thing is that many interns after they have done their rounds through the small studios end up in a big commercial agency because they need to earn money and those are the only ones hiring (and firing once the project finishes). In a way, small studios come into a position where they are training the future staff of their own competitors who put profit before creativity.

We have not fully decided where we stand on the subject of internships but felt the need to expresses some general concern in the interest of the interns themselves and the design industry. Many interns we spoke to had very positive experiences. In the future, we may only accept interns while they are still in education, or try to introduce real “mini” jobs, or organize a regular pop-in portfolio day. In the meantime, while we are still making up our mind here some general advice for consideration:

  • If you do an internship, but you are actually after a real job always ask if there is a possibility of employment and clarify things from the start.

  • Do an internship at a print workshop, an accountants office, with a sign maker, learn really practical stuff that might become incredibly useful.

  • Never work for free. Even if the studio is small and has little money, there should be some sort of payment.

  • Forget about internships, get real, find some clients, start working, start making mistakes, start enjoying your achievements.

So far the original text. In the meantime, I have seen the industry undergoing big changes, most notably a massive shift towards digital platforms, user experience, and online shopping. On the positive, the digital possibilities nowadays are a lot more exciting than in the days when web browsers could only handle Times, Arial or Courier. The downside is that the role of the designer is often reduced to someone who just links one more-less pre-formatted template with another. Wordpress with Shopify with Mailchimp, etc. Not to forget the almighty Instagram. It’s a world that the digital generation understands and many older agency bosses don’t. Desperate job-seeking interns have become pampered Influencers. Many of those “real life” skills—as I called them previously—are not needed anymore. Often it is enough to have a good eye for pictures and to know which hashtag to use where. “Instagram consultants” seem to make damn good money these days.
What does that mean for design education? Maybe the colleges actually ARE taking their responsibilities serious by NOT producing tailor-made industry compatible students. If the industry is changing every couple of years (or months) and with every new invention that Apple throws onto the market this would be very short-sighted. In relation to point 5 above, I would now say, the responsibility of design education is to produce industry independent thinkers and doers. Many of my students don't even become practicing designers. They choose to become artists, authors, curators, shop-owners, inventors, tattooists, carpenters, chefs, even gardeners. My advice now would be: if you are really desperate for a job and some quick earned cash, just copy what everyone else is doing on the various design blogs (this seems to be what many agencies want because their design-savvy clients look at the same blogs). If you really want to do something original, then think much bigger, outside the overcrowded design box.

Holger Jacobs is the founder of Mind Design in London, an accomplished design consultancy that specializes in the development of visual identities including print, web, packaging and interior graphics.
Alongside his work with Mind Design, Holger is a professor for typography and corporate design at the University of Applied Sciences in Düsseldorf and gives regular talks and workshops. He is a member of The Chartered Society of Designers (CSD), The International Society of Typographic Designers (ISTD) and The Royal College of Art Society. Holger can be booked on a consultancy basis by individual clients, creative agencies, commercial and cultural organizations.