I recently met with a teacher from Harrisburg University about the possibilities of an internship and what that experience would look like at my daytime firm PPO&S. We chatted about what Harrisburg University has to offer its students and what they want to provide for their students in the way of real world application of knowledge. This got me thinking a good bit about my own experiences being an intern and also running an internship program. For design students, of any discipline, a good internship can mean the difference in establishing your career.
First, here’s an internship nightmare. Why would I tell you a nightmare first? Just like in the business world, things can go wrong. What was amazing was that from my worst experience a door would open to my best experience that helped me start my career.
In 2009, I participated and won a scholarship from the Philly Ad Club’s Philly’s Future Scholarship program. I was awarded a pretty sizable cash award along with a guaranteed internship with a Philly Ad club member organization. After doing research on some of the member organizations, I started to pursue the art director at an ad agency that was based in Harrisburg. Being from Mechanicsburg, I thought this would be a great fit, plus I could take the train every other day back to Philly for classes; essentially trading rent for train fare as I could live at home.
I called the advisory board at the ad club and let them knew who I wanted to take my internship with and they would make the necessary arrangements. Three weeks later, I heard nothing, so decided to start making my own way with the firm. I called the art director several times over the course of a month to try to setup a meeting. Each time, I was told there is a spot open and that they would love to have me come in, but they would let me know when. This went on for several more weeks and then I got a phone call.
“I can meet with you at 2pm, come to our Harrisburg office.”
I got the phone call at 12:30pm…at my house…in Philly.
Don’t ask me how fast I drove on the PA Turnpike to make the meeting. I got there on time. Prepped and ready to go…and the art director left for the day. This same thing happened two more times until I actually got a face to face meeting finally scheduled. I show up for the interview with a very disinterested art director who looked like she just finished up at the dirt track rather than working in the office that day. The interview went well, at least I thought, and I was given a tour around the facilities and asked when I could start. I left feeling pretty confident. About a week later, my admissions calls me in to tell me that when she followed up with the agency about my position the art director tore into a tirade about how unprofessional I was and how immature my book was and there was no chance of me working in this field. My admissions director took that personally and after many unsuccessful calls to the Philly Ad Club to find out what we could do, we were at a loss.
Good advice came from my Dad. He suggested calling the agency and talking to the president or CEO, the top person at the agency. So I called the agency and just asked for the person whose name was in the building, and I didn’t expect much to come from it, but later that same day the agency president called me up and invited me to come and meet him at his home the following weekend back in Central Pa. I met with him at his home and we sat and discussed work and the industry. Two things happened that night. I didn’t get the internship at his firm as the art director had already chosen someone else, but I was given contact information by him to look for an internship in Harrisburg. One of the places he suggested was Harrisburg Magazine. I called them the next day, had an interview the following week, and was offered the internship right on the spot. That year I spent at Harrisburg Magazine taught me all of the soft skills of working in an office, the importance of time management and deadlines, how to price a project, and most importantly, how to think like a designer and innovate in my work.
I went from one of the worst experiences in my early career to one of my best. It was the proverbial emotional roller coaster ride. I learned a great deal about myself and about chosen career field. The lessons I learned reaffirmed for me that this was the field I wanted to pursue and my passion for design only grew while at Harrisburg Magazine.
Students need to have an internship for a variety of reasons. The application of their experience of their academic work becomes validated and expanded upon when they can work on projects at an internship. There are many elements of the business realm of design that colleges and university simply don’t teach. This is where the job training of the internship becomes vital. For students who want to pursue the route of the entrepreneur, the skills and knowledge they can glean from account management, business development, billing, public relations, media planning and digital development would be invaluable. Your internship should challenge to think like a professional and utilize the knowledge you’ve attained as a student and apply the concepts of design thinking to work for clients. An important aspect of your internship should also be to determine if this is the field you truly want to work in. As a student, it’s much easier (and cheaper) to where your passion and interests lay before you get into a career that you learn you can’t do, for any reason.
I ran an internship program at Harrisburg Magazine after I became Creative Director of Custom Publishing and at one time I had eight students working in different specialties from graphic design, web development, copywriting and photography. I ran the program like a miniature agency with my colleagues acting like department heads. We challenged our interns to not only be innovative in their approach to a problem, but also to scale the solution for long term viability. My interns busted their ass with us and I was their number one cheerleader. I appreciated all of their hard work and it gave me such a sense of pride when they left us to pursue their careers with full confidence in their knowledge and abilities. I’m happy to say that all of my former interns are working for amazing employers like Harper Collins, Red Lion Controls, The Commonwealth Fund, CertaPro Painters, and the US Senate.
For students, follow up with your professors and instructors to seek internship opportunities in your area. Reach out to agencies and in-house departments and inquire if they have an internship program and how you can apply for it. More often than not, a place may not have one, but by asking you’ll become the first case study. It’s prudent to join organizations like AIGA or other trade organizations that host events that can lead you to network with the right people who are looking for interns.
Tell me about your internship experiences, I’d love to hear them.