The intern experience

Published:  April 16, 2015

Recent design school graduate Colin Fung immersed himself in as many internship and volunteer experiences as he could during his studies, and upon graduation. Here he shares the things he picked up while turning laps of the intern circuit.

Words by Colin Fung


The design industry is a tough nut to crack and as a recent graduate, the advice of my lecturers still rings clearly in my ears: experience is key. Scoring an internship with an agency or studio is a common goal for many students and graduates but what was formerly coveted as a tremendous opportunity to gain experience and contacts is increasingly becoming a term synonymous with unpaid exploitation. It’s a topsy turvy minefield where one internship can lead to a junior position and another doesn’t even get thanks on the way out. As a former perpetual intern, both paid and unpaid, I have developed an increasing interest in intern’s rights and the growing movement towards paid internships. I wonder how should design students and emerging creatives navigate the complicated decision to potentially give up their work rights to gain a bit of experience? And how can they make the best out of the situation once an internship is underway?

Colleen Chen — executive director and co-founder of Interns Australia, an advocacy and support group for interns — knows from experience the double-sided nature of internships. Chen was set to start an internship with a publishing house when she asked for a written contract and was concerned when she read that the company wanted to retain the rights to her intellectual property and would not take responsibility for her workplace health and safety (Interns Australia strongly recommends protecting your rights by asking for something on paper at the start of any working relationship). This proved to be an important moment in Chen’s career as it launched her passion for working towards fair working rights and conditions for interns in Australia.

Seminar conducted by Interns Australia,hosting Andrew Stewart, the author of the Fair Work Ombudsman's report into unpaid internships, and Miguel Wood, co-founder of a paid tech start-up internship program, Tin Alley Beta.

Seminar conducted by Interns Australia,hosting Andrew Stewart, the author of the Fair Work Ombudsman’s report into unpaid internships, and Miguel Wood, co-founder of a paid tech start-up internship program, Tin Alley Beta.

But what are the legal rights of interns exactly? Internship Australia states:

“As an intern, you are not entitled to payment of a minimum wage if it is undertaken as a requirement of an education or training course authorised under a law or an administrative arrangement of the Commonwealth, a State or a Territory. An internship is expected to be a learning experience, and is there to primarily benefit you and not the organisation.”

If your internship does not satisfy this criteria and you are performing productive work that is contributing to the organisation in a meaningful way, then you could have entered into an employment relationship and you may be entitled to remuneration.

This only further complicates the internship quandary as what constitutes as a “learning experience” or a “meaningful” and “productive” contribution is highly subjective.

To gain further insight, I spoke to a fellow former perpetual intern who I met through volunteering on the AGDA Student Council. Visual communications student Elliot Hutchinson gained a foothold into Melbourne’s design industry primarily through various volunteering and interning positions. He began with The Design Foundation working on projects such as the AgIdeas/Look Upstairs conference and during this time worked at Cato Brand Partners on the event’s branding and identity. The experience also included stints in the offices of multi-disciplinary studio Local People, which lead to a full internship there a few weeks later.

Collateral created at Cato for the Look Upstairs conference. Photography by Mark Lobo.

Collateral created at Cato for the Look Upstairs conference. Photography by Mark Lobo.

Hutchinson was committing so much towards these internships that he made the decision to defer his studies to pursue real world experience instead, which he found to be more “direct, relevant, necessary” and “trumped what was on offer at uni.”

Most of these placements only provided a stipend for lunch and transport but he maximised his opportunity by being open-minded when he arrived, being engaged with his workmates and being aware of and interested in the work around him by asking questions. “Question a finished artist, browse their library of publications, read through documents and presentations, geek out at studio servers and their filing systems even. Just get amongst it, everything and anything,” he recommends.

Through this enthusiasm, Hutchinson was able to contribute to his workplace and in turn (no pun intended), his workplace contributed to the development of his skills and knowledge. This is another important aspect of internships as intern rights is more than just about financial reimbursement, it is also about the content of the internship and placing value on an intern’s continued learning, development and on their work.

More recently, Hutchinson maintained his momentum with a placement at Studio Round, where upon completion, he was offered a role on their team as a junior designer. What I find most interesting about Hutchinson’s story is that technically he earned this full-time position without a degree, as his studies are still deferred. By his own admission though, Hutchinson acknowledges that he is an outlier to what is happening in a saturated industry. His is a positive story of success but there are many more untold stories of internships leading to nothing more than a reshuffle of the job seeker queue.

Chen and Hutchinson reveal two different sides of the intern story and further show that there is no one-size-fits-all answer when weighing up pay or experience. Interns Australia continues to work towards fully paid internships nationwide so that one day, interns won’t need to make give up one for the other. Until then, protect yourself by staying informed and getting something down on paper; maximise your experience by engaging with your team and using the company’s resources; and if it feels like you’re getting used with no benefits in return then don’t be afraid to get out. Having no pay is not the same as having no worth.

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