by Will Novosedlik
I took on a teaching assignment this year. It was a seminar class for third-year design students. I was filling in for someone on sabbatical, a highly respected academic and historian with a reputation for being a very engaging teacher. This man would be a tough act to follow.
I did it because I felt like I needed a bit of an intellectual kick in the pants. And there’s nothing like the prospect of facing a group of 40 students every week to force you to reboot your mind.
The course was entitled ‘Contemporary Problems in Design’, and the content was primarily focused on the changing role of designers in business and society today. But at a couple of points in the first few weeks, it became obvious to me that the high level issues that we were examining conveniently avoided the issues that were really keeping these students up at night. The main one, of course, was “what’s going to happen when I graduate?”
Back when I started out (1980 or so), the concept of ‘looking for a job’ was still the norm. You made phone calls, got interviews, met people face to face to discuss your portfolio and prospects. I think I visited about 30 firms over a period of 2 months. Every one of them took the time to see me personally. I saw big firms, small ones, medium sized ones. Got a good sense of the lay of the land, and a very good idea of where I wanted to work.
The beauty of that time was that firms and the designers who owned them took their teaching role very seriously. They did not expect recent grads to be fully-formed designers; they recognized that as employers part of their role was to take them to the next level and to shepherd them in their transition from the protected environment of school to the somewhat less forgiving environment of business. In other words, they accepted responsibility for continuing their youngest employees’ education. No one asked them to; the good ones, they just did it.
This is as it should be. But it is no longer. Welcome to the curse of the unpaid internship. If they’re paying you, firms want you to hit the ground running. They’ll take you on as an unpaid intern, but there is little interest in helping you continue your education. You’re more likely to be given mundane tasks that no one else wants to do. Like running errands. As a result, students are not only learning little from these internships, they are not able to leverage them towards paid employment.
This phenomenon is not unique to the creative services business; it has been widely reported on in many other sectors and has been a particularly active subject among business journalists of late. The consensus is that many employers tend to regard interns as little more than slaves, taking no responsibility to teach them or train them.
I’m sure there are exceptions, but firms are exploiting young designers and offering them absolutely nothing of value for their efforts. Sometimes, they are extracting value that is not passed on to the student – but goes straight to the bottom line. I’ve heard of long-term interns performing tasks that are billed out at studio rates while the intern remains unpaid. That’s just plain wrong.
The universities aren’t helping. Many of them formally facilitate these internships. Have they not been reading the papers? The exploitation I refer to above is common and is being talked about as if it were an epidemic.
I have lamented the devolution of the design business in this country on more than one occasion. This is one of the symptoms of that demise. The fact that employers can sleep at night while their interns starve marks a new low in the annals of unethical business practice.
If this keeps up, a whole new generation of designers will grow up with absolutely no respect for their predecessors - and considerably less passion for their practice.