We discuss the ways in which design firms can structure internship programmes so as to benefit both parties.

The appointment last summer of Junya Ishigami to create the Serpentine Pavilion in London sparked a global conversation about internships in design, after the Japanese architect was revealed to be using unpaid workers. While some, including architect Sou Fujimoto and designer Karim Rashid, defended the practice, others condemned it: in December, Cameron Sinclair – the founder of charitable organization Architecture for Humanity – said unpaid internships were exploitative and created a favourable environment for wealthy graduates.

Since then, Chilean firm Elemental is among those that have stopped taking on unpaid interns, hinting at the potential for change across the sector. But exploitation is about more than just pay: in an industry known for long hours, interns are often overworked, with little supervision and few benefits. With mental health and wellbeing increasingly part of public discourse, the quality of internships is also now under scrutiny.

It’s true, of course, that internships are time-consuming and complicated to administer properly. If they cost practices too much, many may simply not offer them. So how can design firms structure internship programmes that benefit both parties? It’s a question that Rotterdam-based Studio Nauta has been asking itself as part of a broader effort to reduce stress and improve work-life balance. Founder Jan Nauta says the firm has rethought its internships to ensure that, unlike many other examples in the industry, temporary graduate workers are not treated simply as cheap labour. He lists seven ingredients that he believes are key to this, including making sure any programme is tailored to the person involved, exposure to a wide range of work, and constructive two-way communication.

The six-person firm generally takes on two interns at a time, each of whom stays for six to nine months. ‘At the beginning, we try to understand what interns want so we can set a road map for them that’s complementary to what they learned at university,’ says Nauta. ‘For example, one of our current interns has a strong technical background and wants more exposure to the conceptual side of projects. The other has had little technical exposure, so wants more of that.’ The firm also tries to offer a broad view of the industry. ‘Often someone might be working on one limited task, but it’s important to engage them with the wider scope of the project so they understand why certain decisions are made,’ Nauta says. ‘We’re dealing with highly educated people who are trained to think, not simply labourers.’ Even so, routine experience can also be valuable. ‘One thing that employers don’t always realize is how important the little things we learn are,’ says Teresa Marinoni de Athayde, a current intern at the firm.

It is important not to underestimate what an intern can contribute

One concern about recent graduates is that they don’t have sufficient experience to contribute meaningfully or take on responsibility in a way that’s beneficial to a firm. Nauta believes this idea can be misguided. ‘You’d be amazed how much responsibility interns can take on,’ he says, recalling one who had a knack for speaking to clients. De Athayde agrees it’s vital for her to feel she’s playing a meaningful role in the office. ‘It is important not to underestimate what an intern can contribute.’ She adds, though, that finding a balance is crucial. ‘In order for it to work, the responsibility given to an intern cannot be too much or too little.’ Nauta agrees: ‘You have to be careful to not overly rely on interns because, after all, they’re not qualified.’

Keeping the lines of communication open is vital to this. In addition to the substantive initial and final meetings, interns have monthly sessions with their mentors to monitor progress, as well as informal daily contact. It’s through this process of engagement that internships become beneficial for the practice, too. ‘We have people coming from universities that are amazing hubs of innovation, who know all the newest tricks,’ Nauta says. ‘We want to learn from them and we are open about that.’ Beyond the intangible rewards of contributing to somebody’s career development, the firm has also recruited two of its interns as permanent staff.

FIVE KEY TACTICS ON MAKING INTERNSHIPS WORK

Personalize the package

Establish a plan for the duration of a programme that is tailored to the abilities, experience and requirements of each intern, with a structure that allows someone’s strengths to shine through, as well as creating room for growth.

Create a connection

Focus on engagement with the intern, rather than just assigning a series of tasks for them to complete. This will allow the firm to reap the benefits of their presence and adapt their working patterns as time goes on.

Keep in contact

Ensure that you stay in touch with your interns, even if for only a brief moment each day. Without sufficient guidance and contact, the process will be beneficial to neither party.

Put them to good use

Use their time as wisely as you would use that of any other staff member, as recent graduates bring fresh knowledge and valuable experiences.

Take your time

Don’t make internships too short, as this leaves little time for the person to develop and for the firm to enjoy what the intern has to offer.