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The Architecture & Design Internships Guide

One of the most common questions that pops up on design forums, and which we all have probably asked ourselves at some point is:

Should I take an unpaid internship to get experience?

And the answer that everyone gives initially is always:

NO.

But then there are a few who kick in with advice about volunteering & how they gained a useful leg up or new perspective by working for a short term for free. So the answer sways to:

WELL, MAYBE. 

SOMETIMES.
SOMETIMES YES.

There is perhaps a better way to frame the question of internships, and that is:

Is the experience gained from an [unpaid or low paid] internship worth the financial burden?

That's a totally valuable question to weigh during this period of serious joblessness that's plaguing the design profession. Here's what I think.

1. YES...

a) ...IF YOU HAVE NOT BEGUN STUDYING IN YOUR CHOSEN PROFESSION AND ARE SUPPORTED BY YOUR PARENTS OR THE STATE. 

If you are a high school student who has an interest in a particular field, or you are a university student who has been studying something outside of the design profession, then an unpaid/low-paid internship might be for you. I would essentially count this as 'job shadowing' where you can get the idea of what it is people in your chosen profession do all day. You would learn things like:

  • what programs are important in this profession?

  • what hard/soft skills will help me the most?

  • can I see myself doing something like this as a career?

Jan Vermeer, the celebrated Dutch genre painter [and other Dutch golden age painters] paid an annual sum of around 50-100 Florins to study in the studio of a master painter. Consider that the average cost of a 'regular' education was around 5-10 Florins.

Clearly, being an artist was not for people from poor families. Not only did your parents have to pay the master for your apprenticeship, they would also lose out on any income they could have gained from you working a more forgiving and easily gained trade. Any artworks completed during your apprenticeship as a painter were considered property of the master under whom you worked and accordingly, any income gained from selling those artworks went to him. 

In this circumstance, the apprentice is placed within a well organized training regime starting from the extreme basics of grinding and mixing pigments to preparing a canvas or board for underpainting.

We don't get anything near that organized or structured in architecture & design which is why, in the end, I believe everyone comes out equal if no money changes hands for an inexperienced student to hang around for a summer at a design office.

b) ...IF YOU ARE A FIRST- OR SECOND-YEAR STUDENT AND HAVE THE MEANS TO SUPPORT YOURSELF 

When I was studying my bachelor degree at Dalhousie in the faculty of architecture, one of the requirements of the degree was a 4-month internship. Somehow, magically, I landed a "traineeship" in Amsterdam, which paid a monthly stipend of 320 euros/month. It was clear that I was not going to be raking in the cash while living in Amsterdam, but as a student there were options available to me; alongside my student loans, I was able to apply for and get the Study / Work International Fund bursary, which was fairly easily gained by showing my plane ticket and a short hiring letter. 

Uh, dude... WHY SO LITTLE MONEY?

In the Netherlands, and the rest of Europe, the purpose of a small monthly stipend for students is not to insult them, but rather to supplement the money that is assumed they will receive from the state for being a student. Because, you see, in Europe the government pays YOU for going to school, not the other way around. So if you are a European student looking for a praktikum or internship, you will probably do just fine between your state money and your monthly stipend.

If you are not European, then you will probably think it must be illegal to pay people so little for what amounts to a full-time job. But now you know you are wrong. 

WHAT'S IN IT FOR YOU?

Initially I was confused and frustrated. I didn't really have anything to "do" per se. I was always waiting on tasks from someone else. I didn't understand anything that was going on in the office because I didn't understand Dutch. I felt useless and unskilled and awkward.

What I learned was that I hadn't even begun to scratch the surface of what 'good design' means. I learned that I hadn't ever done a good presentation in my life. I learned to be humble about my own ideas, to be open to other concepts, and to understand that a design doesn't get instantly created but is painfully coaxed out of a set of data, limits, history, built context, and design precedents. 

I observed how a project was developed 'in the real world' (not in the limitless studio atmosphere), experienced the normal context & limitations of a competition brief; I understood the pressure of a deadline and how fragile the balance of a firm's margin is. 

I also learned that the Dutch can survive on white bread, peanut butter, and liquorice flavoured sprinkles for 12 hours a day.

The experience of living in Amsterdam taught me just as much, if not more, than my 'real' job.

I learned what it was like to live in a dense urban centre, to be able to depend on biking as my main transport. I learned about the beauty of an organically disorganized city that's been allowed to develop through the eras; I learned about walking up 5 flights of narrow stairs to get to my apartment; I learned about using the smallest bathroom in existence and how to wash my hands in a sink the size of a trade paperback. I learned about generous windows and wood plank floors and the deep, inarguable sense of building courtyards. 

I learned about the ingenuity of bricks.

I learned the late autumn sun on the canals.

I learned how to drink coffee.

My daily bicycle rides were lessons, every one of them, in how to dress properly in the rain, how to turn left on a busy street, when to ring my bell, how to ride down the most beautiful streets in the sun or take the fastest route home in the rain. 

I learned about parks. About public space. About pedestrian streets, bike lanes, bridges, ferries, and leftover spaces. I learned about little hooks outside a grocery store for a dog's leash.

I learned about the city for people. 
 

WHAT'S IN IT FOR THEM?

For my employer it was totally fair - I was a 2nd year student who didn't speak Dutch; they paid me my $1.18/hour (which I thought was hilarious) and put me under the direction of another higher-level student.

Since undergraduate architecture school barely teaches you to be more useful than an inanimate rock, I was a beginner in every way except wielding an exacto knife and drawing "beautiful" drawings with willow charcoal.

For them it was a good deal because I made them some sweet physical models and organized their book shelves & supply room. I also went grocery shopping every once in a while and introduced them to the concept of 'vegetables at lunch.'

Let's call it fair, that I learned and gained way more from my experience then my firm benefited from my being there. In that way, I can say that the low-paid internship experience was advantageous for me, remembering of course that I was 

  • still a student
  • paid a monthly stipend, while supporting myself with student loans and a travel bursary (i.e., not losing money)

2. NO

WHEN UNPAID/LOW-PAID INTERNSHIPS ARE NOT OKAY: THE GRADUATE INTERNSHIP EPIDEMIC

You have graduated with an M.Arch or cand.arch or dip.Ing or similar. Congratulations! Now... why on earth would you allow yourself to be exploited while you struggle to pay your bills as a recent graduate architect?

No, no, no. 

If I can get paid minimum wage to take people's burger orders, scoop ice cream, or make coffee, why the hell shouldn't I get paid for something that takes 6 years of university training to do?

I wish I could say I have rigidly upheld this stand for my entire professional working life, but I'd be lying. I understand the desperation, hunger for meaningful work, and poorness that drives us to work for nothing, hoping that it will get us somewhere. I have done it myself. You can read about that (thankfully short) experience here, but the gist of it is that after having sent out carefully curated applications and in between waiting back after having some promising interviews, I felt a harried desperation not only to get out of my apartment and speak to real, living people, but to practice something even tangentially related to my craft. 

I won't even lie and say I took the work begrudgingly. I was eager to lay down my pride and pimp my photoshop skills.

So what is the key difference between this experience and my internship in Amsterdam? 

"Exploitation" is an interesting concept in that the same basic circumstances can feel different depending on how the experience is framed. 

In my internship in Amsterdam I was always viewed as a student, a trainee. I was not seen as a major part of production for the firm; I was not gaining them any money. I was there to learn and they were there to help me learn. If I produced something that was useful to them, that was seen more as a bonus. It was expected that I would not know very much; it was expected that I wouldn't be contributing to the main projects in a meaningful way. I wasn't put under pressure to take responsibility for a project on my own.

In the second situation I was contracted purely to produce work that could have a significant financial gain for the firm, with very little chance that I would get anything meaningful out of it. That firm did go on to win the competition, and all of the other people involved in the work got some nice bonuses after the award money was distributed. I didn't get a bonus, I hardly got recognition or a word of thanks. I gained no new connections since I had to use my own computer at home, I didn't get a word of recommendation, I didn't get a promise or a chance to try for a longer term position. 

In the first situation, I was being trained. 

In the second, I was being used. I had the stress of responsibility that normally comes with full-time employment.

Knowing the difference will help you decide what your own body of knowledge and skills is worth. If you think that--having graduated with a master's degree-- you still need further training, then it may be worthwhile for you to get that specific training by volunteering or working for very little money. I say that with this caveat: it may be worthwhile IF, and ONLY IF, you are actually being TRAINED and not simply USED. 

In case you're interested, I've prepared a guide on how to create and curate your applications to land a job. 

Best of luck!