Hands-on experience in real life situations are invaluable for budding professionals in every industry – but especially in the world of design.
For inexperienced designers looking to develop their skills and start building up a portfolio, there are usually three options: an internship, apprenticeship or mentorship. But the question begs: How do you know which one is best for you?
To give you some insights on this topic, we talked to Dan Mall, an award-winning designer and creative director based in Philadelphia. He started his career with three formative design internships before going on to work for recognized agencies, such as Big Spaceship and Happy Cog. More recently, Dan started SuperFriendly, a design collaborative where he brings together teams of people to work on projects for clients, such as Google, TechCrunch and ESPN.
Dan’s answer to the question above… How do you know which one is best for you? was: “It’s certainly not mutually exclusive,” – If you’re trying to figure out which model will boost your career right now, here’s a rundown on internships, apprenticeships and mentorships with insights from Dan:
Internships come in all shapes and sizes (part-time/full-time, paid/unpaid, length usually varies from one to six months), but generally it’s a temporary job training relationship between an employer and an individual looking to gain work experience.
You should consider an internship if… you’re a student or recent graduate who hasn’t found a job yet. “If you really don’t know what you want to do, you should do a light skimming of the surface of a bunch of things – and that’s perfect with internships,” said Dan. Internships are a great opportunity to be immersed in a professional setting you’re curious about, gain hands-on experience and to get a grasp of whether the job is suitable to your strengths, skills and interests. After all, part of figuring out what you want to do is also learning what you don’t want to do.
How to get an internship? There are as many types of internships as there are ways to land one. A good place to start is by checking out job listings at organizations you’re interested in or checking out platforms that focus on internship listings, such as Graduateland. Searching “intern” or “internship” on general job sites like Indeed or on LinkedIn’s Jobs tab is another way to go about it. Don’t be afraid to tap into your network of friends, family, fellow students, past professors or former employers to let them know you’re looking.
Traditionally, an apprenticeship is a mix of on-the-job training under a supervisor and classroom learning that involves gaining recognized skills and qualifications in a trade or profession – while earning a wage. In the past, this learning model was predominantly associated with crafts-oriented jobs like carpenters or blacksmiths, but nowadays there are apprentice programs for a variety of industries, including in design and illustration.
You should consider an apprenticeship if… “you’ve figured out, or are confident in, the thing you want to do,” explained Dan, who runs his own apprenticeship program through SuperFriendly, “An apprenticeship is a lot better for this stage because now you’re going deep with someone and rounding out your skill-set.” Bear in mind that apprenticeships typically last longer than internships and offer a more comprehensive and customized workplace learning experience.
How to get an apprenticeship? Apprenticeships can be trickier to track down than internships. Try scanning the listings at your local university/educational institution or searching on large job boards or Google. It also never hurts to cold email organizations or businesses you want to work for to see if they’re open to accepting apprentices.
Working with a mentor means building a relationship with an experienced professional in your industry who can help you grow in your career.
You should consider working with a mentor if… you’re looking for guidance, knowledge and constructive feedback in your professional life. “I’ve had many mentors throughout my life both in and outside design,” said Dan, who checks in with his mentor every quarter, “Anything I’m good at in my life, somebody has spent time teaching me how to do that thing better.” A good mentor can help you navigate workplace challenges, offer new perspectives, provide encouragement and support your growth no matter how far along you are in your career.
How to find a mentor? The first step to finding a mentor is figuring out what your career goals are and how you think someone with experience can help guide you. But don’t forget that a mentorship is a two-way street so you’ll also have to pull your weight and work hard. Then, it’s about finding a mentor. This can mean approaching a senior colleague in your organization to reaching out to contacts from your professional network whom you admire to signing up to mentoring sites, like re:create. Again, there’s no one way to go about it, so try a variety of approaches – sometimes these kinds of relationships just develop organically.