The year I had four jobs

Each year Australian uni’s, colleges and private providers graduate literally hundreds of designers. They’re skilled at designing within a learning framework but lack exposure to the design industry and the perils of being underprepared for a commercial and unfortunately in some cases, exploitative environment. Does it matter if they fail? Should practising designers care if they struggle for employment?

I think it matters a lot, and here’s why…

Graduates are hungry for work. They want to shed their retail/barstaff/waiter careers and start designing real projects with real clients. Problem is, with no proven folio they can’t compete on quality or value or fit, so they compete on price. That’s not good for our industry and it’s not a great start to their career because it is unsustainable.

A better result would be an industry focussed on protecting their young. Demonstrating best practice before they fly from the nest. And it doesn’t have to be altruistic … it can be an easy win:win

Hiring graduates

This is not an article about hiring graduates. I know hiring graduates as junior designers can be a (rewarding but) costly exercise – infact we’ve done the figures and proved it is much more economical to hire a mid-weight than a graduate. That’s because even with mentoring, there’s no guarantee the graduate will ‘like’ their chosen career. Added to that, as soon as graduates start to become financially viable, they leave. They leave because they’re unsure whether this is as good as it gets. And they leave because the grass may be greener.

I know because that was me. I left uni with a broad spectrum of skills and no focus. So I ‘trialled’ jobs to find the right fit. In the first year I worked for an ad agency (3 months), at a print shop (4 months), in the communications department of RMIT (3 weeks – I had to work out 2 weeks notice!) and in a marketing consultancy (stuck there a while). In hindsight, I was running my own internship. Get in, work hard, look around, assess the prospects then cross it off the list and move onto the next one

The real difference, I know now, is my internship(s) did not come with mentoring. My internship program was a sink or swim scenario.

    Internships

    Internships are a win:win situation. They can be as beneficial for a design agency as they are for a graduate. Here’s 10 reasons why:

    1. Both the graduate and the employer know the internship is a 3-month contract. There is no ambiguity. Everyone understands it’s a short-term learning experience. It keeps everyone on their best behaviour.
    2. The intern gets an accelerated introduction into life in the creative industry. The pace, the urgency and the realities of a commercial business. If it’s not for them, it’s a soft landing.
    3. An intern must be paid minimum wage but still not be a financial burden – it’s at worst a cost-neutral exercise. At best it’s a profitable exercise. We’ve done the figures – here’s the business case.
    4. Graduates are fresh from learning. They know stuff. They’ve had time to explore new and emerging trends. They not only know and understand technology, there keen to share their knowledge. It’s a great way to wake up a tired and crusty creative team.
    5. Internships are not arduous, nor are they time-consuming. They can be a mix of
      • shadowing (the intern watching and listening at WIP meetings, behind designers setting up files, at client briefings and presentations, or at external activities like reccies and photoshoots)InternshipBusinessCase
      • mentoring (explanations of what to do, when to do it and why, with regular check-ins); and
      • productive work. At the beginning the productive work might be small repetitive tasks but it will build to tasks where they work independently for a few hours at a time.
    6. Internships give employed designers the opportunity to learn management skills. Briefing another makes you a better recipient of briefs. Managing others helps you understand the constraints of your manager. And critiquing another’s work makes you more empathetic to those critiquing your work. These are management skills not always available in small teams.
    7. Internships introduces diversity. It’s proven we hire like-minded people and that’s not great for an industry designing for inclusion. Designers of different gender, belief, ethnicity, culture and backgrounds can broaden a viewpoint or add market intelligence. Perfect for a specific project or to inspire objectivity into an existing team
    8. Internships improve soft skills. Remote working during the pandemic has not fostered the human skills of negotiation, team etiquette, empathy, compromise.
    9. Employers can evaluate potential fit for permanent recruitment – not only for the internship but also the potential for existing team members to move to management positions.
    10. Employees can keep existing design team fresh, interested, motivated by bringing in new ideas fresh from university.

    The worst-case scenario

    Graduates are still being exploited by design agencies. They’re offered ‘opportunities’ to work for free under the guise of internships. Unpaid internships are not just unlawful, they’re unethical and unfair. They promote privilege because only the financially able can work for free.

    What you can do

    Consider an intern. It’s a valuable experience for you, your team and the intern. And client’s love design agencies supporting young talent.

    The good news is you don’t have to go it alone. Never not creative have guides to help every step of the way. I know they’re good, I co-wrote them 🙂

    Before an internship:

    Guide for business owners, how to host a graduate intern

    Guide for graduates, how to land an internship

    During an internship:

    Guide for employees

    Guide for interns

    The Never Not Creative material was very helpful indeed, and we are hoping to utilise some of the practices for an ongoing internship program. And I’ve passed the link on to some of my contacts, as it was a great help, especially with the initial onboarding.
    Stefan Imbesi, Senior designer, Woo

    If you like the idea of taking on an intern but are unsure, just email. We can help. Alternatively take a look at Love and Money or Paper Stone Scissors – two design agencies who regularly run their own internship program.

    Internship minimum standards

    If you’re not in a position to take on an intern right now, at least show your support by signing the Never Not Creative Internship Minimum Standards.

    The Minimum Standards support a fairer, more sustainable creative industry. They outline the bare minimum responsibility of employers who bring interns into their business. Some elements of the Standards are consistent with employment law. Others are (in consultation with industry) the minimum we believe is required to give emerging talent the best possible chance to succeed.

    I’d love you to join the growing list of signees. It’s a fantastic first step to take and a clear statement and intention of your values in giving back to the industry we love so much.

    Got a comment/question? As always, happy to discuss further, just email.

    Carol Mackay
    Co-founder Design Business Council.

    We help designers build a more profitable design business

    We do that by
    • supporting creatives to learn management skills
    • helping identify and target better clients
    • increasing your studio’s productivity, and
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    We share our knowledge in a library of free resources, workshops, group and one-on-one mentoring.


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    Want more?

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    1. A global story about internships
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    3. What’s a fair wage for a designer?

    About Carol Mackay

    After 30+ years running a graphic design firm, Carol pivoted from client-focused projects to consult to the design industry.

    Carol’s special power has always been an ability to use design to translate difficult to understand or complex messages. She believes design brings clarity to complex issues. From clarity comes understanding, and understanding leads to knowledge.

    As a designer she used those skills with clients like The Magistrates, County and Supreme Courts; Ombudsman schemes and Emergency Service agencies. At DBC she uses the same skills … she helps designers de-mystify the complexities of managing a small business.

    Outside of DBC Carol mentors graduates and is a Board member at Never Not Creative, a community of creatives pushing for change in the creative industry.

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    An archive of Carol’s previous career is at mbdesign.com.au.
    Current work can be viewed at designbusinesscouncil.com and designbusinessschool.com.au.

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