in January 2014 Communication Arts Magazine online here:

Creative Recruiting: In-agency camps elevate the lowly ‘design internship.’

by Jessica Carew Kraft

The to-do list for the typical intern at a design or ad agency is rarely a glamorous one. Often charged with tasks that paid employees would rather not do, they’re asked for ideas only when they aren’t likely to mess up an account too much. Paid nothing or next to nothing, they increase profitability and productivity while ostensibly getting an educational experience. The mentoring—however minimal—that they receive from professionals is considered a big boost for their careers. And because competition is fierce, interns will gladly sort paper samples or prepare decks for free if it means getting one-on-one time with a creative leader at a top firm.

But recent lawsuits against companies like NBC, Fox Searchlight Pictures, and Condé Nast demonstrated that these positions are often exploitive, since federal guidelines prohibit unpaid interns from performing tasks that are usually done by employees or could be seen as “immediately benefitting a company.” While nonprofits like museums and charities can legally hire unpaid interns, profit-making companies must pay them at least minimum wage unless they offer a structured educational experience.

For the past few years, leaders in the creative field have been advocating for a change to the internship status quo. Since 2010, the Philadelphia chapter of AIGA Philadelphia [RD1] has taken a stand against free work by dropping unpaid design internships from its job board. The chapter also launched the “AIGA Philadelphia Paid Internship Pledge,” which now has over 100 signers, and states that unpaid internships are not only unethical, but privilege those students who can afford to support themselves without pay for a few months.

Yet others see no problem with having young designers “pay their dues” through unpaid internships in order to get real-world training. Industry darlings Stefan Sagmeister and the celebrated firm Karlssonwilker reportedly don’t pay their interns, framing the opportunity to work in their studios as a one-of-a-kind apprenticeship.

AIGA National Director Ric Grefé doesn’t believe this is ever acceptable. “You hear from many agencies that they are offering a learning experience, but usually it is not a structured experience.” Grefé also laments the murky ethics of hiring low-paid interns to do work for which a professional would be more generously compensated.  “In the worst case, {these internships} may be simply cheap labor, which fails to demonstrate respect for the value of an individual’s design and creative talent,” Grefé says.

While the issue of intern compensation continues to inflame industry discussion boards and spark talk of reform, a vanguard of agencies and firms are striking a new balance between using interns for low-level work and offering experiences that help budding creatives stand out against the competition. Grefé says he is encouraged by new graphic design and ad agency internships that are structured more like boot camps that help rookie designers and newbie art directors understand processes for problem solving, rapid prototyping, business operations and design strategy—training that is not offered in traditional internships, academic programs or portfolio schools.

“These programs offer an education in coping rather than cosmetics,” he says.

For the companies offering them, such programs are seen as a valuable way to infuse new energy, different disciplines and fresh ideas into their work. The twelve-week sessions have become fast recruitment tracks and a resource for developing talent. And all of them adhere to the U.S. Labor Department guidelines for internships.

VCU Brandcenter student Frank Guzzone didn’t shred papers or do stock image research during his twelve weeks at AKQA in San Francisco this past summer. The agency’s program, called the Forge, allowed Guzzone and the 12 members of his cohort to work closely with three different mentors on client accounts and create a final presentation judged by a panel of AKQA creative directors. “AKQA treated me like a junior team member and therefore I was held to the same standards,” he said. As a result, Guzzone was able to compile top-level work for his portfolio while taking home a monthly stipend.

AKQA executive creative director Stephen Clements says he was inspired to create the Forge program because “it’s very easy for companies to neglect the bottom of the pecking order and to think that only good thinking comes from people who have been in the business for a long time.”

Clements found that Forge participants brought an enthusiasm and dynamism that jolted the full time employees out of their regular modus operandi.  “Sometimes you lose that spark that helps you think outside the rules when you have been working in the industry for so long,” he says. “New blood doesn’t know those rules, and that is where true freshness comes from.”

AKQA has decided to hire exclusively for entry-level positions from the pool of Forge participants, providing a way to school new hires in AKQA values from the start.

Deborah Morrison, Chambers distinguished professor of advertising at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, has always prioritized connecting her students with such real-world design opportunities. “What internships are great at is letting you see the culture of an ad agency[RD2]  and getting used to the process of dealing professionally with clients,” she said.

Morrison was involved with creating the new 72U program at 72andSunny in Los Angeles[RD3]  that funds a unique 12-week design experience in which students dive into weekly themes—from documenting esoteric subcultures to prototyping arduino gadgets—with high profile guest teachers. 72U, like some other new programs, emphasizes multidisciplinary problem solving techniques and accepts participants from a wide variety of fields who are encouraged to apply when they are at a pivotal point in their careers.

72U director Maria Scileppi says that the curriculum is “developed in real-time, based on the interests of the participants.” While 72andSunny continues to offer traditional, specifically focused internships, 72U is a way for the rapidly growing company to source new talent from diverse fields like architecture, film and journalism, she said.

Similarly, New York IDEO partner and head of global digital business Duane Bray said that in addition to scouting out talent in high demand fields like UI and digital design, internships at IDEO offer an opportunity to conduct experiments and bring in students with adjacent skill sets. Many IDEO professionals also teach at the School of Visual Arts, which allows IDEO to influence the school’s pedagogy, which in turn better prepares students to excel at the company’s internships.

“We want to encourage thinking about how to engage clients, how to work with real world constraints and feed multidisciplinary exposure back into the school,” he said.[RD4]  In more and more degree programs, students are required to complete internships before graduating, so IDEO has become exemplary of how companies and schools can benefit from one another.

IDEO is also launching an experimental internship format. Recruiting only through its social networks, the Chicago office’s “Fortnight” program aims to train participants from a variety of backgrounds in the IDEO Design Thinking methodology. “We’re looking for anyone with good ideas and hoping to form new contractor relationships, maybe longer internship opportunities and, if we’re really lucky, hire someone full-time,” said communications lead Annette Ferrara.

Dawn Hancock, founder of Firebelly Design in Chicago, sees a need for designers to also get training in the practical aspects of running a creative business. “We see a lot of people come out of school these days and they don’t have the technical skills,” she said. “You might know how to use InDesign, but you don’t necessarily know how to send a file to print or bill a client.”

She started Firebelly U as an incubator for socially conscious designers who may want to start their own firms. Participants pay an initial fee of $6,000 for nine months to work on real projects with real clients and real budgets, which allows them to be paid back their initial investment and then further compensated every month based on the profits of the projects they are working on. Hancock also created Camp Firebelly, a more bootcamp-like program for college students or recent grads to connect them with non-profit organizations and produce printed solutions for them within ten days, while also taking tours of other design studios and hearing from top professionals.

These new in-house trainings are effectively bridging the gap between classroom education and hands-on experience. Collectively, they are starting to disrupt expectations about conventional internships by recruiting from other disciplines, grooming recruits in specific company values and strategy, and challenging participants to produce top work for real clients. They also seem to be promoting a new set of employee characteristics. While firms in a previous era might have prized diligent, detail-oriented workers who were highly trained, the application forms for the new programs make it clear that they don’t require finely tuned skills. Instead, they are looking for creative fireworks: you must be self-starting, blazing with passion, curious and intrinsically motivated.

“These are the qualities that can make so-so skill level into an A+ creative,” said Deborah Morrison.