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On unpaid internships

“Is it immoral for a young designer to accept an internship or offer of work that is unpaid? Or is that passing up an opportunity too good to miss?”

Quoting Alix Land from For free or not for free?

Some consider unpaid internships as similar to free pitching or spec work, but if you get the right opportunity, the advantages are yours, not those of the employer.

The benefits can be up there with those of pro bono design. But the thing is you need to be in the right internship, not one where you’re treated as a servant, fetching coffee all day.

Here’s a short story about how I gained experience through an unpaid internship.

Sewickley bridge
Sewickley bridge, Pennsylvania

It was around Christmas in 2000, and I was on the third and penultimate year of my bachelor of arts. The head of the course made an announcement about a £1,000 travel bursary that was up for grabs, with the money to be used in the summer of 2001, during the break between the course’s third and fourth years. Only one person could win.

The applicant needed to show that he/she would be heading overseas for three months in order to gain experience in the design profession. So I stayed back at the library each night, emailing design studios and agencies in the United States, applying for any relevant internship I could find.

I must’ve contacted 100 different companies, and I was offered three internships, one in Santa Monica, one in New York, and one in Sewickley (10 miles outside Pittsburgh). Each offer was conditional upon me arranging my work visa, and although it seemed the least glamourous, I chose Sewickley due to the company I’d be with — the non-profit Graphic Arts Technical Foundation or GATF (now consolidated with the Printing Industries of America). So I told my contact I’d be happy to join the 80 or so staff at the GATF headquarters, dependant on winning the travel bursary.

GATF logo

All my various approach emails were printed and included with my bursary application. The effort paid off and I won.

That £1K made my trip possible, but only just covered what CIEE charged me (CIEE is a company that helps students with overseas experiences) for the working visa and flights package (return flights from London to NYC, one night’s accommodation in a New York hostel, working visa for three months).

So as well as the planned internship from nine to five, Monday to Friday, I knew I’d need a second job, taking all the hours available. The GATF gig was completely unpaid.

When June 2001 came, everything was arranged — visa, flights, internship, and a rented apartment in Sewickley. I remember the nerves as I waited at Belfast airport where I’d catch a connection to London.

New York for the first time was something I’ll never forget, and standing on top of one of the Trade Towers, looking down over Manhattan took my breath away.

twin towers from below
Twin Towers, New York

I bought a Greyhound ticket to Pittsburgh, with my Sewickley apartment address at the ready.

It was good fortune that my apartment was just across the Ohio River Boulevard from the Sewickley Country Inn. The manager gave me a job as a waiter, and I clocked-in on a few weeknights as well as two 12-hour shifts at the weekend.

My role at GATF was to spend time learning from each of the departments. Pre-press, press, post-press, marketing, subscriptions, research, and a few others. I was also able to choose and take part in three of the 20 or so workshops the organisation ran, with each workshop lasting from two to five days, costing a few thousand dollars, and attracting industry professionals from across the country. This was an important factor in my choice of Sewickley. I don’t think I’d have learned anywhere near as much had I gone somewhere else.

Throughout the internship, at around 07:30 each morning, I was picked-up outside my apartment by GATF employee Rob Semsey. He’d been given the dubious task of “looking after” me. Great guy. Really went out of his way (literally) to help, adding an extra 30-45 minutes onto his daily commute from the other side of Pittsburgh. Sara Hantz drove me back in the evenings. It was on her route home. One day after work I tried cycling to the apartment on a borrowed bicycle, but I got a bit lost in the Sewickley hills and the 45-minute journey turned into two hours.

There was a suggestion of me becoming employed at the company, but I thought finishing my degree was more of a priority. I said my goodbyes and returned to New York for a few days before catching a September 17th inbound to London. An indescribable time to have been back in Manhattan.

Long story short, and in the same situation, would I take the opportunity again?

Absolutely.

GATF didn’t see me as someone to profit from or someone to do the menial tasks that others didn’t want to. I used the company’s time and resources to improve my knowledge.

What do you think? Unpaid internships: yes or no?

Update: 07 May 2013
Two years on, here are a few more thoughts on unpaid internships.

Photography via Bridgepix.com and Thinkstock

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61 comments about “On unpaid internships”

  1. Yes, but get the agency to contribute to expenses. A fixed daily amount you both agree is acceptable.

  2. What a great story, David. My own unpaid internship in college convinced me to not take a job in my field of study and so I became a marketer. :)

    A few years back a young man contacted me wanting a paid internship. I declined because I had just taken on an unpaid intern from the local university. But he persisted and said he would work for free. I signed him up with my standard three-month internship contract.

    He was a diligent worker and three months later I hired him full time. During the next two years he acquired design, layout and web skills while working for me. He then took a job with a major U.S. city managing their web properties and doing some design work for them. I guess the unpaid internship worked out for him.

  3. If the company can reasonably support an intern, are looking for them to actively contribute (and is offering the program), they will likely get a more valuable candidate by offering a small salary.

    When I was a student, I begged (at least once, literally) to work with a few local advertising agencies because I knew I needed more than I was able to learn in school. Some accepted, but because they weren’t offering the internship to begin with (realistically, they wanted to shut me up), it was unpaid.

    Worth it? Absolutely.

    In the end, taking an intern on (or taking on an internship) is a business decision that both parties must weigh. A crap internship that isn’t doing anything for your career should be avoided. It is a difficult decision for someone without experience.

    My greatest piece of advice would be, to potential interns on the cusp of not getting paid, is to interview past people in that position. Find out what more about the program from people who’ve gone before you, then make as best a decision as you can.

  4. Absolutely worth it! Just make sure that the people giving you advice are good. You may even get a permanent job out of it.

  5. I would say that unpaid internships are a good idea for those wishing to seek more experience as long as the company you’re working for is willing to give experience and not simply sit someone in front of a computer and tell them to do xyz. I don’t consider that experience. I’d call that a waste of time.

    I believe that an internship should be give and take. As you mentioned, someone like Rob Semsey should be available to all interns. Someone to make sure you’re on the right path. Someone to give you pointers along the way.

    I think it’s important for any company to treat their employees (including interns) exactly as they’d treat their clients. Respect, patience and a willingness to show them something great. If a company can do that, then it’s worth being an intern there.

  6. I had a difficult time with my unpaid internship. Initially, the internship in the Creative Arts Department at Universal Pictures was supposed to be paid. I had some support from my parents and my sister, living in LA, at the time so I moved out a month ahead of time to prepare and enjoy LA. When I arrived, I was told that my internship had switched to being unpaid. My direct supervisor, tried going to bat for me and failed, but felt so bad that he got me a job at a small print company. I had a great time at my internship and learned a lot, but I could have certainly devoted a lot more time and been involved more if the internship had been paid so I didn’t have to work another job, it was really difficult to balance the two. Universal again changed their policy after I left, reverting to paid internships. This was salt in the wound because I brought to their attention several times that I was being run ragged trying to complete the internship (and get credit from my university), learn as much as I could, network, and develop a broader skill set all of which was made more difficult by working a second job across town.

  7. This is a bit old, but the New York Times published an article last summer that discussed whether unpaid internships were legal, under current labor laws. It’s an interesting read

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/03/business/03intern.html

  8. Different strokes for different folks, I guess, but it’s just unprofessional in my mind to work for free, and it suggests an exploitive culture to encourage it. I look at internships, paid or otherwise, as a job. Professionals hold down jobs, and if I want to be taken seriously as a professional I must be compensated for the time and energy I commit to my employer. Whether I feel experience is payment enough, my only response to that is the following; do I, the designer, see my goal to be taken seriously as a professional, or do I want to remain an amateur? When any individual makes the decision to use his or her skills to earn themselves an income they must adopt sensibilities that leave no question that they’re running a business and are themselves to be taken as professionals.

    What is the difference between a professional and an amateur? I think Earl Graves put it best, “Many people would say it’s that professionals have achieved a level of experience, expertise, and proficiency that allow them to be paid for what they do. But there is far more to being a true professional then extraordinary skill and a big paycheck. Professionalism is about setting high standards for how you choose to communicate, conduct business, and present yourself. It’s no coincidence that many of the highest paid, most respected professionals – Lawyers, Doctors, Television journalists – embrace a standard for their respective professions. But we expect the same level of professional representation from transit workers and restaurant wait staffs.”

    When someone approaches a group of professionals and offers them “experience”, they’ll be prudent and ignore the offer and move one. When an amateur is offered the same, they’ll oftentimes take it out of ignorance, and that prevents them from developing into a professional effectively. And sadly, it creates a jaded and often hostile environment for later prospective employers. The fact of the matter is experience alone is not what a professional offers you in exchange for your time and expertise in any given industry; it’s what an amateur offers.

    So to make the whole thing short is experience enough? No. Only amateurs offer experience exclusively, and if you’re dealing with amateurs, you’ll never be able to grow into a professional, which should be any skilled person’s goal. Now is this suggesting that an unpaid internship will never be a means to becoming a professional? No, just that from my perspective and what I observe of my peers the odds are very much against it.

  9. Great story and yes i think it was worth it! If you have the possibility to learn from a good agency, better designer… take it. Three months is not a long time and you had the opportunity to get through all stages, so yes again.

  10. In the grand scheme is say NO because I believe everyone should be paid for services rendered. And, based on most of the internship stories I hear — you’re a “gofer”. I worked my way through college so I understand the value of finding work in your chosen field. But, more importantly, I understand that it takes money to pay the bills.

  11. I’d go with that, Blair. In certain respects my expenses were paid, as I had transportation provided, and lunch on many days.

    Jay, it’s definitely a good way to understand your profession (whether unpaid or paid) — a three-month session that’s unlike anything you learn at university.

    Good advice, Kevin. Applicants can always ask the company to put them in touch with past interns.

    I agree with that, Neil. I was treated like a member of staff, perhaps better, as I could spend time learning from everyone in the organisation, and not just restricted to one department. I was taken on company outings and given a good send-off, too.

    Shame you were messed about, Jason. It’s good how you were given course credit, though. That wasn’t an option for me.

    Arnold, you say you look at internships as jobs, and that professionals hold down jobs. Thing is, I wasn’t a professional when I accepted my internship. I was a student. My first job in the profession (even after the placement) was always going to take significant investment from my employer in order to train me. I didn’t learn nearly enough during my studies, as many others can attest to. Trust me when I say the company wasn’t staffed by amateurs.

    Joann, your comment goes back to my point about making sure it’s the right internship — one where you’re not just a gofer.

  12. Great story, absolutely. As student of design, it’s interesting to see how things can play out.

    I’m still in undergraduate studies and I know we’re pushed to search for internships even if they’re unpaid. Our instructors have said that you’ll gain knowledge and experience that they can’t necessarily include within the design program. I think this would be true. I see so many of my fellow classmates that I find to just be meeting the requirements for the given course project, but there are things that aren’t factored into these projects that I’d imagine you’d encounter at an agency/in-house design department like working with clients, a greater importance of time management and deadlines, etc. So, I guess I would consider internships, unpaid or otherwise, to be valuable.

    It might depend on the internship and the company involved, but as an intern are you able to include projects that you contributed to while participating in the internship in your portfolio?

  13. Fantastic read David! I would definitely have to agree with you that the experience and opportunity is most definitely worth it. After I graduated from College I was offered an Unpaid Internship with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I wanted it so bad and money was extremely tight so I took a second job to support myself and I even commuted everyday from Orlando to Tampa on my own dime… and I would do it again in a heartbeat because the experience and networking was second to none and now a direct result from my internship… I’m working towards my dream!

    For young designers out there, definitely weigh the pros and cons but ultiamtely you never know where you might land and it could change your life!

    -JG

  14. Well when I was studying there wasn’t really much exposure to the option of doing internships paid or otherwise. It WAS there, it just wasn’t talked about much. And since I was already doing freelance at that point, I’m not sure if it would have been advisable.

  15. I just read your NYT link, Steve (missed it first time around). When it comes to unpaid interns displacing full-time employees, that’s clearly wrong. One main difference between my experience and those mentioned in the article is that I was at a non-profit organisation, seemingly covered under different laws.

    CFM, you’re right. It would depend on the company. Shouldn’t be any reason why not, though, as long as the work was yours, or if shared, then clearly labelled.

    Justin, all the very best with that. Hope it works out excellently.

    Ash, similarly, there wasn’t a lot of chat about internships among students on my course. If it wasn’t for the bursary I might’ve wasted another summer on some menial job.

  16. YES!

    I took an unpaid placement for a year abroad and learned much more than i did throughout my 3 years studying which i had to pay £3000 a year for.

    You make the calculations!

    G

  17. A definite Yes! Coming from Canada, I started out as a volunteer at a small firm in London, UK and after a month got a full time, contract position.

  18. Hi David, thanks a lot for sharing your experience.

    I think that an unpaid internship is work on spec, you will get lot of experience… or not. You also will gain experience working for free anywhere, for example in contests or free pitching, I really don´t see any difference.

    I understand that a newbie is not as productive as a experienced designer, so having a low salary is reasonable, but working for free?

    My advice is: if you need to work for free, consider changing of profession.

  19. Great story David.

    I agree that it just depends on the internship. I’m very hesitant to take an uncompensated internship unless I know before hand what I’m getting into (aka whether they are interested in truly mentoring me, rather than getting free labor) I wrote an article last summer giving advice to fellow students looking for an internship, some people here might find it helpful:

    http://design.org/blog/things-look-design-internship

    I touch on payment, as well as other general things to keep in mind. I’ve done my time at a bad internship as well as amazing ones.

  20. I’m doing some free intern work right now…. it’s more e-tern though, done over the internet etc. I have on MANY occasions felt like ive been taken for a ride, i.e i’m doing all this for nothing other than something to put on my cv, the contract states i cant use the stuff i’ve made without prior concent (that clause is straight out the window, if i made it i’m putting it in if i want to) i’m told i’d have to ask them, but I wont. the only good thing about doing it free is i work part time at a bill-paying job so i use my spare days as my ‘creative’ days so when I’m doing the free stuff I’m at least flexing my creativeness.

  21. I, too, definitely think that whether someone should take an unpaid internship is dependent on the situation. If that person thinks they will get something better out of the internship (and can be financially stable enough that they can take an unpaid position) then by all means, why not? :) As long as it provides the person with something they find to be fulfilling or beneficial–by all means, do it :)

  22. Very interesting read. So much so that it made me want to make an online portfolio in order to start applying for an internship this coming summer. Somehow, this article gave me the courage that I lacked when it came to applying for internships or starting positions. The site will soon be up and running, but I was considering where would anyone recommend looking for an intenrship. I have looked in Craiglist, they all seem to be coming from people who want free labor. I also have looked around in school but that isn’t working out very well either. I’ve heard that the AIGA website has listings, but I lacked the $50 right now.

    Can anyone tell me a good site for the nyc area? or mybe just tips on how to find them?

    Thank you so much

  23. Hello David,

    Amazing story, it will inspire any graphic designer I think. I have mentioned before that I am a novice and design is my hobby but I have often wondered what it would be like to take part in a internship and have a portfolio to see how my mainly self taught design knowledge looks.

    I hope I am not one of those people who I know professional designers are not too keen on as in ‘my mate will do you a web site cheap’ as I have too much respect for professional designers as your self and the other boys and girls here. I do however consider it an honour to be asked to design a web site as they are putting their trust in you and so far I feel I have been able to give a good project.

    I guess it’s time to ask that very elusive question, how much to charge? I have no overheads really and as I say I am an amateur and it is a hobby as I am limited to the amount of time I can spend at a computer because of physical restirctions. I have been told that the web sites I have designed are good and meet all the current standards. Also, the web sites deserve to be rewarded in some way.

    Thank you and I would really appreciate and take on board any advice you could give me.

    Best wishes
    Graeme

  24. I think it’s always ideal if interns can be paid, they gain valuable experience as well as compensation. However unpaid internships offer an advantage over paid internships if the internship is handled correctly. An unpaid internship carries certain stipulations with it; students should not be asked to do any work that is not relevant to their course of study, for example answer phones or other general office work. Their time should be filled with learning the skills of their trade through real life experience with seasoned professionals. If the contract is fulfilled as it should be, the student should benefit. If it’s not, and instead the student is being asked to do tasks not related to their field of study without any compensation (getting lunch, answering phones, etc.) then they are being exploited.

    You can read more on the topic here. The post also includes links to the US Department of Labor’s guidelines on internships and other info:

    http://www.ethicsingraphicdesign.org/?s=unpaid+internships

  25. First, nice to see someone chose my home state over NYC and California…most definitely an odd choice but I agree that you need to go with what you feel is going to benefit you the most.

    As for the paid internship aspect, I say people should go for it. The main thing is defining all of the terms before accepting any sort of unpaid internships. Anything design or programming related from my experience may or may not build up a portfolio. Part of an internship, whether it is paid or unpaid is gaining the experience, but the intern also needs a way to show off that experience when they start applying for paid jobs. I have experienced a lot of companies that do not allowed a worker, whether it be a paid employee, a paid intern or an unpaid intern to use their name on any work that they have done for the company. This is the kind of stuff that the intern needs to find out going in so that they do not work months or longer for free and then come out of it with nothing to show.

  26. Excellent article David. Internships make complete sense in our line of work.

    I myself worked for about 3 months for free after completing my masters in Graphic Design. It gave me a real insight into the industry, helped me improve my own skills and the experience that I gained was invaluable. Before I took part in the unpaid work I was stuck in a catch 22 situation where no one would give me a job as I had no experience but I couldnt get experience as I didnt have a job. The time spent working for free was one of the most valuable periods of my career to date as it enabled me to add some experience to my CV and gave me a foot in the door when it came to interviews.

  27. Just having finished an unpaid summer internship, coincidentally, with PIA in Sewickley, I would definitely agree that the right internship, paid or unpaid, is worth it. I had a great experience interning for PIA- the things I learned from the web team are invaluable to me.

  28. Great article David.

    I have also completed an internship in San Francisco. I think the key is researching the companies who make offers and settling on one that you are satisfied will benefit you the most.

    Extra work for the portfolio is great (with added enticement of an international edge) and it shows any future employers that you possess drive and ambition.

  29. Lots of good thoughts there, Anna. Nice read.

    Alexis, I recommend contacting the NYC studios you want experience with. Don’t search for only those that publicly advertise intern positions. You could miss-out on the ideal opportunity.

    Graeme, this post should offer some help with your “how much to charge” question: the design pricing formula.

    Well said, Eileen. Thanks for chipping-in.

    That is a coincidence, Tina. I wonder if any of the same people are around.

  30. It was really a nice article David,

    Acording to me unpaid internships is not bad, this is the best way to know the current market demand.
    Because the world of college and class room is completely different from out side.

  31. David that is a really inspiring story. Anyone who ever gets the opportunity you did should grab it with both hands. They may not of paid you in cash but they obviously gave you a lot of inside knowledge of the industry and set you on the way to the designer that you are today.

  32. Thank you for this article. The day I read this I instantly started back up on the search for an internship. I found a small agency that had no info about internships, but decided that they could do nothing but say no to me so I took a chance. Luckily the owner emailed me back and so far it is looking really good. Hopefully by tomorrow I will know if I have the position or not. Thanks again for this insightful article!

  33. After reading a lot of comments here about unpaid internships and how they should be avoided, I have a couple of insights into why they are sometimes bad. As others have mentioned some internships make you get coffee and do menial work that has nothing to do with what you are there for.

    This is just my opinion but I feel like most of the places that would treat you that way are usually bigger companies. When we did agency visits in Cincinnati, most of the places we went to felt cold and not fun and very corporate like. They would speak to us like clients and very impersonal. Everyone just sat around like mindless drones clicking away.

    While we then visited smaller firms who had dogs in their studio as well as relax rooms for their employees. Not only that but they talked to us about their experiences, not boring “This is how we do this and that.” They told us about how when they needed to push past regular hours for a project that they would order food and some beers and have a great time.

    Now, I am not saying that this is true for all places but you can generally get a feel of how they will treat you when you work there by visiting and seeing it first hand. Most importantly with the way the economy is right now, doing an unpaid internship is a sure way to show that you care and you WANT to be there. Like many have said, most employers will see how hard you work and A) Offer you a job or B) write you an outstanding reference or get you a job elsewhere.

    The important thing is to do your job properly, I have worked at a camp for a few years now and have met childrens parents who are CEO’s, VP’s, Filmmakers, and etc. and constantly tell me if I need anything reference or otherwise to let them know.

    Just my two cents.

  34. well, i think my answer will be yes, because despite that I’m begining graphic designer, I feel pretty satisfied when I’m doing something pro bono
    it’s imho just great to make other people enjoyed, but only if it’s interesting for me, or it isn’t making a big lack in my free-time

  35. I think you hit it right on the nose David. One must be skeptical and pursue a position of value. Most accredited institutes and universities will have coop or intern programs in place. Often the participants will be vetted and monitored for quality, in which curriculum credit can be acquired. Really depends on your circumstance. My design school had exchange programs with the Bauhaus and relationship with Xerox, Kodak, ect. The opportunities are out there if you look.

  36. Its definitely not limited to graphic design. I’m from a helicopter background and in that industry it is almost the expected norm in order to get that first rung on the ladder. Its not the best situation.

    In other cases though I can imagine ‘paying’ for an internship. There are some people in this world that I’d happily pay to work and be mentored with knowing that the overall value not just in knowledge but also contacts would out weigh the cost.

    A free internship is a similar decision just further back down the scale.

  37. If you love what you do the ability to acquire the knowledge and experience in your preferred field IS the pay.

    I’m in my second year of college. If I were to get an unpaid internship in design, knowing that I will be able to do what I love, then that’s fine with me.

    Money is nice, but the connections that you can make from an unpaid internship are even nicer. I have a professor who aims to meet at least 10-15 new people every week. It has COMPLETELY paid off (literally!).

  38. For me, being paid by the company in intership means they are expecting an output more than the knowledge they will offer.

  39. Yes, if you’re a student, an agreed upon expenses-paid element is included, (so you can survive) and it’s actually a good opportunity that will be valuable in terms of knowledge and contacts.
    (Checking around with people who have previously done the internship is a good idea. Going with companies that regularly offer internships is probably also a good idea because they have experience with interns, and probably won’t either forget about you or ask too much 0f you.)

    If you’re a professional, I would say no. Just no. You’re selling yourself short.

    Collaborations are a different matter, but about the only time I would say doing work for free as a professional remotely approaches being a good idea would be for not for profit / charity work.

  40. Nicely said on the benefits of doing an unpaid internship.

    I had a similar experience, coming from a country where graphic design and branding is still evolving (if I say bluntly people are still not able to see the benefits of good design).

    I interned in one of the best brand consultancies. I was very much confused with the thought that I’d work for free abroad. All friends and seniors made fun of me. But once I was in the consultancy I felt this is the best time of my design life. I got to see design process, how designers keep themselves focused in a busy work schedule. It was not completely unpaid (transportation, accommodation was paid) but it paid me for my future. Definitely will use the process learned there in future projects.

    Major learning was working in a team, seeing some work done by design seniors gave me hints what to do when and for what reason, how to finalize the designs, how to present, how to speak about work in crit sessions, how to enjoy work, lol.

  41. It’s actually the norm in many countries for every fresh graduates to do a 6 month internship before they get more realistic money in compensation for being at a workplace for 35 hours to 40 hours per week. I can actually see the employer’s argument for this arrangement. A fresh graduate doesn’t contribute to the company profit till after 3 years or 5 years experience. During this time, the fresh graduate is learning how to speak to clients and to be productive in their particular job by converting academic textbook theory into useful output. This on-the-job-training is usually given by 25 year-old to 35 year-old employees, and it obviously slows the company down – costing money.

  42. I find this a very interesting article, not least because I happen to be a web designer in Pittsburgh, and so am familiar with Sewickley and the GATF. I actually once applied for a scholarship from them while in school.

    I would agree with those who differentiate between unpaid internships and “spec” work: unpaid internships don’t have nearly the unprofessionalism “spec” work suffers from, nor does it (as you point out) carry the assumption that the client is getting something of great value for free: to the contrary, the business is spending their time training you and hopes (at best) to get something useful in return.

    That said, the main possible problem with unpaid internships, insofar as they condition companies to more highly value prospective employees who have this type of experience, is that it tends to increase social stratification. That is, they impose one further barrier in front of those who cannot afford to do something like this, or can only afford to go to college if they work for money each summer.

  43. It is interesting for me to read about your experience at your internship as I cannot echo the same sentiments.

    I was placed in a boutique agency when I was in my final year in college. I had expected to meet some great designers, become filled with inspiration and learn things about process that I would not have considered as just a student.

    What I was met with was an agency that really didn’t care, leaving me to beg for people to give me things to do, sitting on my computer searching for things to learn, making up projects (me) that I could practice on, meeting people that were around my level and not having one stitch of time with any Art Director or Creative Director. I wasted 240 hours of my life at that agency because they treated me like a free worker whom they had no assignments for instead of a student looking to learn in exchange for time. Not to mention, the designer that I was placed beside was extremely unhelpful and not very supportive. In that placement, it was spec work – a spec work job placement!

    I ended up being severely discouraged for about a year – and I had spent the previous 15 years of my life convinced I was going to be a Graphic Designer. After that stint, I applied for a job and nailed my first interview. Looking back, I shouldn’t have even bothered with the internship and should have gone straight to the job. At least they paid me to learn!

    So, perhaps it’s really up to who you got placed with but I like to consider that my lesson learned about “spec work.”

  44. Unpaid internships are a necessity in my eyes. After graduating from uni in 2009, I quickly found that if I were to have half a chance of being considered for a job, I needed experience, but how was I to get experience if no one was willing to take a chance and give me a job. I quickly found myself giving up on chasing down a paid job and offered myself as a free designer looking for a month to three months experience. Hundreds of emails later and many more refusals or apologies of not having enough work or the room, I managed to get myself in a London design agency dealing with clients such as Lacoste, O2, Sony Play-station and Oxfam. I was buzzing and started a few days later. Having relatives living in London, it made the money situation easier to deal with and the agency kindly offered to pay for my expenses to and from work.

    This all seemed great, however I quickly found that they didn’t really trust me with any of the clients they had and wouldn’t give me any projects of my own. I ended up spending most of my time twiddling my thumbs and asking people if they needed any help.

    Luckily this didn’t deter me and my eagerness and determination came through in the end and I’m currently a web designer at one of the U.K’s leading web design companies. As I was heavily print orientated when I finished uni, this opportunity to do something in web is proving a great way of expanding my horizons and add more perspective within my portfolio.

    If design firms are willing to take on unpaid interns, they need to give something in return to make the time they give up as valuable as possible. There needs to be an element of trust and willingness to allow the intern to express him or herself and show they are capable of all that’s asked of them. Otherwise how are they supposed to make a name for themselves. Design has to be the most competitive profession that’s around and there’s nothing more valuable than word of mouth and the work that we can present in our portfolio.

  45. @ Paul, I completely relate to your story. During my junior year of uni I realized that, the tiny art department I was spending every day in learning about painting, design and illustration was a small bubble in comparison to the big bad and sorely competitive art world. I panicked and applied to a well-respected magazine for an internship. I got the internship, and I was brimming with excitement that I could maybe try to get a job with the company when my internship wound down to an end.

    However, there were more than a few times when the art director struggled to find something for me to do, but I managed to harass everyone enough that I ended up doing errands for not just the art department but for the editorial staff as well. I learned a lot and realized how limited I had been in the beginning of my internship, and even felt hopeful of a job when the staff realized my internship was coming to an end and seemed sad, stating they knew I would be a huge help on the fall fashion issue.

    However, with no mention of a job and like Paul, often sensing the art directors trust issue’s with my own take on things, I went ahead and studied abroad and graduated this past spring. I am doing yet ANOTHER unpaid internship while living with my parents, and so far I have learned a lot but I am now taking on my own clients because I need the money badly. I know that there is probably another art intern taking my place at that magazine, doing the same job that I had done. I just wish that there had been more of a prospect at the end of it.

  46. A graphic designer, by trade, I had always been a safe & salaried employee. In 1998, after marrying my husband (also a designer and marketing executive), I quit working outside the home to raise our 4 children, who quickly became 5. Once our baby was in school, I started to think about working again, but many things had changed in the last 8 years, and I felt I was starting from scratch. Although I wasn’t a recent design school graduate, I might as well have been. So, I started designing t-shirts for Vacation Bible School, then it was posters for a charity event, it’s been an interesting six years, but now I am a for profit freelancer, who works from home. I won’t tell you that I’m breaking the bank, but few of us are in this economy. What I will tell you, is that it’s all that pro-bono work that gave me the practice and the platform to start getting PAID for design work! I also became heavily involved with personal stationery design & printing, which was (and is) a great way to meet people in the community and get your name out. Now that only two of my children are home, I have begun really seeking work, and I’m happy to say that I’m working about 30 hours a week, and still have time to drive the carpool!

    *Note: In 1985, when I actually graduated from design school, my first job wasn’t even in design. I worked for a large advertising and printing company as a “Production Coordinator”. I made $5/hour (not much in 1985 either), but that year of hard work easily equaled 2 years of paid graduate school. If an offer like that comes along, I strongly encourage you to take it!

  47. I offer this article for your consideration for PAID internships. Definitely worth a read before anyone accepts (or asks for) work for free.

    http://www.aiga.org/the-cost-of-free-labor

  48. I did an unpaid internship this summer. I was doing a lot of pro-bono projects and one big client project. Can I put all the artworks that I’ve done in my portfolio? or are those under the company’s right? I am scared that the company will sue me if I put it on my portfolio.

  49. Hello Amanda, best to ask your contact at the company, or, if you happened to sign a contract, check the details — it’s common for contracts to state that all work created by the employee is the property of the employer.

  50. I just recently applied to an unpaid graphic design internship and will be interviewing for it soon. The fact that it was unpaid put me back a bit, but weighing the pros and cons I felt like the “real-world” experience would be worth it. In addition, since it’s local and during school term, I won’t have the additional expenses of housing, etc… although I may have to cut down on a few hours of work.

    On the other hand, it is a small company, so I’m afraid the mentorship may not be wondrous. Be it little or big, though, some experience is better than none.

  51. First, you should probably read this very carefully: http://www.aiga.org/the-cost-of-free-labor – it’s a great article on the subject.

    Second, don’t ever underestimate small. Ever. Some of best work has been pro-bono or self-promotion from small – or even one person – firms. Maybe because small studios can to take more risks and work on smaller projects for less money when than larger firms can.

    That said, you need to consider what type of experience you will be getting out of this (I would echo this for paid work once you graduate, too). Even if you like a firm’s work (and that would be the ONLY way I would ever consider working in this type of an arrangement), you need to ask specific questions on what you will learn.

    I worked a low paying internship at a small studio where I learned some really great processes about working fast, contributing to a team, effective idea generation and how to think creatively and more critically. I also learned very quickly that everyone needs to swallow their pride and let the client win sometimes. There are clients who pay the bills and the fun projects you do on the side that you hope let you think more creatively. Most people just hope to pay the bills in the real world.

    My internship also taught me about sales pitches, etc. This included everything from making cold calls (yes, making cold calls – nobody every talks about this but somebody has to do this), setting up for the presentation, creating the leave behind, evaluating the competition, following up with the client etc. I also learned some very handy tips for working print production and how to set up my own work so that the NEXT designer can take it over.

    Don’t have big expectations that you are going to produce something award winning for a client during any internship or even right out of school. Everyone needs to pay their dues. I wish more schools taught this more honestly instead of leading everyone to think they were going to be Sagmeister right out of school. Sorry for the tangent, but I know people who left their first design job after only a couple of months because they were so disappointed that they were not the lead designer in less than 60 days. So unrealistic.

    Some internships focus on allowing the intern to create a wonderful poster series or illustrate book covers or something similar so that you can have a piece for your portfolio. This might be fun, too, but I prefer the real-world experience that will teach you things that school will not.

    To sum it up, I think you need to think carefully about what you really want to learn and focus on that – regardless of how you get that experience. Good luck to you!

  52. As long as you feel like you’re getting valuable experience, Rona, and not simply being used as an extra pair of hands. Good luck with it.

    Mitzie, good of you to share your experience, and I’ll second that advice about thinking through what you want to learn beforehand.

  53. In regards to internships, when you come within a few months of finishing your degree, when is the best time to start applying for internships?

    Should we somehow let studios know that we are soon to graduate and are interested in working for them or rather focus on finishing our degree to a high standard and apply upon graduation?

  54. Months in advance, Matthew. Good internships are filled quickly, so if you leave it to the last minute you’re less likely to get one.

  55. If were talking months in advance, eg. for myself I graduate in 3 months, that would mean about now. The only issue with this I find is that most students feel like they havnt got enough completed work to show, all 6/7 of my projects are works in progress.

    Do students show incomplete work and explain that it isn’t finished?

  56. You could always create a web page that covers a single project case study, showing how you get from start to finish. It doesn’t need to be for all 6/7 projects. Employers will know you’re studying. They’ll know your work isn’t where it will be, and they’ll see the internship as a time for you to learn and grow (at least, the ones worth applying to will).

  57. My own son landed an internship writing software and designing Web apps @ just short of $18/hour. True, design isn’t a true tech job… but that doesn’t mean it should be seen as a seller’s market commodity either. If they want you, really want you, and they’re looking for something more than coffee-maker/stapler, they’ll dig up the money. I’d never recommend allowing yourself to get low-balled in return for experience. Never.

  58. I worked at a social enterprise as an unpaid intern last winter and my friends all questioned me why I would do an unpaid job. After reading your article, I now know how to answer them! I totally agree with the benefit of being an unpaid intern. it’s the fact that you are not going to be paid makes you want to learn more!

    One question though, the social enterprise I worked for, which is kind of between a normal company and NGO, aims to hire a large amount of interns for a short term continuous labour source. They only have several full time workers. Do you think this plan is sustainable?

  59. I don’t, Sussie. I published a very brief post about it here.

  60. I have mixed feelings about unpaid internships, but mostly I think that they aren’t ethical.

    While with certain companies, the advantages of the work experience is great — this is not always the case. Most of the companies that solicit my school for students for unpaid internships are not legitimate design companies and it is a very thinly veiled attempt at the company looking for free design work.

    Further more, unpaid internships marginalize the design community between those who can afford to take on an unpaid internship and those who cannot.

    For example, one of my fellow colleagues at school is a single mother. The option of her taking an unpaid internship, and working part–time and raising her children is not realistic. And it is not fair that she should have to suffer the disadvantages of not having that kind of supplementary work experience because she happens to not be privileged.

    Graphic design is what I have chosen as my career, but it was not my first. All of my former internships when I was an urban planner were always paid, and paid well. I don’t understand why graphic design still seems to be one of those frontier industries where we are expected to accept unpaid internships, and those who speak out against it are labeled as being entitled and ungrateful.

  61. As a creative director and owner of a small (but growing) design group, I’m bringing on our first intern next week. This student walked into my office and offered to intern for free, but on my good conscience I just can’t do it! I think it brings more value to the student as well as the company to pay an intern, and since I’ll have him contribute on actual client work, I just don’t see how it could be deemed fair to leave him unpaid. Sure, he’ll be learning a lot and gaining credits for his education, but at the same time, don’t you think an intern would find the internship more valuable if they know they’re being paid for their work versus, I dunno, feeling “used”?

    I debated internally for weeks about this issue and while I am glad to see so many unpaid interns who have had good experiences on this comment board, I just feel better about paying my interns. I suppose it could be that I would have loved an internship when I was going through school, but I had to work full-time in order to pay for my school and living expenses, and simply couldn’t afford to work for free.

Anything to add?

Comments may be edited or deleted if I don't like the cut of your jib, but that's quite unlikely.