How to Build a Better Internship

I believe questioning how we set up our worlds can lead to better, more intentional and productive spaces. I also believe this applies to structured internship programs.

As a UX designer, I enjoy thinking about opportunities to improve experiences, whether it’s in the physical or digital sphere. I believe questioning how we set up our worlds can lead to better, more intentional and productive spaces. I also believe this applies to structured internship programs.

Over the past few years, I’ve been fortunate enough to have had several different internships. From a small community newspaper to a giant Chinese internet company, I’ve worked in a wide range of industries and offices. Each of these new internships has given me a window into a different career path and allowed me to better understand what I just might do in my professional life. And at the same time, they’ve shown me just what makes a great internship. Below I’ve written an overview of our aspects of a great internship experience – for the intern and the organization.

Give interns meaningful and fulfilling work

Interns want real job experience, more understanding of particular career fields, and better knowledge of company cultures. (And, okay, snacks. We want snacks, too.) While there are a variety of summer activities - from working at summer camps to studying abroad to waiting tables - professional internships allow us a sneak peek into the “real world”. And for some of us, this might be the first time we’ve ever experienced white-collar jobs, so there’s a lot to learn!

We don’t want to feel like cogs in a machine, or that we’re in the way of the work. We want work that will grow our technical skills and teach us how workplaces operate. While the “free-labor, coffee-grabbing intern” stereotype is a popular stereotype, interns are ready and willing to work, earn, and prove ourselves capable.

Here at Viget, we’re introduced to agency life through a fast-paced ten-week curriculum that includes an in-house collaborative, self-directed project between all the interns. We become a team that designs, develops, and launches a fully-fledged web app. We have mock client meetings and several internal team meetings each week to keep the project flowing. We’re also tasked with personal projects to help grow and develop skills we’d like to focus on. While there will inevitably be lulls in the work schedule, interns are people, too, and we just want to feel like we’re working towards something.

Offer a structured environment to grow in, but leave room for independence

The best internships I’ve experienced have had some form of structure. It’s not an uncommon intern story: an intern is excited to get started at a big, established company, but their role isn’t completely fleshed out. They don’t really understand what they should be or how they’re part of the work. Interns need guidance about what they should be doing, a defined goal to reach by the end, and a mentor to see them through the process.

One option for providing structure is through mentorship. Mentoring interns can give full-time employees a chance to work on their leadership skills, which can help ensure a strong internship structure. There are additional perks to mentorship. Mentors become bridges between the intern and the company and offer regular feedback and advice. Though, it’s worth noting it’s important mentors guide the intern, but also give them the autonomy to learn and work at their own pace.

This summer, my mentor has helped me to set goals and think bigger. We have regularly-scheduled one-on-one meetings to debrief about how the previous week went, determine what work I need to do in the week ahead, and discuss any questions or concerns I have. My mentor has given me helpful feedback when I’ve asked for it and also space to learn and grow on my own.

Over the course of the summer, I’ve been working on a personal project tackling voter apathy among young people. After doing several user interviews and researching the broader issue, I became unsure of what to do with all the research I’d collected. Luckily, my mentor was more than willing to help me refocus and narrow my topic down. She was able to see patterns I initially couldn’t. With her advice, I was able to move forward to iterating new product ideas.

Asking a full-time employee to mentor an intern is a big responsibility, but there’s a lot of value in it. Not only does the intern have a main point of contact who can become a friend and collaborator, but the employee can also grow their mentorship and feedback skills - learning how to give and articulate effective, timely critiques and praise, as well as how to guide someone along in their learning.

Create cross-collaboration between interns

Let’s face it - whether you’re a new hire or an intern, starting at an office can be an intimidating place. It can feel like everyone already knows each other and there’s little room for new people. And, if you’re new to the workforce, it’s a completely different organizational structure to navigate, which is challenging.

In my experience, some of my best work as an intern has from collaboration with other interns. Even if they’re working in different departments or have different responsibilities, internships that facilitate relationships between interns have great results. It helps interns feel less isolated when they know there are others in the same boat.

As one of two UX design interns this summer - with the other located in the Viget Boulder office - I’ve been able to work collaboratively with all of the other interns. We’re working on an on-going group project together, and I’ve been able to grow in my leadership and communication skills, learn how to collaborate remotely, and understand what it means to function as a team.

While forcing people to work together probably isn’t a great idea, it’s important to create an environment where interns are learning to collaborate, communicate, and work in teams. Whether this means all interns are in weekly meetings together or tasked with working on projects together, they should be given space to interact with one another in a professional context.

I’ve also been the only intern in the office. While it’s got some nice perks, like getting a more in-depth experience of the organization, it can feel alienating. I believe it’s crucial to make sure the intern feels like a part of a team in this instance. I found it helpful when I was allowed to sit in on brainstorming sessions, weekly team meetings, and help out with small tasks on projects. In one internship, I was able to join the product team’s daily stand-up meetings and hear others discuss what they were working on. I also had to give updates, so I was motivated to work hard to have updates to present to the team.

Integrate the interns into the company culture

The best working environment is one where everyone, including interns, feels comfortable to reach out to other co-workers and say, “Hey, can I get your feedback on this design?” or, “How do I use this software?”; it’s feeling comfortable enough to turn to any co-worker and ask them for advice.

As an intern, whether in the office for the summer or a semester, I’ve always felt eager to start integrating into my new work environment, to get comfortable as quickly as possible. Working in an office will be a new experience for some interns, so it helps them feel more at home if they know full-time employees are just as eager to get to know them. Interns bring in outside perspectives, new ways of doing things, and optimism. There’s a lot of great opportunities with interns! When the company makes them feel part of the team, everyone benefits.

At Viget, I get invited to join in on coffee runs or outdoor walks. I’ve also been encouraged to talk with full-time Vigets one-on-one even if they’re not in my department. On my first day, I got to know my lab better over an outdoor lunch at a local eatery and was introduced to the whole office during an after-work Happy Hour. It was a great way to feel more comfortable in my new environment and get to know everyone (though it took a bit longer on the names). By the end of the week, I was talking with full-timers and setting up meetings with others.

Every co-worker at Viget has been kind and understanding when I’m having trouble using a design software or learning my way around the office. They’ve been generous with constructive feedback when they have free time, and I’ve even presented on lessons in representation through cartoons, which was well-received and fun to share.

Each of these little things added up and made me feel like my opinions mattered. Sometimes, interns can be forgotten as work gets hectic, or they’re asked to assimilate without much guidance. However, this approach can leave interns feeling left out or alienated. Getting interns accommodated with the way the office functions will lead to better work and happier interns.

At the end of the day, interns want to feel included. They’ve dedicated their time to learn more about an industry they might join in the future, and they bring with them fresh perspectives and an eagerness to impress. It’s equally important for companies to see interns as vital parts of the team. When that transition is smooth and positive, then interns can focus on their true goal: reaching their full potential.

At Viget, interns are an exciting part of every summer. Tasked with both creating and launching a full-scale digital product and working on a deep-dive personal project in their area of expertise in just ten weeks, interns are guided and mentored along the way to better understand what it’s like to work in a fast-paced agency. Along with work, they’re invited to take part in long-standing traditions such as company-wide meetings and the annual summer Scram challenge, which encourages them to have fun and get involved within the company.

With the summer internship coming to an end, Viget has an exciting opportunity for people looking to shift into a career in creative tech - a paid ten-week apprenticeship program. Whether you’re interested in learning code, graphic design, or user research, Viget’s apprenticeship program pairs you with an advisor and gives you the tools to succeed at a digital design agency. Applications are due today!