Payback time

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.

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  • Not telling November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Too true. I think large companies are taking advantage of the current economic climate by offering only internships, instead of recruiting juniors. Many of the internships I’ve looked at are for three months, unpaid. I don’t come from an affluent family and at any rate they live overseas.

    I’m willing to do what it takes to get into the design industry, but I find it hard to believe that I’m not worth paying at least minimum wage.

    Sadly it seems as though work placements are the only way to get a paid position at a good agency.

    I agree with Adrian, entry level positions in the creative industries are for those from privileged backgrounds.

  • Rufus Spiller November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    It is a solid point being made here. The creative industries often cite themselves as topping the tree in ethical practice however I am often astonished at the number of agencies who will underpay or (as in this article) not pay interns.

    This could be fairly self perpetuated via interns in some part as I meet an equal number of students who claim they will work for free if they get into one of their dream jobs.

    While this can clearly be put down to youthful naivety, owners and managers should be quick to remind them to ensure that they should get paid for their talent. Otherwise they and we are undermining the system that we should all be mindful of. By not asking to be paid for the value of our services, we cheapen our industry perpetuating free pitching and undercutting.

    At the end of the day we should all be looking to be paid an honest days pay for an honest days work.

  • Alex Szabo-Haslam November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Adrian, I am the graduate you quote regarding the consultancies with clients ranging from Coca Cola to Nickelodeon… You also visited my university to lecture us earlier this year, and I found your stance on internships quite refreshing.

    I have friends who work in other skilled industries (such as IT and networking, computer fraud, marketing, accounting, banking) who find the idea of unpaid internships completely absurd. When I tell them tales of my experiences, they smile sadly and semi-seriously suggest I change profession. Companies like my work, but not enough to pay me? Right now my degree feels almost meaningless.

    I’m sad to say that for the time being I’ve given up hope of finding a decent design job and currently I find myself looking for employment in another industry. But hopefully I’ll end up doing something vaguely design related and keep working on my portfolio during whatever free time I have.

  • Iben Marx Holmes November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    At college I learned about this unpaid work in the design industry, and other horrid stories of endless hours work and deadlines turning you in to a slave. I was tempted as a student to pay whatever price to get my foot into a fantastic design job, but then again I’d still have to make a living and couldn’t see where the missing income should come from.
    But stronger than this is the feeling of not wanting to prostitute my efforts for anyone.
    Lack of gratitude never goes far.
    I didn’t want to neither support or take part in ‘work for no money’, and have instead set up my own business.
    Grown up in Denmark have proved that unions are good, and needed, after all the idea of unions was for a reason. Shame Thatcher killed them – this is the reason why UK still in this modern time struggles with such a ridiculous low minimum wage, and all sorts of bad and unskilled employers – and too many unhappy employees.

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