Scoring your dream design internship

It is about this time 5 years ago that I spent my spring break cooped up in the computer lab at school creating my portfolio and applying for internships for the summer. I don’t think I emerged from that dark cave for any vitamin D the whole week–and you know that’s hard to do in Washington, DC during the spring time (cherry blossoms!). It was just my second semester of my graduate degree in interior design at Corcoran College of Art + Design and I wanted to DO SOMETHING COOL! I thought that I might go abroad to work since I was interested in Swedish interiors, but anything cool that gave me experience would suffice. I ended up scoring some pretty awesome internships for the summer that have helped shape me into the designer that I am today.

I’m assuming that some of you might be in the same boat? Are there any students out there? Are you wanting to make your mark in the design world?

I’ve had a few people email me for advice so I thought it might be handy to dish on some things that I did. I definitely don’t pretend to know all so I’ve enlisted the advice of people much wiser than me including Charlotte Hillman Warshaw, who hired me at Jonathan Adler that summer, Jessica Williams who interned with me at Jonathan Adler, as well as Aimee Miller, creative director of product development and design at Real Simple, who I met the summer I interned at JA. My experience is internships in interior design, but I’m thinking that this could be helpful for all types of design jobs. Well, this post is a doozy in information. Some tips are specific while others are more inspiration. Read on!

That spring break I took the work I had–pretty much one semester’s worth–and made a simple portfolio in InDesign. I put one picture on a page and in the bottom left corner indicated what it was in Helvetica Neue Ultralight (not good for reading, I might add). It was simple for sure, but did the job. I printed it at school on 11×17″ page and cut it down to fit an old record album that I used to store it. It was quirky and memorable. In fact, in interior design, it’s more common to not be as quirky and you might store your portfolio in a normal portfolio case with plastic sleeves, but I knew a place that expected a portfolio like that was not the right place for me.

So, first thing, know who you are and what you want to be! 
While I was making my portfolio I researched what city I wanted to work in and who I wanted to work for. I made a spreadsheet of all the places that interested me. If you know me, I’m definitely not the most organized person around, but I do buck up sometimes to make spreadsheets. They’re essential. I think I must have googled “best interior design firms” and “high end residential design firms” and “Swedish gustavian interior design” because those were the types of companies I was most interested in. I found a website at the time that I had a list of about 100 firms. I went through each one to check out their portfolio and see if it was a fit for me. If I was semi attracted, I would write it down with the link to the website. I was interested in working in a place other than DC so I looked into NYC, San Fran, Boston, London, and Lisbon (because I had some possible connections there and I had lived in Brazil for 1 1/2 years so I speak Portuguese) and noted that on my spreadsheet. I also looked at all the Domino magazines (RIP) where they often featured designers whose work I loved. I noted down all of them, too, and went onto their websites.
Am I boring you yet? Good! It can be really boring! But also exciting thinking about where you could go.
Then I just emailed away. Cold. Mind you, I had spent the previous year working at a hospitality interior design firm so yes, I was already “in” the field but it wasn’t the direction I wanted to go. I did try using the contacts I had made with other firms throughout the world, but I found that working abroad, especially if money is involved, is tough. There are a lot of legalities to work through and most likely the company will not know how to do it nor want to. But, if you’re working for free, which is most common in design, and only stay for three months on a tourist visa, you could approach them that way.
So, I approached about 30 companies and wrote a simple email. Here’s an exact one that I emailed. I included 3 PDFs (not Word docs!): my portfolio, resume, and cover letter. If you notice, my portfolio file size is HUGE–you’ll read later here about NOT doing that. Whoops. Newbie! ALSO, I just noticed there’s a type-o. No wonder I never heard back. *cringe*.
Emailing 30 people you start to form a standard email and I am embarrassed to say that I did mix up names with failed copy and pasted attempts. BE CAREFUL! That most likely will not get you the job! Note everywhere that you use specific names and make sure it’s correct. I also included their names in the cover letter file names because each one was personalized and I didn’t want to confuse them.
It’s important to note that I had no idea if these designers were actually looking for interns. I just tried anyway. Can you tell that I’m a naturally hopeful person? My goal was to get paid because I was a poor student on student loans. I didn’t realize at the time how rare that is, unless you’re going for a job in a commercial firm, which tends to have more money for it’s interns.
I received one email back from a designer in San Fran who noted interest and asked how I heard about her. I mentioned the website that I had found and said how much I loved her design. Never heard back.
Then I received a response back from a designer in NYC whose work I had found in Domino. Score! She invited me up for an interview and I said of course. I packed a bag and took a DC>NYC bus (just 4 hours!) and asked a friend if I could bunk for a night or two. I showed up in the same exact outfit that I’m wearing in the first picture of this post. Apparently, that was my uniform that summer. I knew I didn’t need to wear a suit (blah!) so I thought I would try and show who I was as a designer. The designer herself wasn’t at the interview but her current employee was, whose job I would be taking over. The studio was a shared space with a fashion house in the back. I remember being totally intimidated by the fashion people. They were all in black. The girl showed me around and then told me I would be doing AutoCAD (not my favorite) and reception stuff. And…I would be PAID! Score! I really liked the designer’s work, so I thought this was great!
The next day, while I was still in NYC, I received an email back from Celerie Kemble of Kemble Interiors. I was quite familiar with her work from various magazines and was shocked to receive a response. The email was even signed “xo C” and I thought there was no way she was writing her own emails so I goofed and said something about “tell Celerie” or something. She responded back with a “this IS Celerie :)”. Whoops again. Well, I indicated that I just happened to be in NYC at that moment and she invited me in for an interview the next day. SCORE! I was thrilled! The interview was to be at her apartment, which was a bit intimidating– I mean, it’s her personal space!–which is an awesome space btw. In the interview she was frank with me. I told her where else I was applying to and she pretty much said, “look, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere”, which sounded awfully familiar… She offered me the internship on the spot, though she wasn’t able to pay. I needed to think about it because I really needed monetary compensation.
Later the next week I received a call from Charlotte from Jonathan Adler who said she liked my portfolio and if I’d like to interview at JA headquarters in NYC. So back to the Big Apple it was! I got back on Bolt Bus again and jumped straight off the bus to the interview complete with my suitcase. Charlotte was very passionate and good at what she did. She showed me around the office, which at the time was only one floor and now it’s a few. She also invited me to a book signing of Jonathan’s husband, Simon Doonan, later that night at Barnes & Noble. I showed up at the book signing and met many of the other designers. Side note: I had switched outfits at that point and later found out that one of the designers was impressed with my choices. gah! You always have to be on your guard because you’re constantly making an impression!
Well, JA offered me an unpaid internship too so now it was a matter of who do I work for? Kemble Interiors or Jonathan Adler, the paid job, or wait to hear back from more companies?  Well, I didn’t hear back from any other companies so that was easy. Ultimately, I took Celerie’s advice and went for the companies that couldn’t pay but thought would be worth it. I chose to work 2 days a week at Kemble and 3 at JA.
At Jonathan Adler I worked with 2 other interns, Jessica and James, pictured in the top image, who were my buddies. Sometimes we did fun things like help out at a photoshoot like the one for House Beautiful in Bedford, NY. Other times, it was helping to assemble press packets, like below. Not as much fun, but somehow I didn’t mind. I started out in the interior design department but found that I was more interested in the products so I did all sorts of projects throughout the departments.
Though I officially worked 2 days a week at Kemble, I ended up working weekends too. Somehow Celerie gave me some pretty fun assignments to work on like designing a plate for Tiffany & Co.’s Evening of Style, stationery for Dempsey and Carroll, and a trash bin for Helena Christensen’s charity with VIPP bins. I knew they were projects that could be great portfolio builders so I spent time and energy on them. I was the old fogie 26 year old out of the intern bunch (most were undergrads in their early 20s), so I was a bit more on my own and there to work hard.  And I think it paid off.
Practically speaking, how did I survive? I lived on a bunk bed in the West Village with some girls who I ended up liking a whole lot and are my friends to this day. I could have chosen to live in a much cheaper place, but I thought if I was going to live in NYC I wanted to love it and I LOVED where I lived, who I lived with, and the friends I made. NYC has a special place in my heart and I would be back in a heart beat if we could. Everything that I love in life is found in just one city: art, design, music, interesting people. Since I was getting school credit for my internships I could use my student loans and yes, I have some big fat loans to pay off now, which I’ll be paying back for a LONG time.
But what if you can’t do that or live in NYC? There are so many wonderful design houses all over. Research them, talk with them, express your interest. Do a good job!
I have found that my internships provide credibility to what I do. Though some of the tasks were not interesting, I did them and hopefully they were enough to stand out.
Aimee Miller, creative director of product development and design at Real Simple, and illustrator
To put it mildly, I was as dumb as a box of hair in college.  I had not set my sights on anything other than making things– and I didn’t– nor to some degree do i still understand the fine art of networking. In retrospect I had turned down jobs with Elaine and Willem DeKooning while he was experiencing dementia but still a productive artist.  Elaine, who intimidated me was fiery and vibrant and actually passed before Willem.
I passed up the opportunity to go to an elite Yale Norfolk summer program because I somehow thought my nomination and award from the faculty was a mistake.
I also passed up the opportunity to be an art assistant and nanny in the south of France because I hated flying, didn’t want to be alone, oh, it’s complicated….
So.  My first suggestion is to be fearless– because clearly, I wasn’t.
When I did graduate with my BFA my motivations were all fear associated– so I tossed myself into my work.  I could draw and paint and make things but I had no marketable skills– or so I thought.  I wanted someone to recognize the talent in me without having to conventionally sell it. I was terrified which is a unique motivational tool (that I am not recommending) but rather my suggestion is:
Get to know thyself and get over yourself. I don’t care in which order– hopefully at the same time.
I think we all have aspirations to do or be something specific or we look at other people’s paths and try and emulate them. The ideal situation does not present itself– but it’s up to you to make it so.
My first truly creative job that I believe set me on my course was a few years out of college.  It was for a woman that had a fabled retail store on Broome Street that people likened to a work of art.  And it was. She sold clothes that the sewers made behind giant curtains with vintage industrial machines.  They dyed the linen and silk in the back as well. Large plates of metal lined the walls with huge magnets holding scarves or art and ropes and pulleys hung across the vast expanse of the industrial space.  Dresses hung on wires, some dipped in beeswax.  There were tables made out of huge rotary steel blades, rusted.  The floor was red dirt, Georgia clay it turns out. It inspired me in ways I did not think possible.  I was moved and excited.
This was a place where I had no discernible connections to–and had no hope working there in any capacity but I took a leap and made something– not a mood board, nothing like a portfolio or any other conventions of post collegiate expertise but a little trinket; a gift that was a little piece of me inspired wholly by the store and the artist.  I sent it without words or a CV but with a phone number or a return address– I can’t remember.  Needless to say I got a job, they made one for me and  it was the beginning of a very freeform creative career that I still think I’m on.
I would always stay true to yourself but always accept influence. Don’t judge yourself too harshly and keep moving forward.  Make things that YOU like and when you are applying to a developed brand that you are equally in love with– do personal projects that speak to them.
Also be consistent.  A common thread is better in developing your point of view than being a complete convert to someone else’s.
I would also suggest to keep moving forward.  Don’t look over your back or to your side. This is not a competition amongst friends.  I have to say, once I did get the job– it was among the most challenging things and often one of the most unpleasant experiences I can imagine but I did it and I learned so much– and I did so much, myself.  That’s not going to change.  A dream situation is never the dream you have in your mind.  It usually happens in retrospect when you’ve repaired yourself from working long hours and for cranky egos.
Since then, I’ve hired interns and designers many, many times.  I have been in environments where I’ve seen some interns rise like cream over other equally or more talented interns because of their social abilities.  I cannot say that talent trumps social skills, but I never had them at the time– so I prefer to evaluate people on raw talent. Not everyone feels that way.
Another thing I would add is sometimes things are not what they seem and you have to know when something isn’t a good fit. Still, don’t quit, and don’t compete unless it makes you stronger.
Lastly, stay hungry.  Keep making things that come from your heart and continue to respect that part of you and keep growing.


Charlotte Hillman Warshaw, VP of licensing and business development at Jonathan Adler, who hired me at JA

What advice would you give to designers looking for an internship?
I think it’s always good to start with the basics — first, make a list of the companies you love. I think it’s particularly important early on in your career to work for companies that inspire you. You need to know what you want to be able to go after it, and making this list will help that happen.

I’m a big believer in friendpotism, aka utilizing your relationships and connections to their full potential. In addition to your company list, make a list of relationships you already have – family, friends, friends of friends, teachers etc. It’s not always the high-powered connections that open doors for you, so think broadly.

Use Facebook and LinkedIn to their full potential. These sites are not just for social purposes; they are an excellent tool for furthering the contacts you might have and relationship building. I can’t tell you how many messages I’ve received that starts with, “I see you know…” or “I’m friends with.”

Sometimes the companies you want to work for don’t have any openings, but you should reach out to them anyway. If there’s an email address on a webpage, someone is looking at those emails, so go ahead and email them.

The materials you send out — resume, portfolio — must be impeccable. Too many people, especially designers, work in a bubble. Be sure to share your resume and portfolio with people whose feedback you trust. These materials represent you and they’re the first chance you have to make an impression, so make it count.

Always treat your internship like an extended interview. A connection might get you an interview, but you get yourself the job, and ultimately your work on the job is what’s most important.

I’ve noticed that some young interns come in with an entitled attitude. When I started out, I did it all, no matter what it was. At my company, we have an all-hands-on-deck culture and the people who embrace that, generally thrive most.

What sets someone apart over another candidate?
It starts with your resume and cover letter. Obviously, no misspellings, but also take time to be thoughtful about your cover letters. We really do read these things, so make an impression and skip the generic fluff. Also, know the company or research before approaching them. For example, if it is a retail company, go visit a store first. If it is a web company, spend time on the site.

What are you looking for in the initial contact?
Make an impression in your cover letter, but don’t take two pages to do it.

What about sending a portfolio in person?
Tangible mail is a bit too much in the first instance. A PDF is great, as is a website.

Do you have advice on a portfolio?
Different schools have different requirements. Design process is great to see once, but not for every
project. Showing versatility in design style and category (graphic, product etc.) is important – the more
jobs you’re qualified to do, the more opportunities you might have to be hired.

What makes someone memorable?
Having a great work attitude, being focused, and willing to do anything, but also fun. I’m a big believer in that you want to work with people you would have a meal with. Be committed to the work and follow-through with your assignments. Lastly, to reiterate, always treat your internship like an extended interview – the company you interned at might just turn out to be the company you work for.

Jessica Williams, global visual coordinator at Kate Spade, who interned with me at Jonathan Adler

Before I started my internship at Jonathan Adler (where Brittany and I met) I believed that my career would consist of package design and surface graphics. I think my landing of this coveted internship was a combination of the points below.
-perfect your resume, portfolio, and cover letter. make them stand out, in a classy and subtle way from others. you will email a digital version, so be sure the quality is crisp but the file sizes are not too large. (12MB is plenty) you will also need a printed version for your interview, to leave behind, be sure to consider the presentation of it all.
-email and follow up and follow up to the follow up. people in charge are busy and your email may get lost in the sea of messages.
-start researching your living situation (especially if you will be moving out of state) as if you already accepted the position. you should have a plan and they will be more likely to choose a person who won’t have a hard time with transition.
-buy/design beautiful stationery to send your words of gratitude.
-research everything you can about the company, history and projects. it helps to make casual references during your interview.
JA exposed me to the whimsical world of interior design and I knew it was the perfect fit for me. i learned so much during my  internship and it was more inspiring than I could ever imagine!

Thank you ladies for your input. Isn’t it great?! 

Now, once you get your internship, check out Emily Henderson’s advice on 15 do’s and don’ts to keep one. 




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