A Foot in the Door: 3 Questions, 5 Stories, and 7 Places to Apply (including Studio Rodrigo)

Erin Woo, Nick Emrich, and Lian Fumerton-Liu… design professionals?

A quick note: this post is almost entirely for students and recent grads looking to move into digital design fields (UX, design, product). Also, this post is self-servingly about internships at Studio Rodrigo.

Figuring out how to start a creative career is probably as much of a crapshoot as deciding where to apply to college. And, for better or for worse, like college, where you get your first internship or job can really determine how your early career (call it from 22 to 30) evolves. Either you get experiences, meet people, and gain perspective that helps you build the foundation you want for your career… or maybe you don’t. While your first real internship or job might feel like a small step, it can be a huge boost to setting you in the right direction for your career.

Three questions we would recommend for any one who wants to be a digital designer looking for a first real gig:

Big vs. Small
Starting out at a big place (R/GA, IBM) has benefits — you don’t have to explain to Mom & Dad where you work and there will be lots of other interns and new employees, which equals happy hours and big holiday parties, but also competition for places. You’ll get exposed to lots of different mentors, ways of working, and work on brand name clients. At the same time, it may take a year or more before you do anything that gets launched, and longer for you to actually present your work directly to a key executive or client.

Starting out at the right small place means you are learning hands on, contributing immediately, building your portfolio from early on, and getting very direct mentorship. But finding the right small place is really hard.

Agency/Studio vs. Start-up
Start-ups can be big (Spotify, Airbnb), medium (Compass, Oscar) or small (Openfolio, Uprise Art). A start-up on the rise is a great place to be a young designer — it’ll be a little chaotic, you’ll probably have to do way more than you signed up for, but you’ll learn a ton. A start-up that’s stalling can be extremely frustrating — you bang your head against the same problem over and over and don’t have anything to show for it.

Similarly, you can find yourself at a big agency (Digitas, Huge) or a small studio (Rodrigo, Fuzzco, Landscape). The biggest benefit of any studio or agency will be variety — you’ll get exposure to a lot of different types of projects, and the smaller the place, the more hands on you will be, in terms of contributing to something that gets made.

Full-time or Internship
Probably the hardest choice you’ll face is whether to take a full-time job or an internship that may be more interesting, but pays less. It’s an especially hard choice if you are moving to an expensive place like New York or San Francisco. It’s a hard question to give a definitive answer to — since so much of it depends on your personal financial situation. With that said, the experience you get at the right place will quickly pay itself off (in very real dollars) when compared to the wrong experience.

You should probably never take an unpaid internship (that’s exploitative!), but if you’re choosing between a lesser paid, more interesting internship and a slightly better paid, less interesting full-time job — well, think hard and choose wisely.

Studio Rodrigo: 5 Interns, 5 Stories

Erin Woo

Where were you at school and what were your goals before you applied to Studio Rodrigo?
I attended the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis (our career adviser made it very clear we had to say that entire thing in our cover letters). I had spent the previous summer interning in a pretty corporate environment and while it was a valuable experience, I knew I had a couple priorities for my first real life gig out of college. I wanted a mentor, a hands-on team, and an agency environment. To the surprise of many of my peers and my family, I decided only a few months before I graduated that I wanted to give New York a shot. I was ready for something completely unfamiliar and new.

How did you find out about Studio Rodrigo?
An email from my career adviser being forwarded to the rest of my studio. Rodrigo was a bit of a mystery; I asked two Wash. U. staff for some more information and they both weren’t really sure who Ritik was. (Sorry Ritik.)

What made you want to apply for an internship?
Based on the description and the work I saw, Rodrigo sounded like a great fit. It was tough to be told by many that I shouldn’t settle for less than a full-time position, now with degree under my belt. On the other hand, other agencies were telling me I didn’t have enough work experience. I knew I had to be open to internship positions; I didn’t want to close any doors to potentially awesome opportunities.

Tell us about your internship experience. What did you do? What were the highlights? What would you have wanted to do differently?
I joined Rodrigo right as it kicked off re-designing PRX.org (the beta can be seen here: https://beta.prx.org/) I was first tasked with helping our director of user experience pull together some references for a competitive audit, took notes on some user interviews, and eventually helped produce some basic wireframes.

As we moved into visual, I had a chance to throw in a direction. It was a bit intimidating, being my first time doing real client work. I also couldn’t help feeling like like I was competing with the other designers contributing visual directions. Luckily, that pressure went away when I saw how collaborative the process could be. Regular check-ins, discussions on how to push directions apart, and always knowing I could ask for feedback proved it wasn’t a competition it all. Looking back at it now, those nerves ended up making me question every decision I made. Something I’ve been trying to improve upon is to not feel so attached to every detail. Mock something up, get it out of your system, then move on to the next idea.

It felt really great being a part of the project from beginning to end. The ownership I was encouraged to take with it was really gratifying. In its last few weeks, I worked closely with one other designer and together, we redefined the entire PRX.org visual system. It’s been about 2 years since we completed it and I still feel proud of what we did. I may have been an intern, but I was #blessed to have been treated like another full-time designer.

What are you doing now?
I’m still at Rodrigo, no longer an intern. I’m currently designing the homepage of a news site and continuing to help the studio kick as much ass as possible, all while trying to grow as a designer. I’ve worked on a range of projects and am under the guidance of incredibly talented people. I can’t imagine what I’d be doing otherwise.

Nick “The Mantern” Emrich

Where were you at school and what were your goals before you applied to Studio Rodrigo?
I was a grad student in the Graphic Design post baccalaureate program at MICA. Around the time I met with Studio Rodrigo, my immediate goals were to finish school with a strong, versatile body of work and apply to design studios around the country. I spoke with folks at IBM, Pentagram and Studio Rodrigo, and I was considering cities like Austin, Portland OR, New York City and my previous home of Chicago, Illinois. At the time I was (as many design students tend to be) sort of in love with print, but I knew that the future of design and the majority of design jobs are digital-related, and I began to embrace that toward the end of my program.

How did you find out about Studio Rodrigo?
It’s kind of romantic. MICA had a two-day job fair that happened to be the day before a major project was due in my program. It was day 2 of the fair and I knew I should at least check it out, but I was working against two days without sleep and my resume was non-existent. So that day, I put together a resume as fast as I could, loaded jpegs of my work on an iPad and set off for the job fair — 30 minutes before it was scheduled to wrap.

When I arrived — it was a bustling sea of students and booths, and I was completely overwhelmed. Each well-known studio or design company had a near endless line of students waiting to chat, so I almost gave up and walked out — but right at that moment, my studio-mate insisted I go talk to a couple “cool” guys that run a small design shop called Studio Rodrigo from NYC. So I took his advice and went up there. As I approached their booth, they were getting up to leave for the day — but I asked if I could just have a few minutes to chat. They happily obliged and we had a nice little chat. They mentioned they run a summer intern program and were accepting applications. I was super interested and the rest is history!

What made you want to apply for an internship?
Although they didn’t have a body of work to show on their website at the time, I could sense that these guys know what’s up and probably run an ideal studio. They talked about remaining small and swift, only taking on projects that would be fun and interesting for the designers and team. They were really down to earth, nice guys and I just wanted to be part of it. Also — New York City!

Tell us about your internship experience. What did you do? What were the highlights? What would you have wanted to do differently?
My internship experience was great. It’s hard to call it that, because they really treated me as an equal from the start. I was put on a couple projects from the get go, and one happened to involve illustrations for a printed map — lucky me! I was designing icons, creating animations in After Effects, eating Shake Shack — but most importantly and least familiar to me — I was working with an awesome team, learning what it takes to make a great and beautiful user experience in digital — whether it be an app, a desktop or mobile site.

A big highlight for me is the atmosphere they’ve created here. The space feels comfortable and open, and it’s full of talented people who are passionate about their work and like to laugh. Right away I felt like part of something great, and it made my transition to New York drama-free. I can’t say there’s much I would do differently. New York City’s an amazing place with endless things to see and do — the people here embrace that and encourage a really nice work/life balance. And I can’t forget to mention — we do fun things together outside of work: karaoke in K-town, rock-climbing, shuffleboard, movies, Design Drinks (an event we host), and anything else we feel like.

What are you doing now?
I’m working on a visual direction for an industrial design studio’s new website that I’m really excited about, assisting a team in some day-to-day design work for Comcast’s My XFINITY website, always thinking of new app/design ideas, playing drums in a band, and planning a music video shoot for said band. I only wish there were more hours in a day.

Jared Fancy, the 1st Intern!

Where were you at school and what were your goals before you applied to Studio Rodrigo?
I interned the summer before my Senior year. I was a graphic design major looking for digital experience — most of my other internships were advertising or print-based.

How did you find out about Studio Rodrigo?
My college emailed me about the opening.

What made you want to apply for an internship?
I liked the studio’s work, and I wanted to know how it’s done. I had a few digital projects in school, but making an app or website for a client is totally different. (Spending the summer in NYC wasn’t a bad perk.)

Tell us about your internship experience. What did you do? What were the highlights? What would you have wanted to do differently?
I worked on projects from concept to wireframe to visual design — they let me be a part of the whole process. I’d highlight the level of trust I was given and the casual atmosphere — most of my other internships made me feel like an intern, but SR treated me like part of the team. I got a lot of practical knowledge about the industry that helped me jump right into work after I graduated. If I could do one thing differently, I’d say I probably didn’t have the discipline at the time to handle amount of freedom I was given to work on concept projects. It was summer in New York!

What are you doing now?
I’m a hybrid UX / graphic designer. I work full-time at a startup in New York and freelance as much as I can on the side.

Lian Fumerton-Liu

Where were you at school and what were your goals before you applied to Studio Rodrigo?
I went to a liberal arts school in which I studied fine arts and only concentrated in Graphic Design as one of my multiple areas of interest. I think this had both positive and negative aspects. It was positive in that I was given the ability to explore a wide breadth of fields and specialties to really test what did and did not stick. It was negative in that I feel I would have been much more prepared to work as a graphic designer right after I graduated if I had gone to a specialized school — both in technical knowledge and formal experience.

Because of this, when I applied to Studio Rodrigo, my goal was to make up for some of these aspects that I felt my peers, in the field of design, had gained more experience in. I felt I had a well-rounded background and I knew I loved design, but I really wanted to dive in and gain the concrete experience that I lacked.

How did you find out about Studio Rodrigo?
I found out about Studio Rodrigo through a posting on a design job website. (Not too exciting, sorry)

What made you want to apply for an internship?
What drew me to Studio Rodrigo was the fun and fresh impression of the people and culture of the studio. I wanted to work somewhere where I was inspired by other people and in an environment that allowed me to grow and one which was open to different backgrounds and experiences (and welcomed them). I also didn’t have much experience in the field of digital design, but that didn’t seem to be of huge importance. Studio Rodrigo was open to allowing me to learn and adapt at my own pace.

Tell us about your internship experience. What did you do? What were the highlights? What would you have wanted to do differently?
During my internship, I worked on initial visual directions for Belay, helped with branding and production for the Kickstarter Film Festival, produced promotional materials for the Uprise Art site, designed Baby Gooroo informational pamphlets, and executed initial directions for the Xfinity My Account project. I think the highlights were definitely experimenting with the various directions for the Kickstarter Film Festival because there were so many possibilities and resources at our disposal.

Also in general, I really loved collaborating on diverse projects with different designers in the studio because not only did I get to know them as people, but I learned a lot from their working process and experience in the field. The internship was especially great because I never felt treated like a temporary addition. From day one, although I was technically an intern, I was treated like a full time employee with just as much respect and importance as anyone else.

What are you doing now?
Right now I am working as a full time designer for the studio. Because the internship was so hands on and I felt like a full time employee for the duration, I was able to easily adapt and transition into the studio workings and environment. There was no disconnect from one day to the next, which truly shows how great the internship was in preparing me for the real thing.

Alexandra Wynn

Where were you at school and what were your goals before you applied to Studio Rodrigo?
Before Studio Rodrigo, I graduated from Tufts University and spent a few years working in digital marketing. My goal at the time was to shift my career to product management.

How did you find out about Studio Rodrigo?
Via MediaBistro.

What made you want to apply for an internship?
At the time I was taking a course in product management and I wanted to gain practical experience through a product management internship. I was also intrigued by the product, statexstate.com. Even though it hadn’t launched yet, I saw from the Kickstarter video that it was a passion project with a lot of dedicated and talented people behind it. I loved the concept of tying travel and artisan products together in a well designed site.

Tell us about your internship experience. What did you do? What were the highlights? What would you have wanted to do differently?
During my internship, I mainly supported the General Manager of SxS, Narguess, with production and preparing the site for launch. I researched and gathered content, whether it was editing/inputting copy from a freelance writer, sourcing images, or reaching out to artist networks for featured content. I also helped with the logistics of putting together the curated gift boxes.

The highlights for me were when I got to participate in a few product management tasks, such as coordinating with the Studio Rodrigo designers and developer to mock up and implement a new site feature (contributor’s page) and brainstorming with Ritik and Khoi who are product experts. Since I was taking a PM course, I was able to base my final project on a marketplace feature/concept for statexstate.com and gain valuable feedback from Ritik and Narguess. Not to mention, the whole Studio Rodrigo team is a fun and welcoming group.

What are you doing now?
Currently, I’m working as Project Manager for a marketing agency called Epsilon in San Francisco, CA.

Each of these people are design professionals

Where Should I Apply?
Here are 7 smaller to medium-sized digital design studios and agencies that we think are really solid:

Studio Rodrigo (www.studiorodrigo.com), New York, NY
Fuzzco (www.fuzzco.com), Charleston, SC and Portland, OR
Landscape (http://thisislandscape.com/), San Francisco, CA
This Also (http://thisalso.com/), New York, NY
Method (http://method.com/), San Francisco, CA and New York, NY
Work & Co (http://work.co/), New York, NY and Portland, OR
Made by Many (https://madebymany.com/), New York, NY and London, UK

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