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The Unspoken Truths of your First UX Design Internship

Getting your first design internship is exciting. You spent your all of your hard work curating your portfolio, interviewing, waiting, and finally you receive word from your recruiter regarding next steps about an offer. But this is only the beginning. For most of us, when we get our first design internship, we don’t really know what to expect. The joy of working on real projects over the summer sounds really exciting, but what most designers who start working for the first time don’t know is that expectations of an internship are much different than school. When I first started my internship at DocuSign, I experienced a bit of culture shock during my first week which has changed the way I treat internship work vs design school.

To have a better understanding of things to expect and to get the most out of your first internship experience, here are some of my high level tips on what I learned from my first design internship that most people will not speak of (unless you do something pretty silly).

No one is there to hold your hand

On the first week of your internship, things might be pretty chill. You spend that week getting to know the company and going through onboarding before getting assigned your first project. Typically after the first week is when things may start to get a little overwhelming and when you become free of structure (this is where you might begin to feel lost). Once you receive a brief synopsis of a project, it’s pretty much up to you to make a plan and use the skills you have learned to move your project forward. Your manager isn’t going to be giving you a step by step guide of what to do, let alone any major constraints that you might receive for a school project.

During any design job, You need to make your decisions and own your design process.

There are no expectations besides doing the best work you can. An internship provides to the opportunity to be able to take ownership of the work you do and drive change for yourself and the company you are working for.

A job isn’t school

A job and school are totally different. A school provides you the skills needed to thrive in a job. Once you get out of school, you are essentially on your own. There is nothing to block you, no requirements to meet, nothing. When you start a job, you apply the skills you learned in school to any project you may work on. For design, this is the same thing. In design school, you typically get a brief where there are constraints to address, deliverables to make and more.

As a designer in a design role, it is up to you to create the constraints, design principles, deliverables and more for a potential brief.

You can’t expect to wait on the manager to have them tell you what you need to get done. From their perspective, it shows lack of initiative as well as the nature of a doing a job.

Remember when I said a job and school are totally different? I was wrong. In some ways, they are similar, especially the aspect of always learning. When you are put in a design role, it is expected that you know what you need to do with a willingness to go out of your comfort zone and learn new skills. After all, there is always something new to learn when you design and solve problems for people.

It’s okay to make mistakes

As a design intern, it should be pretty obvious that you are in a great position to learn, make mistakes and still be okay. Your design team and manager aren’t going to be expecting you to know everything. In fact, they want you to explore and do crazy things you might not have had the chance to do in school. They even encourage you to fail as often (and quickly) as possible in order to improve and become a better designer over time.

There are no right or wrong answers, there are only ways to learn from feedback and keep growing.

You are in a position to provide a different perspective for your design team and the current projects they are working on. If you think about it, you were probably hired because you think differently and have the potential to drive impact in ways a full time employee might not have not thought about doing. So don’t worry about making mistakes, just think about learning and getting as much feedback as possible to grow.

It’s up to you to seek opportunity

Companies can provide you tools that have the potential to accelerate your career to bigger heights. This is probably why there are many people who want to work at bigger companies for the amount of opportunities and benefits they can provide for their employees. But regardless of the company you work for, there is always opportunity and sitting at your desk working isn’t going to help you get there.

Interns are often encouraged to attend intern events to get the most knowledge out of their internship and apply it to future job experiences. That way, you can only get better and you will know what you want. As a designer, there so many opportunities to grow and try out as many things as you can. Once you start working full time, you have less freedom to be experimental, so take advantage of your internship position to seek out opportunity or even create them. As a design intern, you have loads of opportunities waiting to be sought out and it will only make you a better designer in the long run.

If you need help, it’s okay to ask

When I said you are on your own when given a project, that is only partly true. You are given the space to plan and execute, but it is totally okay to ask questions if you are stuck on something. In fact, it makes your project loads better when you have clarity about it, whether it is better understanding your users or having access to existing information that can help assess the value you are trying to create. Like my current design manager J.B. Chaykowsky said, “It’s better to speak up sooner when you are stuck instead of at the end”

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. People like being asked questions just as much as they like answering them (at least I do). Asking questions makes you smarter and there is no such thing as a stupid question.

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