While some view internships as a necessary evil, they are one of the most incredible opportunities you’ll ever get in your career. So getting as much out of an internship as you can is key. Odds are you have to do one for college credit in order to graduate, or maybe you simply know it’s the best way to get your foot in the door. As a student, or someone new to the industry, you have the chance to impress a potential employer through great research, solid interviewing skills, effective networking, and positive relationships.

If you’re looking for an internship but don’t want to be the company’s expert coffee order-taker or resident filer, then follow these 10 steps for getting the most out of your design internship.

Step 1: Research, research, research

The first and most important step to your internship journey is getting to know as many companies as possible in the area you are looking to apply. Begin with compiling a list of agencies, design firms, and in-house opportunities, along with their website URL and contact information.

Then, start Googling.

Look at their websites in great depth so you can get a complete understanding of:

  • the type of projects and clients they work on,
  • who their team members are
  • what their ideologies are and which processes they follow

Then, I recommend going to their social media accounts to see what their posts consist of to get an even deeper, more personal look into their culture. Company culture being a right fit is as important as the projects that you’ll likely work on.  The people you’ll be working with are the gateway to future opportunities, and feeling comfortable there will allow you to form long-term relationships.

Step 2: Contacting the company

The first touch point is the most important when you’ve decided to apply for an internship with a particular company. Remember, the people fielding all these inquiries are being flooded with portfolio links, PDFs, resumes and cover letters all saying the same thing: “I would love the opportunity to learn and grow within a wonderful, amazing company such as yours!” Blah. Blah. Blah.

Give them something different. Send them some amazing self-promotion piece in the mail, or even drop it off in person. This may seem trite—and maybe even too old school for our digital age—but you are also in a very saturated industry of up-and-coming designers, so you have to find a way to get noticed.

Don’t rely on a contact form on the company’s website. Find out who the art director or creative director is and address them directly. Sure, this could annoy some of the bigger firms that have a rigid application process, but for most small to medium sized companies, I promise a good self promotion piece will certainly catch their attention. But don’t rely on them contacting you after receiving it. It’s on you to follow up.

Having a theme or a campaign for your self-promotion is a great way to give the company a way to connect the dots, so when you follow up they’ll already know who they’re talking to.

Step 3: Preparing for your interview

Woo hoo, you got a bite! The good news is the hard part is over. The company has decided that from a creative standpoint, you have the skills they are looking for. Now the interview is to determine whether you are the right PERSON for the job.

This is the point when the work you did in step one becomes extra important. If you lagged a little back there, now you need to kick it up and research everything you possibly can about the company you’re about to interview with. The worst thing you can do is not accurately understand the type of work they do, and come in with inappropriate questions that are easily answered through a quick glance at the website.

Once you’re armed with this information, your focus should be on three things:

  1. Your portfolio
  2. Your attire
  3. The questions you’re prepared to ask

Your portfolio:

For your portfolio, it should be small and easy to carry or pass around in case your room doesn’t have a table. I also recommend designing a small brochure-type item to leave behind that complements your portfolio. This is something I personally used to do, and unfortunately I just don’t see it happening much these days. It’s a great way to have a visual reminder of your incredible work, but in a small and condensed way, so the people interviewing you have that piece to remember you by. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve interviewed seasoned designers, and I cannot for the life of me remember what their work looked like. A nice layout printed on high quality paper is plenty to make a great impression, without spending a lot of money to produce it.

Your attire: The second focus should be what you’re wearing. If the company you’re interviewing with is a little more casual or laid-back, it’s a safe bet to dress like you would for church or a nice dinner with family. Ladies: make sure your dress or skirt, should you choose to wear one, is not too short. You never know what the seating arrangement may be like, and it’s best to avoid any possibility of showing too much skin. Guys: stay away from jeans, but don’t feel like a suit jacket is necessary. A tie and a collared shirt can go a long way.

Your questions: The last and final focus is having a list of questions you would like to ask your interviewer. It’s impressive to see these questions actually written down in a notebook. It really comes off like you’re prepared. Stay away from questions about what the agency or company does as a whole, and focus more on what you can expect from your internship and the type(s) of projects you would be working on.

Step 4: Your interview

It’s game time. Hair is combed, outfit is ironed and neat, and portfolio is in hand. Make sure you show up to your interview about 10 minutes early, but try not to be any earlier than that. The people you’ll be meeting with will feel like they need to drop what they are doing to start the meeting if you come too early.

Perhaps this is obvious, but:

  • Shake hands with every person you meet
  • Make eye contact
  • Smile and repeat their name. For example: “Hi Jessica, it’s nice to meet you”

Once you’re seated, hand out your leave-behind portfolios, but don’t jump into explaining your projects. Let the interviewer guide the conversation. You would be surprised how many designers I have interviewed where we looked at their online portfolio, of course, but never opened the hard copy in the interview. Remember, this is all about getting to know YOU.

If you’re a lady with long hair, resist playing with it. Nervous ticks happen to everyone. But the more you’re aware of what yours are, the more you can control them. While you’re talking, make sure you are primarily responding to the person who asked you the question, but also acknowledge the others in the room. Wandering eyes suggest low confidence, and even dishonesty, so make sure you are focused.

Most importantly, be concise with your answers. Make sure your response has a clear ending, and don’t feel like you need to keep talking on and on. If you are unsure of a question, repeat the question as you understand it back to them to give them the opportunity to amend it if your interpretation was off in any way. This is also great because it buys you a little time to think through your response.

Last but not least, relax! Interviews can certainly be intimidating, but they are surprisingly more laid back than you may think. The more relaxed and confident you are, the better the process will go.

Step 5: Once you’re hired

Take the initiative to sit down with your art director (creative director, design lead, or whoever is your main go-to) within the first couple days and chat about what your goals are for the internship. Do they want you to master Photoshop? Learn how to code an email? Speed up your workflow? Be able to explain your reasoning behind a design?

Knowing these goals will help you get the most out of the process, and will also keep both you, and your superior’s, expectations in check. In addition, tell them specifically what you’re hoping to experience during your time there. Would you like to be involved in brainstorms? Client meetings? Do you want extra time for sketching? Could you have the chance to meet with the different departments and find out more about what they do?

This level of interest will show your supervisor right off the bat that you respect the program and are there to learn as much as you can.

Step 6: Be proactive

­By now you can see that a lot of what you get out of your internship experience is up to you. As the days and weeks go by, make sure you continue the open line of communication between you, your teammates, and your supervisor. An intern should be part of the culture, but as stated above, it’s up to you to properly inject yourself into it.

If you’re drowning and behind on your projects, speak up! If you aren’t clear on what you need to do on a project, get clarification BEFORE you start. Have nothing to work on? Take that time to watch some tutorials so you can continue to build your skills. Talk to your fellow designers and ask them questions. We all like to share what we know and there are so many different ways to do things in design, so odds are they will be more than happy to oblige and teach you a thing or two.

Step 7: Cultivate relationships

Networking is the key to a successful future in any industry, but especially in design. People like to hire people they know. It’s less risky.

In addition to your classmates at school, your internship is a fabulous opportunity to start building your network within the design community.  If there are opportunities to socialize outside of the office space, take advantage. Connect with your coworkers on LinkedIn and Facebook (although wait until you’ve actually interacted with them in some way, otherwise it can come off creepy).

Branch out of your department, too. Say hi to the social media girl in the kitchen. Have lunch with the developer you’re working with on a project.

Every person at your company is a potential connection. In addition, focus on the relationship with either your supervisor, or a senior level designer who could act as a mentor to you, even after your internship comes to an end. These are the people who have the potential to be your biggest advocate in the future as they watch you learn and grow.

Step 8: Be a sponge

The best way to cultivate these new relationships is by being easy to work with. You’re new, you’re young, and quite frankly you probably know very little about the working world. Being humble will allow you to be open to feedback so your designs can become even better.

Every design has the opportunity to be better, no matter how senior you are. It’s how you handle the feedback that will make or break your internship experience. If your design lead wants you to work on something you’re not comfortable with from a skill set perspective, let them know that you haven’t done much in that arena, but you’re excited to give it a shot.

It may turn out to be a disaster. But lessons are learned through what we don’t know, and the best you can do is give it your best shot. You may even realize that you’d like to refine that skill set even further and become a master of it someday.

Step 9: Reviews & feedback

If a midway or final review isn’t part of the program, ask for one. A midway review is a great way to touch base on those goals outlined for you in the beginning of the internship. You may realize that your internship has taken a turn and gone in a different direction, and that you would either like to get back on track or continue down this new path.

Your supervisors will also be able to give you progress feedback about:

  • How you’re performing
  • Your team relationships
  • Your project outcomes

This allows you to continue that open dialogue with your superior. Keep in mind it’s not uncommon for your superior to get so busy at times, that your review becomes an oversight. Should this happen, go ahead and take the initiative to set this review meeting up yourself, even giving them notes on what you would like to discuss.

The fact is, some programs are very structured in this way, and some bring on an intern to alleviate a temporary need. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not learning. It just means some of the success of the program is generated by your initiative and willingness to reach out.

Step 10: Lather, rinse, repeat

You’re nearing the end of your internship. Maybe the company has offered you a job (yay!). Maybe you’re just not ready, or the timing isn’t right to bring on a full-time employee.  A week or so after your internship ends, send each person on your creative team a card with a nice personalized message thanking them for the time they took to teach you and help you grow. Remember, these relationships are your first line to a new opportunity, whether with that same company or another one where they may know people.

Design industries tend to be very small, with everyone connected in some way. Take what you learned from this experience and get ready for your next one. Now you will be an even better interviewee, and employee, than you were the first time around.

The Bottom Line

The success of an internship, no matter how rigid the structure, is entirely up to you. No pressure. But this fact also gives you immense freedom to feel like you have some control over your future opportunities.

It’s a survival of the fittest game out there, with hundreds, even thousands, of designers clamoring for the same jobs. The way you stand out in this sea of hopefuls is by being unique, confident, and ready to learn. The small chance a company may take on you could open up doors you didn’t even know were there. But you have to start somewhere, and most of all, you have to own it.