The to-do list for the typical intern at a design firm or ad agency is rarely a glamorous one. Often charged with tasks that paid employees would rather not do, interns are asked for ideas only when they aren’t likely to mess up an account too much. Paid nothing or next to nothing, they increase profitability and productivity while ostensibly getting an educational experience. The mentoring—however minimal—that they receive from professionals is considered a big boost for their careers. And because competition is fierce, interns will gladly sort paper samples or prepare decks for free if it means getting one-on-one time with a creative leader at a top firm.
But recent lawsuits against companies like NBC, Fox Searchlight Pictures and Condé Nast demonstrated that these positions are often exploitive, since federal guidelines prohibit unpaid interns from performing tasks that are usually done by employees or could be seen as immediately benefitting a company. While nonprofits like museums and charities can legally hire unpaid interns, profit-making companies must pay at least minimum wage unless they offer a structured educational experience.
For the past few years, leaders in the creative field have been advocating for a change to the internship status quo. Since 2010, the Philadelphia chapter of AIGA has taken a stand against free work by dropping unpaid design internships from its job board. The chapter also launched the AIGA Philadelphia Paid Internship Pledge, which states that unpaid internships are not only unethical, but privilege those students who can afford to support themselves without pay for a few months. Over 100 people, companies and organizations have signed on to pledge their commitment to paying no less than minimum wage.
Yet others see no problem with having young designers pay their dues through unpaid internships in order to get real-world training. Industry darlings Sagmeister & Walsh, for example, don’t pay their interns, framing the opportunity to work in their studio as a one-of-a-kind apprenticeship.
AIGA National Director Ric Grefé doesn’t believe this is ever
acceptable. “You hear from many agencies that they are offering a
learning experience, but usually it is not a structured experience,” he
says. Grefé also laments the murky ethics of hiring low-paid interns to
do work for which a professional would be more generously compensated.
“In the worst case, [these internships] may be simply cheap labor, which
fails to demonstrate respect for the value of an individual’s design
and creative talent,” Grefé says.
While the issue of intern compensation continues to inflame industry discussion boards and spark talk of reform, a vanguard of agencies and firms are striking a new balance between using interns for low-level work and offering experiences that help budding creatives stand out against the competition. Grefé says he is encouraged by new graphic design and ad agency internships that are structured more like boot camps and help rookie designers and newbie art directors understand processes for problem solving, rapid prototyping, business operations and design strategy—training that is not offered in traditional internships, academic programs or portfolio schools. “These programs offer an education in coping rather than cosmetics,” he says.
For the companies offering them, such programs are seen as a valuable way to infuse new energy, different disciplines and fresh ideas into their work. The sessions, ranging from ten days to twelve weeks, have become fast recruitment tracks and a resource for developing talent. And all of them adhere to the U.S. Labor Department guidelines for internships.
VCU Brandcenter student Frank Guzzone didn’t shred papers or do stock image research during his twelve weeks at AKQA in San Francisco this past summer. The agency’s program, called Forge, allowed Guzzone and the twelve members of his cohort to work closely with three different mentors on client accounts and create a final presentation that was judged by a panel of AKQA creative directors. “AKQA treated me like a junior team member and therefore I was held to the same standards,” he says. As a result, Guzzone was able to compile top-level work for his portfolio while taking home a monthly stipend.
AKQA executive creative director Stephen Clements says he was inspired to create the Forge program because “it’s very easy for companies to neglect the bottom of the pecking order and to think that the only good thinking comes from people who have been in the business for a long time.” Clements found that Forge participants brought an enthusiasm and dynamism that jolted the full-time employees out of their regular modus operandi. “Sometimes you lose that spark that helps you think outside the rules when you have been working in the industry for so long,” he says. “New blood doesn’t know those rules, and that is where true freshness comes from.” AKQA has decided to hire exclusively for entry-level positions from the pool of Forge participants, ensuring that new hires are schooled in AKQA values from the start.
Deborah Morrison, a professor of advertising at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, has always prioritized connecting her students with such real-world opportunities. “What internships are great for is letting you see the culture of an ad agency and getting used to the process of dealing professionally with clients,” she says.
Morrison was involved with creating the new 72U program at 72andSunny in Los Angeles, a unique twelve-week design experience in which students dive into weekly themes—from documenting esoteric subcultures to prototyping Arduino gadgets—with high-profile guest teachers. 72U, like some other new programs, emphasizes multidisciplinary problem-solving techniques and accepts participants from a wide variety of fields, who are encouraged to apply when they are at a pivotal point in their career.