A Year In The Bay Area — Learnings & Struggles of A Design Intern (Part 1 of 3)

Last year, I took a year off of school, and have since done three different internships in the Bay Area back-to-back. Time passed by quickly, and before I realized it, I’m already back in school for the second week.

I‘ve had the privilege to experience what it’s like to work at a small consultancy studio, at one of the hottest tech companies, and at a luxury automotive corporation.

Part 1: The Studio Internship
Part 2: The Facebook Internship (writing in progress)
Part 3: The Non-Tech Corporate Internship (writing in progress)
tl;dr: Dear Design Interns (writing in progress)

When I first started interning, I had no idea what to expect. The intended goal for my story is to share my experience with other students looking to do design internships to set better expectations for themselves through my learnings and struggles.

Part 1: The Studio Internship

Just a year ago, it was August of 2015. I had just started my internship at a design consultancy studio in San Francisco called Propelland.At the time when I was applying, I had never heard of the studio, and came to learn about them through my school’s career portal. After asking around for a bit, I found out that some other students from my school had interned there before and had positive experiences. I decided to give it a shot. 
After four and a half months, I finished my internship. And starting my year of internship experiences at a small studio has become one of the best decisions I’ve made.

The Propelland family in San Francisco at the Christmas bowling party, December 2015. (from left to right: Hugo, Jordan, Josh, Sid, Liz, Dwight, and me)

The First Day

Monday. 8AM in the morning. I had some trouble finding the studio on my first day, and at the time, I only had one contact with the studio. After many failed attempts to get in contact with him, I decided to look for the studio myself. I eventually found the studio inside of what seemed to me like a maze inside of an old factory building.

360 photo of the studio space taken with Ricoh Theta. Click here to view in 360!

Meeting the team

On my first day, I met the design team: Dwight, Jordan, and Anne. It’s a tiny studio with a tiny team. All of us wore multiple hats and supported each others’ projects when we needed help. We were a diverse bunch of service designers with focuses and skills in visual design, interaction design, product design, industrial design, and creative strategy.

I became a caffeine addict

The team was excited to see on my first day that I drank coffee. At the time, I enjoyed the taste of coffee, but I didn’t really drink it regularly everyday. Back in school, I’ve only drank coffee when I needed to.

Every morning, the team at Propelland would routinely make their pour-over, and then make another one after lunch. Drinking coffee was a bonding activity with the team, and as a new intern I wanted to be a part of it too. I started drinking coffee with them everyday to fit in and because #FOMO. Before I realized it, my energy levels depended on coffee, and I had become a caffeine addict.

Staying in a “start-up house” Airbnb

In the beginning of my internship, I stayed at an Airbnb that housed 14 people in total in a 2 bed/2 bath apartment in the heart of SoMa. Other tenants were also doing internships that didn’t provide housing, or were taking coding bootcamps in the city. The host made a living through his Airbnb. He called it his business and traveled constantly. He would occasionally — maybe once a month — drop by to check in on the apartment.

For 3 months straight, I lived out of my 2 suitcases that I brought with me from LA. Multiple bunkbeds were stuffed into the bedrooms and people even slept in the walk-in closets with mattresses on the floor. The living environment was toxic and it wasn’t helping me decompress and relax from work.

Photo of the bedroom I stayed at. Six people stuffed in a single bedroom and another person in the walk-in closet. The other bedroom in the apartment unit had a similar setup.

If you’re wondering, the only reason I stayed there as long as I did was that it was close to the studio. I could take Muni to work within a few stops. Even when I worked late at night, and Muni had stopped running, I could still walk back to where I was staying in 20 minutes. 
Through constant persuasions from my concerned friends and coworkers, I eventually got out of the crowded apartment, and moved to a house on the other side of the city. I paid almost the same amount but had my own bedroom this time around.
Although I missed the short commute to work and missed being closer to everything in the city, I was finally able to relax in my own room and wind down after work.

The work

On the first day, I was put on to a fast-moving client project for a web rebrand and online identity. I created visual design proposals and learned more about using Sketch 3. It felt similar to a lot of the work I did in school for graphic design and typography classes.

Being an intern in a small studio provided me the chance to have huge impact and a lot of ownership.

I wore many different hats as an intern and was working directly with our clients at different stages of various projects.

Even though some days I had to help with other people’s tasks, I felt that was constantly being included. In a small studio, we shared each others’ problems and workloads when necessary. I would be looped into workshops to do affinity clusters for an early phase project, or be involved in a workshop to ideate on the v2 of a physical product. It was exciting to be able to work on a diversity of tasks. It kept the work fun. I felt useful, and I felt validated for what I learned in school.

Sid, one of the co-founders of the studio, often stressed that they view every intern the same as any other full-time designers and that interns are given the same responsibilities and expectations.

It really depends on how you frame it and what perspective you take. At smaller studios, interns are easily affordable, budget designers.

As a young designer, I wanted working experience and the studio needed help.

Everyone gets what they want.

My Main Project

About a month and a half into my internship, Josh (who is also from my school) came onboard as the other intern. Around that same time, I expressed interest to my team to focus my internship on digital products for the next three months to cater to my growth.

The timing was perfect and there was a major client project in the digital space to be started in its ideation phase. This project turned out to become one of the main highlights of my internship experience at Propelland.

Through working directly with our clients, I learned about client management and better ways to frame and communicate my ideas. I had the opportunity to work closely with the dev team to execute our vision for the product. It was amazing to see it come alive!

Sid would later tell me that I was given the responsibility and the challenge because I had built enough trust in my abilities early on in my internship.

Photo taken during a meeting of my main project as I presented initial wireframes to our clients. (left: clients, right: me)

I burned out for the first time

When I started my internship, it was just a week after I had my finals at school. I was used to hustling and working constantly. I was doing what I loved. I was passionate about the work I was doing. I didn’t mind working long and I was pretty much working long voluntarily.

I had heard of multiple tales about burning out, yet still, I somehow naively thought that it wasn’t something that could happen to me.

I overlooked the need to rest and I mistakenly thought that by spending more time, I could refine my designs, and come up with more solutions to the problems I was solving.

Studios want to please their clients and go an extra mile further. As other designers worked late, I felt compelled to stay and work with them. I wanted my work to be the best it could be, but working late for me had done quite the opposite.

During my first month of interning, I burned out for the first time.

As a new intern I was excited to work, and I wanted to impress my team and show them what I could do. However, a workday schedule is different. It may not be strictly 9-to-5, but it is often energy draining to be at work the whole day. I was usually not very productive towards the end of the day.

I’m no robot.

In retrospect, I think my newfound caffeine addiction had given me an exaggerated sense of energy and excitement.

Learning when to stop

When Sid saw me struggling with my time management, he introduced me to the idea of the 80–20 rule.

When it’s 80 percent done, it’s probably good enough to move on to the next task. The last 20 percent will take up the longest time to refine and perfect.

It took me a while to learn and get used to it, but it worked. At the end of the day, it’s up to me to set my own expectations and limits.

During a work off-site for content creation of a client project. (left to right: Hugo, Liz, me)

Why was starting at a small studio one of the best decisions I’ve made?

The internship wasn’t perfect, but I’ve learned and grown far more than I could have expected.

On top of sharpening my execution and technical skills,

  • I learned how to manage my time better.
  • I learned how to manage my own productivity.
  • I learned how to work with other designers.
  • I learned how to work with clients.
  • I learned how to work in a small studio.
  • I learned how to build trust with my team.
  • I learned how to avoid burning out.

At the end of my internship, I not only became a better designer, but also a more well-rounded individual as a whole.

Next — Part 2: The Facebook Internship (writing in progress)