Many designers treat interns as a convenient source of unpaid labour. However, Adrian Shaughnessy argues that we shouldn’t forget to give something back
Philip Hammond is the Tory MP for that downtrodden, badlands constituency of Runnymede and Weybridge. In an e-mail replying to a question by a member of the public, he wrote, ‘I would regard it as an abuse of taxpayer funding to pay for something that is available for nothing and which other Members are obtaining for nothing. I therefore have no intention of changing my present arrangements.’
Hammond - a senior Opposition figure, apparently - was responding to an enquiry about his compliance with national minimum wage regulations in his recruitment of unpaid interns. You can read about Mr Hammond’s e-mail at Interns Anonymous, a lively blog set up by two graduates - ‘We want this website to be a forum for interns to share their experiences and discuss the ethics of unpaid employment,’ the creators say.
The site’s emergence is timely. The question of internships has become a hot potato. The debate was ignited by the recent report into social mobility in Britain by Alan Milburn, called Unleashing Aspiration/ The Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions. Millburn and his panel noted that internships in the professions - Parliament, law, finance - are usually open only to the privileged classes with connections in these worlds, not to mention the cash to support graduate offspring.
But not all interns come from affluent well-connected homes and it is now standard practice for businesses to make extensive use of unpaid interns - a fact richly confirmed by the plantation-owner tones of Mr Hammond. Before we dismiss MPs, lawyers, financiers and others for exploiting unpaid labour, we need to remember that design has its own system of internships. How many of us can claim a faultless record in this area?
Interns Anonymous has a section on graphic design. It makes sobering reading. One blogger writes, ‘Some of the consultancies offering me unpaid placements count Coca-Cola, Nissan, Manchester United, Sony and Nickelodeon among their clients. Some have more than 100 staff, and have numerous unpaid interns each week. Some are part of multinational corporations. Do they seriously expect anyone to believe they cannot afford to pay interns £5.73 for a few hours a week?’
Another blogger bemoans the fact that his/her duties include having to ‘organise and book my boss’s holiday, book restaurants for his friends, find tickets for shows, go to the supermarket, squeeze fruit into juice for five hours for a cocktail party and so on’.
We designers are quick to grumble about sharp practices - free-pitching and a cavalier approach towards intellectual property spring to mind. But we can only claim moral superiority if our attitude to interns is beyond reproach. If we refuse to pay for their services, or if we pay them a fee, but neglect to devote time or effort to advancing their knowledge, we are no better than Hammond or all those unscrupulous clients.
When I had a studio, I always paid interns. I didn’t pay much, but I paid something, and I always made sure that I spent time with each one. Sometimes they had to do the sandwich run or make the tea, but I never asked anyone to pick up my dry cleaning. I’m sure there are a few designers who didn’t get my full attention and left without much discernable increase in their knowledge. But I’ve met quite a few of them since and I haven’t been punched yet. There’s still time, I suppose.