TEXT BY ELLEN LUPTON AND TANVI SHARMA
Internships provide crucial work experience and can sometimes lead to job offers or lasting professional relationships. Design internships are offered by studios, publishing companies, and marketing agencies as well as by in-house design departments at corporations, universities, hospitals, and community organizations. Internships aren’t just for students; many entry-level design positions are posted as temporary internships. A design intern might have to run errands and take notes as well as perform an endless array of digital duties—from scanning and photo retouching to drawing logos and tweaking type.
In many countries, including the US, commercial businesses are required to pay interns. In the US, exceptions are made when students receive college credit for the internship. (In this problematic situation, students pay tuition for doing work that benefits a business or organization.) Interns may be paid a stipend or honorarium lower than the minimum wage; some companies cover transportation.
Unpaid internships do have defenders. In the opinion of product designer Karim Rashid, working for free as an intern is more beneficial to the worker then paying tuition to a university. Hosting an intern takes time and effort. Inexperienced interns need guidance. Internships can help less-skilled workers to enter the field.
Although US law allows not-for-profit organizations to offer unpaid internships, the practice is controversial. In 2019, the American Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) encouraged museums to pay all interns because unpaid positions favor people from prosperous backgrounds.
Tanvi Sharma shares her experience as an intern here and on the following pages. The pressure on students to find internships can be overwhelming. Be open to other experiences as well, such as community service, activism, writing and publishing, or teaching kids at a local school.
Tanvi Sharma explains how to get the most from an internship
→ The network of designers and artists you have been exposed to in any capacity is a good place to start looking for an internship. If someone isn’t advertising open positions, e-mail them anyway.
→ Reach out to people in the industry who were in your position a couple of years ago. I was fortunate enough to have peers who could recommend me for internships that they ended up turning down.
→ During your internship, request time with your advisor to have conversations about your personal growth and trajectory.
→ If you can, take up personal projects on the side that align with what’s going on in your workplace. Ask for feedback.
→ Conduct short, informal interviews with people you are meeting at work and learn what you can in casual conversations. Ask questions. Connect with these new colleagues on social media and stay in touch. Your future self will thank you.
→ I invited some friends to start a collaborative spreadsheet where we could keep each other accountable for follow-ups. Your peers will have your back.
voice | tanvi sharma
CONVERSATION WITH ELLEN LUPTON
Tell us about your background. I’m from the outskirts of New Delhi, India. I was born and grew up there, majoring in natural sciences in my last two years of high school. I came to the US as an international student at MICA [Maryland Institute College of Art] in 2016. It was my first time out of the country. I started out as a painting major but switched to graphic design in my junior year, as I found a community in graphic design that was relatively open to challenging itself and finding new ways to problem-solve.
However, graphic design does suffer from the same mindset painting did—it is fixated on a particular idea of what the audience and community looks like. The aesthetic choices that we were taught to make did not reflect the social diversity that I experienced or the visuals I grew up with. I am still learning to reconcile the two.
What internships did you have while you were a student? In my time as a student, I interned twice. The first was with Matt Bollinger, a painter, stop-motion animator, and professor at SUNY Purchase College in upstate New York. It was an unpaid internship, and although I benefited a lot from Matt’s wisdom (and free meals), I spent the summer not being able to afford rent, and I relied on my friends who were studying in the city to lend me their couches for a couple weeks at a time.
I worked as an assistant animator on the stop-motion animation film Three Rooms that Matt was then working on. I developed the concept, strategy, and execution plan, and I explored alternative methods developing and crafting animated experiences. When not animating, I was organizing the studio space or doing assigned readings.
The second internship was with Zach Lieberman, a designer, coder, cofounder of the School for Poetic Computation, and professor at MIT Media Lab. During the internship, I contributed to a myriad of projects and also worked on my own generative art project. I helped design a website for Zach, assisted in documentation of ongoing work, and helped develop generative motion graphic tools built in openFrameworks. I got paid the minimum wage in New York.
How did you get your internships? In my junior year, after I switched my major to graphic design, the pressure to get an internship among my peers was intense. Somehow, the pipeline to employment seemed such that if you’re seeking an internship and don’t get one, your chances in the industry dwindle. This expectation prevents equity of opportunity.
I found my internships by reaching out to people I wanted to work with and learn from. My faculty at MICA happened to be connected with my internship advisors and helped me with recommendations.
Describe a low point as an intern. Ah, once the apartment where I was couch surfing got bedbugs. That sucked! That said, initially, it was tough to feel comfortable with not meeting the expectations I set for myself or resisting the urge to compare my experience with that of others. Why am I not getting access to the same opportunities as other (more privileged) students, despite having the same skill set?
Oftentimes, students don’t share with each other the challenges they face entering the industry due to a fear of being perceived as not trying hard enough or being a good fit.
Describe a high point as an intern. Both of my internship advisors are also professors. Knowing how to teach and mentor is definitely an art. It was an absolute thrill to work with people who have a passion for teaching and would send me home with books to read and resources to tap into. The mental shift to doing work for a class versus for a client can be a juggle if you’re not used to following detailed instructions, as opposed to subjective exploration. Given that, my supervisors encouraged and challenged me to bring my perspective to projects. I appreciated that.
Now that you have graduated, you are looking for an internship again. Tell us about that. I didn’t imagine I’d be looking for more internships postgraduation. It’s tough to be an international student in the current climate, as most companies won’t be issuing work visas for the near future. I’m currently looking for full-time employment so I can stay in the US for another year and build on my experiences. In all honesty, I am skeptical of the process. The trajectory to employment is skewed; even equal-opportunity employers have their biases. With more and more hiring happening through algorithmic sifting, who is to say that a group would not prefer someone they don’t have to sponsor in the future? How is embracing diversity reflected in the hiring decisions?
TEXT BY ELLEN LUPTON
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