My first experience in the design world came through an internship at a small motion graphics studio called Motion Theory. I was fresh out of school and had never worked with so many talented people before. It was intense, difficult and nerve-wracking. And I loved it. It made me a better designer. And the lessons I learned there have served me well throughout my years as a freelancer. Because my experience was so rewarding, I’ve developed the habit of scrutinizing internship programs at every new studio I visit. I’ll share my insights below, as well as insights from some of the world’s best design firms so you can think about the application process from both sides.
My first experience in the design world came through an internship at a small motion graphics studio called Motion Theory. I was fresh out of school and had never worked with so many talented people before. It was intense, difficult and nerve-wracking.
And I loved it.
It made me a better designer. And the lessons I learned there have served me well throughout my years as a freelancer. Because my experience was so rewarding, I’ve developed the habit of scrutinizing internship programs at every new studio I visit. I’ll share my insights below, as well as insights from some of the world’s best design firms so you can think about the application process from both sides.
Further Reading on SmashingMag:
- Internship At Smashing Magazine
- 7 Tips for Your Design Job Interview
- Social Sushi And Hard Work
- Inspiring Everyday Graphic Design
Finding A Good Internship
Finding a good graphic design internship is like a mini version of applying to college. You want something that’s high quality and a good fit. But while colleges have numerous rankings and reviews to judge them by, internships do not. What criteria can we use to evaluate them?
Over the years I’ve discovered two factors that all great internship programs share: the quality and size of the studio. As you’re doing your research ask yourself two questions: “Is the studio good?” and “Is the studio small?” If the answer to both of these is yes, consider applying there.
Quality of the Studio
It’s important to find a studio that does great work because you want art directors and creative directors with good taste to give you feedback. They’ll have higher standards for themselves and for you. A good studio will toughen you up and make you a stronger designer. You’ll be like a sharpened adze, ready to strike! Studios of this caliber will often have their work in magazines like Communication Arts, How and Print. For interactive work, sites like Awwwards and FWA are good resources.
However, not all good studios submit work to contests. For the ones that don’t, you’ll have to judge the work on their site. One thing to keep in mind is that some projects are so large that a team of designers does the work. For example, Coke’s famous ‘Happiness Factory’ spot was conceived at Weiden & Kennedy, but it was brought to life and animated at Psyop.
Both feature the ad in their portfolio. If you are a designer looking at these two studios and are passionate about design and animation, Psyop would be a better fit for you than Weiden.
Size of the Studio
Small studios have thinner profit margins, so efficiency and productivity are a priority. Everyone has to pull their weight. This is good for you because it means you’ll work on client projects from the start. More importantly, because you’ll interact with clients and creative directors, you’ll get critical and frequent feedback. You’ll experience firsthand all the steps involved in a project like budgets, clients and deadlines. This will help you see where you fit in the entire design process. And because you’re in a physically smaller space, you’re more likely to befriend senior designers who will often become mentors.
Let’s first define what a small studio is. The Small Business Administration classifies a small graphic design business as one with $7.5 million or less in revenue. However, since most small businesses don’t broadcast their earnings, I prefer to use headcount to determine size. As a general rule of thumb I define small as a studio with fewer than 100 employees.
This is, admittedly, an arbitrary number. One hundred employees may sound like a lot of people but keep in mind that maybe a third of those employees are actually creatives. LinkedIn is a good resource to find a company’s size. If the company has a profile, it will often list its approximate headcount. (Note: If it says 51–200 employees, that’s a wide range and you may have to do more research.) Also consider how many locations they have. For instance, Pentagram is a large multinational design firm with many employees but they’re spread out over five offices, so you may still get the individual attention you’re after.
Big studios have great name recognition and the work is, of course, good. However, in my experience they don’t give you as much individual attention. When I worked at TBWA\Chiat\Day I noticed they seated their interns in a part of the building known as “intern row”. It was basically a long table with a dozen chairs and iMacs. It’s not an optimal location because the interns are isolated and therefore removed from the action. For example, the interns can’t hear the creative director explain to the art director why a certain font needs to change. Or watch the creative team push back on the account managers when they say there isn’t enough money in the budget. Exposure to these moments early in your career is just as important as practicing your craft, and you won’t see them as frequently at a big company.
I asked around and heard the same sentiment from other designers. My colleague Joo, who had five internships early in her career, said:
“I liked working at the smaller studios better because I was given more chances to be ‘in charge’ of projects. I was treated no differently than one of their employees. Whereas in the bigger companies the role of the intern was definitely more of an assisting role. At the bigger companies I was definitely treated as ‘the intern.’
Here’s a two-by-two matrix that compares good and small studios with the other options:
But how do you land an internship and, more importantly, how do you keep it?
How To Get In (And Stay In)
I interviewed or emailed several designers and have collected their feedback below. Here’s what they told me.
Getting good at your craft takes years of practice – but it works. Ideally, the work in your portfolio will match the kind of work the studio does. But if not, don’t stress. As an intern you have some leeway here. It’s often more important to show overall competence in your design skills.
For example, let’s say you want to apply to an interactive studio but only have two websites in your portfolio. If the other projects in your portfolio are great, it’s reasonable to assume you’ll be up to the challenge when asked to design a site. (Note: when looking for a job, it’s different. Recruiters and HR people love when your work history is similar to the role you’re applying for. In their eyes, it makes the decision to hire you less risky.)
As you might expect, being good came up frequently in the interviews:
“I can’t speak for Pentagram, only my team, and we’re pretty boring. People get internships by being talented and articulate and smart and – inevitably, because there are so many more applicants than positions – lucky.”
—Michael Beirut, partner, Pentagram
"We think a strong portfolio is the best way to stand out, making sure that every piece of work is the candidates’ very best and showcases their range in skills." —Haeli McDonald, recruiting manager, Digital Kitchen
"They need to show up front that they have invested in their craft, a good starting point so to speak that we can help them mold through hands-on practice with senior folks." —George Eid, partner and creative director, Area 17
"In the end, it is the strength of the their work, along with having a personality that jives with the team, that gets them the job." —Dorian Carli-Jones, production coordinator, Brand New School
Being good is one way to get there but you shouldn’t underestimate the power of networking. Let’s see what professionals shared in the section below.
Tap Your Network
When you are in school or have just graduated, you may not know many people in the industry. But your teachers do. They want to see you succeed (that’s why they became teachers) so use that to your advantage! I got my first internship through a classmate, who found his way in through a teacher. This is common.
“We take on very few interns and they only come from our alma mater Tyler School of Art. Both myself and Dusty are part time professors at Tyler where we both studied and experienced a sort of design boot camp. We understand the students that make it through Tyler’s rigorous curriculum and they seem to understand us. We have great relationships with the full time faculty and that allows us to work with students who might be a particularly good match to our style and sensibility. We keep our eye out for the students that work hard and do passionate smart work. For us, that is the best way to make an impression.”
—Jason Kernevich, principal and creative director, The Heads of State
If your design skills are average but you’re full of original ideas, you might be able to charm your way into the building. Designers have a soft spot for idiosyncratic and unpredictable work because they rarely get to do it anymore (briefs for school or personal projects usually have fewer limitations than real world projects).
One classic example of being different comes from illustrator Kevin O’Callaghan. After graduation he wasn’t getting much notice from advertising art directors. So he created a 15′ portfolio out of wood and fiberglass to hold some 3D work he had done. Kevin said, “I wanted to be noticed, and that meant being bold, and usually that meant being big.”
When he stopped by Milton Glaser’s office to show off his portfolio, the legendary designer loved what he saw and hired Kevin immediately.
In 2010 Alex Brownstein, a copywriter in New York, wanted to get the attention of the best creative directors in New York. So he appealed to their vanity. He bought Ad Words on Google with each director’s name and pointed the ads to a URL where he asked for a job. It worked! He got hired by Ian Reichenthal of Y&R.
Some of my interviewees had similar stories.
“We’ve had lots of applications for internships that have included gifts of coffee, toys, custom illustrations of our initials, candy and any number of other small mailable items. The most creative was a student who sent us a postcard with a photo of him on the front. That doesn’t sound entirely strange, but what made it memorable - and a little creepy - was that the photo showed him working at a desk (complete with computer and desk light) on the sidewalk right outside our studio’s front door! He must have set the entire thing up on a weekend. The back of the postcard said “hire me”. We laughed our heads off. It was clever, showed initiative, and was made just for us.”
—Claire Dawson, principal and creative director, Underline Studio
"The most memorable/creative thing I've witnessed that a candidate has done to stand out from the crowd: After an in-person meeting where a candidate left behind a single-serving sized "milk carton" in our office kitchen. He had designed all the printed graphics on the carton himself, and on the back, placed a "missing person" section with his name, photo, and résumé. We weren't able to take him on because we had hit our quota for interns, but I'll certainly never forget it." —Dorian Carli-Jones, production coordinator, Brand New School
Some studios like IDEO will intentionally seek out interns with different backgrounds:
“From our perspective, internships are a great opportunity to meet and work with new talent, and it’s often a place where we’ll take some risks by bringing on new skills or new perspectives.”
—Duane Bray, partner, IDEO
Is there something unique about you that the team could benefit from? Maybe your grandfather was a Japanese potter who taught you about wabi-sabi and how imperfection can be beautiful. Or perhaps you taught yourself Apple’s Swift language and made a clone of Flappy Bird before anyone else. In a world where everyone uses the same tools and visits the same websites, having a rare background or skill can give the company a competitive advantage.
Internships are an excellent way to get real-world experience in the hands-on field of design. But they can also be a waste of time if you choose the wrong one. Here are a few final tips to keep in mind during your research.
- The best studios don’t post on Monster.com, Craiglist.org, etc. because they already have students knocking on their door.
- Don’t limit yourself to internships that are posted online. If you find a good studio in your area, reach out to them!
- A bit of flattery is nice. If you truly love their work, provide details: “I first saw your studio’s work back in 2012 during my first year of design school. It inspired me to pursue interactive work.”
- Be relentless. When I applied to my first internship I was repeatedly told that there were no openings. Every month for four months I sent the creative director a friendly email to check-in. Eventually a spot opened up and I got in!
- Host your portfolio on your domain (ideally one that’s your name). It’s more professional. Here’s a list of some good content management systems for when you’re ready to upload your work.
I hope these tips will help you land a great internship as you begin your illustrious career in design. Good luck!