Everything to know about virtual design internships

As designers and interns reveal what they’ve learnt from a year of virtual work placements, we look at why they may be here to stay.

As the design industry and rest of the world went into lockdown last year, one group in particular faced uncertainty: junior designers and graduates. While the outlook over the year has been mixed – overall junior roles have fallen but a number of sectors have actually increased – working practices have definitely changed. Included in this are internships, still one of the most common stepping stones from education into the workplace.

It gave the senior designers organising placements pause to think. Daniel Andersson, co-chief creative officer at FutureBrand in New York, says that the past year has been a “learning curve” for the team in how they incorporate interns into a virtual workplace. “It put pressure on us to be really specific about how to plan the internships,” he explains, from welcoming new faces, setting out their work and keeping track of progress.

Over the summer, one intern worked from the West Coast (a three hour time difference) while another worked from her native Sweden (a six hour time difference) for three months on client work and an intern-specific project. The varied time differences have accompanied a wider shift to a more “fluid way of working”, the designer adds.

“The younger workforce doesn’t want a 9 to 5 job,” Andersson says, and he’s happy for his team to divide their day up as they see fit. “Even though we have meetings back to back, people have been able to tailor their days,” he adds.


“A different type of student could have an internship in New York”

Bielby-Smith with the design team at The Clearing

The New York-based branch of the studio typically takes on three to four interns every year, with two of those in design. That would normally require interns to find a place to live in the city, one where rent is infamously high. Suddenly, time zones and locations were not so much of a challenge however, Andersson explains.

“A different type of student could have an internship in New York,” he says. “You don’t have to come from a family that could pay for your stay here, and you could be part of a New York studio without having to live in Manhattan.”

Andersson also says that the studio is looking to diversify where it finds talent beyond the traditional design schools, working with diversity organisations like the T. Howard Foundation to reach young people who might not be able to afford the price tag of higher education.

The potential for diversifying the intern pool is widely felt, particularly in an industry that remains largely middle class and city-centric. Jonathan Hubbard, creative director at London-based studio The Clearing, echoes Andersson’s sentiment. “This industry is dominated by white middle-class people because London is a really difficult place to come and stay,” he says. “The industry is so narrow in terms of diversity and economic diversity is a really important part of that.”

The Clearing’s current intern, Oliver Bielby-Smith, hails from Southport in Merseyside, where he’s been working out of his bedroom for the past few months. He was previously chosen for the D&AD New Blood shift programme and had taken on a remote internship prior to interning at The Clearing. Bielby-Smith adds that this meant he was well-prepared for the experience of video calls and Slack discussions.


Virtual internships can be “isolating”

Here Design’s work for The Fife Arms

Another London-based studio has been running remote internships in the past year. Here Design co-founder Mark Paton says that it’s been a way to provide “new opportunities at a time when people were worried”. Not being restricted by office sizes and desks has actually helped the studio’s ability to do this, Paton adds.

Isaac Williamson started interning at Here Design before the pandemic, though switched to a virtual set-up when lockdown hit. He was offered a permanent job a few weeks into working from home. The previous time in the studio was helpful, he says, though being a virtual intern presented problems.

“When you’re left in isolation it can make it difficult to maintain the confidence in your own ideas and work, Williamson says. “And when you’re interning it’s important to have constant encouragement from your colleagues.” He says that an agency’s responsibility to check in on the interns and make sure they’re feeling supported is crucial.

Williamson’s experience is likely one echoed by many interns, even before the pandemic. Paton – who recalls once clearing out a cellar as part of an internship – is aware of this. “Offering an internship is a responsibility,” he says. “The experience we want to offer is one of a real designer – we take it quite seriously.” That includes paying interns enough to live in London as well as providing set-ups for interns, from a Teams log-in to computer hardware.


Supporting interns’ mental health

FutureBrand’s work for Impulstar

The reality of supporting interns virtually is not always so clear, however. Both interns expressed sometimes feeling hesitant about contacting designers with work – something that’s less of an issue in a physical workplace where you can see if people are busy or not.

“It’s really daunting for interns to arrive into a studio where you don’t know anyone, you’re young and you’re probably really nervous,” The Clearing’s Jonathan Hubbard says. “And it’s been more difficult in lockdown when you’re joining the team through a video call.” Hubbard says that remote work can also lead to a “silo-ing of work” so it’s been a priority to regularly call and check in with interns.

At FutureBrand, Andersson says this area has been a “learning curve”. Throughout the year, the team has had a fifteen-minute meeting every morning which varies between work and water cooler moments to get the day started, he explains. “There’s a risk that there’s meeting exhaustion,” Andersson says, “but I was trying to find that balance between including them [and leaving them alone]”.


Finding the right balance

The Clearing’s work for Japanese coffee brand UCC

Andersson adds that junior members may be more likely to live alone or working from their bedrooms, which can be “extremely isolating”. That’s especially true in a year that’s been “bonkers”, Andersson says. In America, the new year was marked by the storming of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. while last summer witnessed widespread race protests for the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We have been careful to create spaces where we can talk and really open up – maybe for two hours in the middle of the day,” he says. FutureBrand has also provided designers with membership to the wellbeing app Headspace.

If the right balance is found, Andersson says that this shift can be positive. Before the pandemic, he was rarely in the office but through video calls, he’s able to spend more “quality time with the whole team” and there’s been a “more intimate relationship with the interns”. He believes the current internships were the best the studio has ever offered.

While interning at The Clearing, Oliver Bielby-Smith says that the remote set-up has also helped him feel more at ease during this stage of his career. “In the process, some of the work can look not great,” he says, and the idea of people looking over his shoulder could be daunting. “It’s a lot more comfortable to sit in my room and do it,” he says, though adds that this could be because of his limited time in the studio.


What’s the future of virtual internships?

While lockdowns are being lifted around the world, remote working is still a norm for many. Where will virtual internships fit into the future of work? All the studios agreed that the benefits for remote placements – particularly the possibility of wider access – has prompted a rethink about future internships.

FutureBrand has added a spring internship as well as carrying on its summer programme. Bielby-Smith has extended his stay at The Clearing. After Williamson was hired permanently as a graphic designer, Here Design took on another intern. All of these are virtual placements. “We will embrace learnings from this year to adapt and change this experience,” Here Design’s Mark Paton says. “Looking ahead, the possibilities are exciting.”

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