In college I was lucky enough to have five different design internships. My classmates had their own internships with different companies, and we’d often discuss them in class. So many of my now-colleagues felt bored in their internships, they felt like pixel pushers, and they didn’t feel fulfilled at the end of the program.
I fully believe (and this is part of the law in several places), if you’re asking someone to work for free, or at a deeply discounted rate, you have a responsibility to make their time worth something — to provide them with either skills, connections, or genuine exposure to allow them to get to another level.
I’ve really tried to implement this while managing interns at Paste. At the beginning of the internship I sit down with them and we openly discuss their strengths, weaknesses, and what they hope to achieve while they’re with us. We’re lucky, because apart from the day-to-day design work they need to do (story art, recurring assets, etc), there’s quite a bit of flexibility. My goal is for them to create 5–6 major pieces that are a.) published on the site, and b.) solid portfolio pieces that they can show potential employers in an interview. My section alone receives over a million page views per month, and I want to use this platform to help my interns build their careers and internet presence.
After we discuss strengths and weaknesses, we get to work — I allow them to pitch projects that they want to work on (within the site’s big picture), so that they’re motivated and care about doing the project. I don’t want to assign projects they don’t care about. This helps me build a more positive, excited environment.
But, as with any job, sometimes you have to very quickly do work you’re not as invested in. I like to simulate this in a stress-free learning environment.
Enter design challenges.
I’ve been doing these challenges with my interns on a biweekly basis for the past year — every other Friday, they come in to the office to find an assignment either on their desk or waiting in their email. I spend time the week before trying to craft an assignment that will force them to quickly learn and implement new skills, while being, you know, sort of fun.
Here are some past challenges we’ve done:
Animated GIFs: I usually do this one first to let them get their feet wet (no intern so far has had significant experience with GIFs), in a fun and creative way. It forces them to think in frame rates instead of a static image, and plan out their designs (where is the object now? Where does it need to be next?). By asking them to jump through different hoops, like an illustrated gif, to a typographic gif, to a morphing gif, they have to quickly try out several styles.
Chalkboard lettering: Different styles and applications that simulate real-world assignments. Design a menu wall. Design a circular jam lid, design a quote. Provide the interns with their own chalkboards they can use throughout the program if they wish to return to it.
Logo Sprint: X client needs a fresh new face. Provide name and type of client (restaurant, bank, etc), what their current brand is and a list of what visuals they need (logo + type + colors, maybe business cards, menu design, t-shirts). Give strategy tips like “wants to appeal to a younger generation,” “wants to change offerings from fine dining to tex mex,” etc.
App Design: Have the student/intern come up with problems that need solving. Need a better way to communicate with friends? Need a more efficient way to find recycling sites in the area? Have them design an app that’s beautiful, makes sense, and looks professional. They can’t build the app or beta test it for usability, but, ask questions at the end to make them think these steps through.
Web Design/Single Serving Site: I bought some fake domains and let my interns loose on them as a sandbox of sorts. They were instructed to set up Single Serving Websites — that is, a single page (maybe an About or Contact page if necessary, but the point is to keep it simple). By doing these challenges on a Friday, they also technically have the weekend and can present to me on Monday. I also ask that they not put up a “coming soon!” message so I can watch their progress.
Throughout the day we check in on their projects — when doing logo exercises, we sit down and discuss every iteration of their designs. Other projects like GIFs and chalkboard lettering are broken into sections, and we meet after every section to discuss what was hard, what came naturally, and how they could use these skills in the future.
Bonus: Get a few other people in the office to sit as a fake executive board for a review. Have the intern put together a presentation, give it to the group, and let the group respond with questions. Give each person in the “board” a different role — snappy boss, to luddite coworker, to litigious legal arm. Have each person ask questions as their role (snappy boss can just say “I don’t like it. Make the logo bigger. Make it pop!” for example, and teach the intern how to handle these types of criticisms).
All in all, the process takes only one day every two weeks, or 10% of their time. Even Google encourages employees to use 20% of their time for creative side projects. Throwing them through the wringer in a safe environment will help them grow confidently while generating a broad collection of work.
For me, the worst thing is for an intern to leave our program and then explain what they did here in vague, uninterested terms. I ask interns from other companies all the time what they do, and I get so many people telling me “oh, you know, I just set files up for press and stuff.” I would love for someone to suddenly light up and tell me about all of the things they did and learned while they were an intern.
In the future, I’d love to work with real clients on these projects — mock projects only take you so far, and if we could build skills while helping small businesses at the same time, that’d be a home run.
Want to try it out yourself? I’m releasing my design challenge creative brief for free. You can download it from Dropbox here — my only ask is that you let me know what you did with it, and what you thought.