idsgn (a design blog)

Opinion: The case for unpaid internships

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February 10 2012

Illustration: Thomas Wilder

Are unpaid internships evil, or is education payment enough? Thomas Wilder reflects on his past experience as an unpaid intern at a New York design firm.

Editor’s note: idsgn spans different points of view, and what follows is an opinion not neccesarily shared among our editorial team. However, we feel the debate is a valid one to explore and the topic is worthy of further discussion.

During my years in design school, I worked on countless projects with professors and never expected anything in return other than their vast knowledge. I understood it would help me in my future profession.

Following my junior year, I obtained an unpaid internship at a design firm in New York City. There, I was taught by an extremely talented creative director who mentored and educated me about the professional side of design. My professors were extremely talented and unusually nurturing, but I came to understand the knowledge gained during an internship can be invaluable, and the experience can shape the way one approaches, visualizes, conceptualizes and executes a design project.

A few months ago I came across Maribeth Kradel-Weitzel’s AIGA article “The Cost of Free Labor”, which addressed the ethical treatment of interns within the design industry. In Ms. Kradel-Weitzel’s article she discusses:

Bright and motivated young people are not going to devote their energy to an industry that does not financially value their contribution. Unpaid internships could force would-be designers to move into other, more lucrative fields.

—excerpt from “The Cost of Free Labor

The key term from above is “would-be designer.” This term implies that an internship is anything besides an extension of a student’s education. These individuals, are not graduates.

An intern is a student, who is not qualified or regarded as a professional until acquiring a design degree. A student or intern is an apprentice. An internship is not a job, and although it does not occur in a university setting, it is still a form of education. A company has agreed to give an individual free knowledge about their prospective professional industry—an opportunity to learn practical information free of cost. Internships are like practical exams, study abroad, or any other out of class assignment.

Illustration: Thomas Wilder

Employers do not need to offer internships, and are taking an enormous risk hiring a soon-to-be professional. Interns are not meant to take the place of a professional candidate. An employer or firm chooses to provide internships because they are investing in the future of their industry.

It’s important to remember that monetary value is not the only value one can gain. Higher education and internships are privileges. However, prospective design professionals who are not able to afford rising university tuition are forced into other fields, universities or faced with finding alternative ways of funding their educations.

It’s clear that employers have become teachers and are increasingly valuable assets to a student’s education. If internships are becoming required coursework or an expected credential, then perhaps universities should provide internship grants. Or consider setting aside a university funded stipend that is solely  devoted toward financing internships. Furthermore, if internships are required by the university, then why are they not included in a student’s tuition costs? Paying interns should not be an employer’s burden.

To close, if an instructor learns something new everyday from their students, then perhaps professors should make restitution to students for this exchange of knowledge. Or is an education payment enough?

Thomas Wilder is a multidisciplinary designer living and working in New York City. He currently works at the Brooklyn based design studio MGMT. design. He has worked with clients such as, Tiger Woods, NYEHAUS, Rizzoli and GOOD magazine, . He graduated from Penn State University with a Bachelor of Design in Graphic Design. You can follow him at @ThomasWilder.

Filed under: design

By Thomas Wilder