Valuing Experience Over Money at Your Design Internship

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Internships are one of the best things you can do for yourself when you’re at school, or even right after school. You have the opportunity to learn some incredible skills from people that are very experienced in the field. Whether an internship is paid or unpaid, you still need to look for an opportunity to grow your skills in the design field.

Experience Matters the Most

There’s nothing more important when searching for a future job than experience. It’s important to find experience in internships and learn to grow your skill set. As a student, it’s easy to look past these opportunities because of the lack of pay. Why work somewhere that doesn’t even let you get paid, especially when you’re already paying for school? The negatives often seem to outweigh the positives, but there’s one aspect that is always overlooked – and that’s experience. You can’t pay for experience, you have to put the time in.

Don’t Overvalue Yourself

This goes for most things in design as well, but one thing that I always see that is so unappealing is students that believe they are better than they actually are. One of the shortcomings to this is believing that you are better than an unpaid internship, that you only deserve something that you can be paid for because your skills are that much better than everyone else’s.

Overvaluing yourself and your skills is what never allows you to grow as a designer. Regardless of finding a paid or unpaid internship, there are always new skills and values you can learn. When you hold your head too high for a job, then you will have opportunities pass you by that will have benefited you for the future. You will have plenty of time to earn money in your life, but if you always pass up opportunities because they aren’t worth your time, you will miss those that help mold you into a better designer and a better person.

Take the Opportunity

If you are given the opportunity to have an internship but are deciding on whether or not to take it because it’s not paid, take into account the experience and abilities you will gain from it. An internship isn’t just a chance to get another portfolio project or work on cool stuff, it’s a chance to learn from people that have been in the industry a lot longer than you.

The benefits of the right opportunity are up there with those of pro bono design. But that’s just it, you need to be in the right internship, not one where you’re treated as a servant, fetching coffee all day – David Airey

It’s a chance to learn how they do things, how they battle pressure, and how they overcome obstacles in a daily work environment. Don’t look at the internship as a missed opportunity to earn some extra money, look at it as a free chance to have some real world mess ups and real world successes.

Written by Spencer Hamm

Spencer is a designer currently living in Dallas, TX and helping , tweeting and dribbbling. Oh, and peppermint milkshakes.


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  1. Ashley on November 7, 2012

    I think this is a valuable lesson, but I do think that it's important for students to remember limits, too - it's technically illegal, at least in the US, for a studio or agency to not pay an intern who is doing work directly benefiting a company and is also there full time. For example, without naming names, I have a friend who spent time interning for free, 9-5 5 days a week, at a major NYC agency and worked on a major client project that the studio was presumably paid thousands for. She wasn't paid a dime, and frankly, that's out of line. A proper unpaid internship would be one in which the student is not working a 40 hour work week, and where the student is getting a chance to try out different things and just learn, not being treated as a lackey. Most students don't know about this law, though, or will take the unpaid internship anyway, which just means that studios and agencies are going to keep taking advantage of them for free work. If they're putting in 40 hours, they should at least be getting minimum wage.

    • Travis Welborn on November 9, 2012

      I agree with Ashley in a way. It's important to realize you're not a full-time employee and should value working on projects to gain experience, but it's also important to realize you're still playing a part in the project's success and that's worth something (in the end or along the way).

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