Brittany Campbell
art director + designer


Making the most out of your internship.

I am finally out of the internship game. I’m done! I have just accepted a full time junior
design position at Groupon.

For the past year and a half I’ve transitioned from student to professional. This experience has truly made me understand the difficulties and anxieties associated with finding employment after graduation. For those of you recently graduated or anticipating graduation, I know you have questions. I know how scared and confused you are.

Due to the ever changing economy and job market, there are very few current resources available that can give you expert advice on how to navigate entrance into any industry, especially the creative industry. But I am here to tell you that, for me, internships were the perfect bridge from school to work. Unfortunately, some internships are better than others and the word “internship” has become an abused term. I want to share with you my experiences with internships, how to not get taken advantage of, how to make the most out of your internship, and potentially get a job.

First and foremost, I will briefly, and I mean briefly, dive into the idea of unpaid internships. Let me begin by saying, never work for free. It’s poisonous to your work and our industry. It devalues our worth. Nonetheless, I worked two unpaid internships. I justified that I would be getting paid with experience. The cost of learning at an internship was less expensive than enrolling in another semester of school. If you find yourself offered an unpaid internship, ask yourself, and your potential employer, the following questions.

1- Is there potential to become a full time, paid employee?
2- Will your internship schedule conflict with more important things i.e. school,
homework, networking opportunities?
3- Will the internship provide valuable networking opportunities?
4- Will there be someone to teach and mentor me about things I don’t know?
5- Will I leave the internship with valuable portfolio pieces?
6- Will I be getting more from this internship than the company will get from me?

It’s important to remember that a lot of unpaid internships justify their lack of compensation due to the fact that they can offer school credit. That’s fine and all but remember, not only are you working for free but you are also paying your school to give you those credits. My unpaid internship credit cost me $3,000. Not to mention that I had to forfeit time that took away from my paid part time job.

The word internship has become an abused term. My friends, and myself, have had unpaid internships that give us real design problems to solve but we are the only ones solving them. We aren’t under any direction or mentoring. In most cases, we were the only designers on staff. This is not an internship. This is a way for companies to get free work. They aren’t intentionally trying to be “bad people,” they just don’t understand that an internship requires that the student have a teacher. I am really good at teaching myself things but one of the perks of being an intern is being able to learn from yourself
and an experienced professional. I could go on and on about unpaid internships and the pros and cons of them but I won’t. I want to tell you how to make the most of your internship. The objectives you should be aiming for in an internship should include:

1- Networking
2- Learning about the industry
3- Learning about yourself
4- Creating valuable portfolio pieces
5- Getting a job

As an intern at four different companies, I have had the privilege to work with many different people in and out of the industry. I worked at the Federal Reserve where I rubbed elbows with analysts and event planners. I worked at a blog and online store where I got to learn about the blogosphere and e-commerce. I worked at a studio that only employed student interns where I got to meet my peers and the future shapers of the design industry. I’ve met people in the industry who have tipped me off about job opportunities, industry events, and new designers. I have met people outside of the creative industry who have taught me patience, taught me to look at the world differently, and have passed my name along to friends who might need a designer. Your network shouldn’t only include people who are doing the same thing you do. Your network should include a diverse group of people who have different interests, professions, and ideas. Create a network that will prove to your advantage when you
need a referral or research for a future project.

Learn about the Industry.
An internship is the best place for you to learn about the industry. In the creative industry, everyone knows what it’s like to be a student. They were once in your shoes and everyone, for the most part, wants to help you. They understand that you are a student and are still learning the ropes. They will accept your ignorance and help you overcome it. They will be more patient with you because this is your time to learn. Become an active learner. Ask questions. Be engaged. Be curious. Be excited.

It’s important to ask professionals the questions that weren’t covered in school. Ask how much your design is worth. Ask about networking, contracts, notable designers that you should be watching, events you should be attending. Ask about dealing with clients, agencies, outsourcing, collaborating. It is impossible to ask too many questions. You are a sponge. Soak up all this valuable and free knowledge.

Learn about yourself.
An internship is the best way to discover yourself. Take time and discover your process and your style. My four internships were very diverse. Working at these very different places, I got an idea of the kind of environment and process  in which I work best. I got to try out different processes and discover what makes me work the most  efficiently and create the best outcome. I discovered how I interact with people. Most internships are just a few months and within a year and a half I got to work at 4 different places. I, for the first time, realized that I am very shy but am quickly able to become very open and friendly once I’m comfortable.

At Groupon, it was my goal to become more friendly faster and not be afraid of what my new coworkers would think of me. I learned that I don’t have to keep quiet during the first few meetings. I need to start making a difference the second I start working somewhere. Employers bring me onboard because they see something in me at the interview. Being quiet and a pushover at the beginning isn’t polite, it’s cowardly. Critique people’s work, stand up for your design choices, don’t be afraid to draw attention to yourself, as long as it’s positive. I also learned that I sometimes tell my coworkers too much about my personal life. While I want to be friendly and open with my coworkers, my relationship status and family drama is none of their business. Keep that personal stuff to yourself and only vent about it when you’re out with the girls.

Create valuable portfolio pieces.
One of the biggest perks of being an intern is being able to work on real projects with real clients. At first, I was nervous about being too slow and not making pieces fast enough. Employers realize that you are still learning and it might take you a while to implement your process or get use to the company’s style guide. Take your time and make sure you are creating something that is valuable to not only your employer but your portfolio. Don’t just create something because your boss told you to. Go through your process so that you will be able to explain why you did what you did. Any employer
will find this valuable in an employee. If you wouldn’t be proud enough to show it in your portfolio, don’t make it.  A lot of designers have a distinct style in their book. Don’t be afraid to try different styles. It’s good to have a diverse amount of work in your portfolio. Sure, you might be very comfortable creating DIY inspired graphics but it might be interesting, and important, to have something that looks a little more corporate in your portfolio. Most of the time your aesthetic can shine through.

Get a job.
The only reason you would even consider being an intern is because you want a job. Internships can give you experience and pad your resume so that you will find your dream job. If your internship is at a place that is home to your dream job, pay attention. Most internships say there is a potential for hire after the internship is over. It’s important to realize that a company must first have the money to hire you. All my internships said they wish they could hire me but they simply couldn’t afford to hire a new salaried employee. Even if your internship can’t hire you, it’s important to follow the guidelines below because they will help shape recommendation letters and referrals.

1- Clearly show your value.
Work hard and be on time. Make your company see why they can’t live without you. I was one of two designers at the Federal Reserve. The other designer explained to our coworkers that having me there made her job easier. We were able to take on more projects and explore new technologies and design offerings. I was working on projects that didn’t only make me look good but it made my boss and our department look good. While the Fed couldn’t afford to pay me salary, they found enough money to keep me as a contractor 6 months after my internship ended.

2- Become a part of the discussion.
Pay attention and speak up in meetings. Make your company see why you belong there. The Fed was a very different environment for me. I do not understand economics at all. I started listening to Planet Money on NPR to learn about the fiscal cliff. I was slowly learning my coworkers’ language. In a meeting, I probably had no business attending , the discussion of South Side Chicago economy came up. They were discussing the benefits that a local economy would have on the South Side. A few days later, a friend of mine posted a story about urban farms in the south side neighborhood of Englewood. I read the article and found it to be on topic with the discussion held at our meeting. I passed the article along to my coworkers. I became a part of the discussion and the economists, for once, didn’t treat me like a “designer.” They treated me like an educated part of the team.

3- Find an position that needs filling.
At Groupon, I discovered that a lot of my fellow designers do not attend industry events. For me, it’s one of my favorite pastimes. I started sending out invites to my coworkers for events I would attending. I continued to go alone. One by one, coworkers started RSVPing to my calendar invites and attending events with me. When I got offered a Position, I was told that becoming involved in the industry is something that the Groupon Design team finds very important. My knowledge of events and small network of professionals in the industry is valuable to Groupon and they need me to head up all the
events that come up and make sure people are invited. This was something I was already doing, I just get the opportunity to invite my coworkers now.

I have a lot of friends who have worked at one internship already. They are neglecting the internship opportunities because they simply don't want to be an intern anymore. Believe me, I understand. But please use these internships as stepping stones. Don't take an internship that won't help you grow. When I was in my junior year I had the opportunity to hang out at the DDB offices in Chicago. I was able to talk to a copywriter and art director about their experiences in finding jobs. They advised me that I should aim for 2 internships. This allows you to be in a two different learning environments. I agree with this advice. It has helped me immensely to work in so many different environments. An internship lets you get these experiences with all the benefits that I have discussed above.

Edited by Cara Narkun @CaraNarkun