Internships are an awesome way to gain experience and to learn about being a designer in the real world. Most are mainly summer internships, but there are definitely internships that extend throughout the school year. Typically, students aren’t expected to score internships until their third year, but it’s not uncommon to find young designers landing jobs in their sophomore and even freshmen summers. It mostly depends on you and how comfortable and confident you are in your capabilities. Don’t feel pressured to find a job right away after your first year, only to take on more than you can handle.
First thing’s first, you’ll need to get your body of work into some presentable form. It could be a website, a PDF presentation, or even a printed book of sorts—just keep it simple and concise so that your audience can fully grasp the whole idea behind the project. Remember, putting together a portfolio is a design challenge in itself. Think about typographical hierarchy for your header text, body text, and captions in terms of their point size, typeface, and color. Also keep in mind the layout of your portfolio. Designers are visual people, and you’ll want to leave plenty of space to showcase your work. Make sure your images are big enough so they can see the details, and that they’re at a high enough resolution to avoid any pixilation.
One quick thing: This may or may not be your situation, but some employers ask for your website in the initial email. Employers want to get a preview of your work and see if you’re a right fit for their company even before they offer you an interview. In my situation, a good number of jobs I applied to asked for a website. However, coding your own website is a ton of work and a significant amount of time. If you don’t have a site, don’t worry! There are many portfolio sites where you can upload your work, or the next best option is to attach a .pdf presentation of your portfolio. Regardless of the format, the quality of your work will be able to give an employer a sense of your skills and capabilities.
So you’ve got your portfolio together and you’re ready to roll out those emails, but where to start? The internship process usually begins around February/March, so start early. In terms of finding the job, make use of your resources—professors, local graphic designers, or even your mom’s hairdresser’s sister’s friend. Some schools have job fairs, others don’t. If yours doesn’t, look up the local schools and go to theirs. I started off with AIGA’s site, which is how I found GoMedia’s posting.
If nothing there strikes your fancy, I’d suggest searching for design firms by city. My search this summer centered around Cleveland and Chicago, so I looked up design firms in those cities through their AIGA site and Core77. You should also research the firm: learn about their philosophy, read their blogs, and be familiar with their portfolio.
Once you have a list, start sending emails out. They should include a link to a portfolio of sorts, whether it be through a portfolio site (i.e. Coroflot, CarbonMade), personal website, or .pdf presentation. These emails should express interest in the firm’s work and a desire to be a part of what they do. Don’t be discouraged if you receive limited replies. I sent out 30 inquiries and received about 5 responses this summer. Some firms just aren’t looking to hire, or they just might not have any work for you.
Paid vs. Unpaid
Right off the bat you should know if the internship is paid or unpaid. It will normally be included in the job description but if it isn’t, don’t be afraid to ask. I have to be honest though, it’s pretty common for your first internship to be unpaid. My internship at GoMedia was unpaid, as well as my first internship the summer before that. However, you have to be receiving some sort of payment if your internship is unpaid, normally in the form of college credit, for it to be legal. If you haven’t already, this article goes into more detail about the legalities of internships. Don’t be deterred if the internship is non-paying. At the end of it all, you’ll learn so much about design in the real world that it’ll be worth it. Those are the kind of lessons that money can’t buy.
So you’ve scored an interview! High five! Interviews are normally on location or by phone (if you’re too far away). In my experience, phone interviews are harder than in-person interview, just because there’s a disconnect between the you and the interviewer, and also because it’s so hard to find a quiet area! Nevertheless, an interview is an interview. For an in-person interview, you want to dress business casual just to be safe. A suit probably isn’t needed, but a nice shirt and good pants should do the trick. You should also bring some form of portfolio to your interview—a laptop to show your website, a printed portfolio, or even samples of your work. When I had my GoMedia interview, I brought in a printed portfolio and I went through and explained each project.
Note: Be prepared for those stereotypical interview questions (i.e. “What do you think your strengths and weaknesses are?”). GoMedia didn’t ask those, but other sure firms did. Also have some questions prepared for your interviewer—it’s as much your interview as theirs.
That should do it! Go forth and conquer the design world, young padawans. Good luck!