As soon as I came across the job posting for an intern at Filament, I didn’t hesitate to start up Word 97 on my office computer, hammer out a cover letter, attach my resume and send it off. It was the first cover letter I remember ever sending that was sincere. The tone of the posting was refreshingly welcoming, down to earth and the complete opposite of condescending. I could tell that they were looking for someone that not only had the skills and drive, but someone they would enjoy hanging out with for 8 hours a day. The posting even insisted that the applicant be a nerd! The prospect of actually being able to feel comfortable in a work environment with fellow geeks, (best of all– design and dev geeks) was beckoning me like the light at the end of the drab, grey, neverending administrative job tunnel that I had been trudging through for the past year.
This calls for a bit of backstory: I graduated from Seneca College’s graphic design program in September of 2010. After enduring a less than stellar internship as part of a credit, I naively decided to take some time off to work on my portfolio. This turned out to entail days of perusing the Internet, comparing myself to everyone better than me at everything ever, and getting increasingly discouraged in every sense. I couldn’t even bring myself to apply for anything, making the excuse that I shouldn’t be wasting my time; since I was so craptacular, no one would consider hiring me for anything ever anyway. A couple of months later I was still quite obviously going nowhere, and the prospect of gaining a little Holiday money was too enticing. I took on a full time documentation role I had previously had as a summer student (but only for now, I kept reminding myself). I got far too comfortable (read: lazy) and stayed there for over a year, all the while ungratefully complaining and making excuses while the ever evolving design world continued to pass me by. And because of my lack of motivation and self-confidence, my freelance career was floundering as well. By this January, I was fed up with myself and spent every spare moment searching design job postings. If not now, then when? became my mantra. So when I came across Filament’s, I lit up with the potential promise of gaining experience, progressing as a designer and feeding off a group of such seemingly awesome people.
I worked harder to prepare for the interview than I ever had before. I studied every bit of copy on their website, memorized their process and creeped their tweets and blog posts. I rehearsed presenting my portfolio, studied common design interview questions and encouraged myself to sound confident and overcome my chronic awkwardness. I was told to bring a tablet or laptop to the interview for a bit of an open-book quiz. Freaking out that I was going to be building a small website on the spot or designing a layout or coming up with logo concepts, I studied even harder days before the interview. But when Steve sat me down and gave me a piece of paper with 20 completely unpredictable questions listed front and back, I was initially bewildered. It ended up being more of a hilariously arbitrary assessment of one’s Google/Wikipedia skills that tested the resourcefulness and intuition of a candidate. I won’t spoil the questions for you, potential new interns, but believe me when I say– it was the most unexpected, entertaining and overall enjoyable interview I ever remember having. I, later got a response detailing that I was chosen as the new design intern and couldn’t stop beaming. I forgot that it was humanly possible to actually look forward to going to work, and couldn’t wait to start.
Right off the bat within the first week I had genuinely learned more than I had learned in an entire year on my own. I got to know organizational and productivity tools like Basecamp, Invision, Trello and wireframing tools like Omnigraffle. I was encouraged to read relevant articles and take notes on talks from conferences, ranging from Photoshop tips to breakdowns from design veterans on why being a designer is so important (and awesome). I quickly began to retain a much clearer understanding of expectations, estimation and what would be acceptable and unacceptable as quality work for clients. My first task was to design a website for a faux client with me as the client-facing designer. There were no due dates or essays, but by the end of it I had a much deeper comprehension of client facing work than any school assignment in my experience. I also came to love Filament’s creative process because I thoroughly understood why it works so well. This made-up-client-facing assignment was, so far, one of the most valuable experiences I’ve had during my design career. I learned a ton and was forced to overcome my limitations in the face of productivity, as well as living up to my own standards of quality work. Sitting down and doing the work was eye-opening in terms of my expectations of myself, and the quality of my output. As a general note, thinking that you’ve got the skills to crank out your very first entire web design concept in 8 hours is a hell of a lot different than actually sitting down and doing it —it took me a week and a half.
Within every subsequent undertaking, I would apply the process, becoming increasingly more competent as I went along. I particularly enjoyed creating moodboards, which help map out the direction a design concept will be going in. It’s sort of a scavenger hunt for inspiration that encourages you to find examples of great execution of imagery, colour, behaviour and type throughout the web. And, in another piece of advice from my teammates, the path to unbridled creativity and confidence in your abilities as a designer has got to start out with loads of practice and yes, even forms of imitation used sparingly. Additionally, not only was adhering to professional web design standards something new for me, but designing with varying screen sizes and usability issues was another eye opening lesson. Encouraged to think critically about responsive design was extremely valuable. Within one project, I spent an appalling amount of time working out wireframes for a mobile site, but it was time well spent to help me truly understand optimal functionality. Having realized the potential and capability of a designer to make things better, easier and faster for all users was a eureka moment for me.
The amount of creative freedom that was afforded me is every designer’s dream. But naturally, each design decision had to have a fully thought out rationalization. It’s fascinating to observe the kinds of creative decision making and problem solving that the team will put their heads together and come up with. Filament’s creative ideation process spawns such great concepts that, as equal parts an observer and actively engaged, my creative itch is scratched just by being in the room. Not once did I feel taken advantage of, unlike what I hear many design interns may have to endure. Never did I consider the work that was assigned to me as bitch work or slave labour. I loved coming in everyday and wanted to be of utmost use to everybody in the office. The enthusiasm that I felt coming in to work was perfectly matched by my teammates’ attentiveness and eagerness to teach. I was consistently excited to come in and work my ass off. There were periods of varying intensity and busyness but almost every day I was hard at work doing something useful. From client-facing deliverables to trying to cram as much useful design-related information into my brain as possible, every day bordered on exhausting but incredibly rewarding.
Like a good intern, I kept my eyes and ears open at all times. I watched as the creatives rationalized including or removing elements of a particular design. I would open up any .psd I could find and study the techniques used so that I would be able to break down the execution. I eavesdropped as hard as I could to every conversation related to design problem solving, from creative strategy to development issues. I wanted to be a sponge that could soak up as much as I could possibly retain. Accordingly, my mini notebooks are filled with scrawls, crammed in to any available space, of Photoshop techniques, shortcut tips, advice on best practices and song titles to download (Rdio/Spotify plus the unrivaled music taste of the Filament team had singlehandedly revamped my entire iPod library in a matter of weeks).
I had some missteps along the way for sure, but the team would never leave me hanging. My self-doubt and insecurity continued to plague me, but there’s nothing better than having such a great support system sitting directly beside and across from you. Answers to questions and advice were there at every turn. Yes, it was unpaid, but they had some pretty awesome perks. Your choice of free lunch twice a week from a myriad of excellent options in the heart of Liberty Village? Sweet. Metropasses? Yes, please. Infinite music library courtesy of Rdio and Spotify? So good. And compensation for certain client-facing deliverables? I certainly took advantage of that!
My internship at Filament has taught me an almost overwhelmingly vast amount of knowledge in such a short time. I had grown incredibly over those 12 weeks, and certainly more so here than I would have anywhere else. Because the Filament team is so small compared to most other design firms, I was truly engrained in every step of the design process for a wide array of clients. I continue to marvel at my co-workers’ expertise and passion for what they do. They remain to be among the most effective, helpful, attentive and truly caring teachers and mentors I’ve ever had. I continue to learn and grow every single day here at Filament and I am truly thankful that I was able to have an opportunity like this to learn from such experienced and supportive people. Hanging out with four (+1 from afar) truly talented, passionate, hilarious and overall awesome geniuses every day only makes you want to work as hard as you can to get to their level.
We’re going to be veering into cheesy territory for a moment here, but my 2012 resolution was to find a job in the design field in which I can honestly say that I love coming in to every morning. I feel so fortunate that I had this chance to spend such an amazing time at Filament, and I can finally say that I have actually achieved my goal. They hired me on full time as a junior designer! It’s such a rewarding feeling. (And now, I guess, to work on that other new year’s resolution– dusting off that gym membership.)
Phew, enough about me. Here are a few tips on how to be the best intern you can possibly be.
So you just got your dream internship and you feel like a champ! You just beat out all of the other applicants to gain a spot as a team member within one of Toronto’s best digital creative agencies. And of course you did; you were at the top of your class, always coming up with brilliant and unique design solutions, and you may have even won some student awards. But check whatever ego you have at the door, and know your role. You may have the freedom and ability to pitch what you think are solid design ideas to your coworkers. Just don’t start thinking that you’ve got the know how to tackle an entire client facing concept on your own. Don’t think that you can slap on your ‘personal signature style’ to every single project because it looks cool. Don’t give everyone outrageous time estimates that you’re likely not to follow through on. Don’t think that just because you’ve spent a hell of a lot of time buried within the Creative Suite, you’re good enough to dismiss or disregard any offerings of advice. And don’t forget that pretty much everyone around you has loads more hard earned industry experience than you. They may remember what it’s like to be you, but don’t think that you know enough to know what it’s like to be them. Be confident, but don’t get cocky!
Have a Good Attitude
Putting in hours on end and not making enough to buy yourself lunch may creep up on you now and then. Poor us, right? It’s hard for now, but don’t let it get to you. If it does get to you, don’t let it show. You’ve got to let your enthusiasm and eagerness to learn shine through. Positivity is infectious, and so is a bad attitude. Seriously, nobody likes a downer, or a jerk.
Remember that You’re With Them, Not Against Them
Since you’re working with people who are more experienced than you in so many ways, use that to your advantage. Seek out criticism from them, and keep an open mind at all times while listening to it. Feedback can often be hard to take, especially if it’s negative, but it’s so imperative for improvement of your skills and the thickness of your skin. You may have to defend your designs by coming up with solid rationalizations, but if you haven’t got one, then don’t take it personally if they recommend that you make some changes.
I would love to paste the entire 10th chapter of Mike Monteiro’s Design is a Job here if I could (read it, it’s so good), but to quote from it:
As the person being critiqued, you need to realize that the feedback is not about you, it’s about the work. And you need to be open to good ideas that come from places other than your own head. There’s a balance between defending your work and remaining open to better ideas that takes a long time to develop. It takes confidence, intelligence, and an open mind to allow others to help you make your work better. It takes a thick head not to.
You’ve been assigned a to-do, and you want to prove to everyone how spectacular your initiative and can-do attitude is. You don’t need to slow everyone down with any questions that have clearly obvious answers. You kind of already assume the direction that they’re going in with this assignment, so you’re good to go. This project takes you a good 20 hours and you’ve finally got it polished and perfect. You smugly ask your coworkers to come on over and give you some quick feedback before posting it for review. Expecting a ‘Wow, you’ve got the entire project finished, you’re hired!’ instead you hear a ‘Hmm…we actually wanted the complete opposite of this, you should have come to us for some clarification’. And that’s when you feel like a complete idiot.
Yup, I’ve done it. I still have a bit of a phobia of interrupting people and or potentially wasting their time by bothering them with my stupid questions. But asking questions benefits everybody. Taking the inconvenience of an extra 30 seconds to have a question asked and answered is far more beneficial than taking an extra 30 hours to revise everything you just spent 20 hours working on, which won’t be used whatsoever. Working independently as a student, whether choosing to procrastinate and accept a late mark or taking your time for days, is far different than working as a team meeting strict deadlines. You may not be getting paid for it, but every hour counts, and if you’re not striving to be the most efficient with your time then you’re not benefitting anyone– least of all yourself.
Work and Study Your Ass Off
You’ve got to put in the work. It’s not just so that your employer can take advantage of your free labour of course. You’re learning loads along the way. And you’re probably not as great as you think you are. The harder you work, the better you’ll be. The more feedback, advice and criticism you receive, the better you’ll be. The more blood, sweat and tears you put in (and there may be plenty), the better you’ll be. The only way to get better is to sit down and do the work. Be a sponge and try to soak up everything that you possibly can. Take notes on everything, follow through on your tasks and be consistent.
And don’t think you’re out of school just yet. You may not have any electives to sit through anymore, but don’t think you should be going home and wiping your brain of everything design. Read awesome design blogs. Stir up some conversation online with fellow designers. Go over your notes that you jotted down throughout the day from work. Do some of those free Photoshop tutorials. Do self initiated projects. Then come in early to work the next day and leave late.