Ten Weeks, Ten Ideas: Internship Edition

Last December we started searching for interns hungry to get a taste of life in a design firm. We wanted someone who had “exceptional skill and craft in an area of design practice, passion for doing great design work, and confidence collaborating with other people and articulating ideas”. Our latest intern, Jasper Stephenson met the criteria exceptionally well. As you see in his concluding blog post below, Jasper’s a fast study, a sponge, and calls it like he sees it. We’re so glad to have gotten 10 weeks with you Jasper and we’ll be watching your city-hopping exploration of design!

I’ve been an intern at Adaptive Path for ten weeks. In that span, I’ve been something of a design version of Jane Goodall, spending time with the monkeys in their natural habitat and learning their ways. jasper And, now, I have returned to civilization to share the bananas insights that I picked up during my time masquerading as one of the pack. I had all sorts of preconceptions going into the internship, preconceptions about what the strongest trends in visual design are, about the usefulness of networking, unicorns, and alcohol, about what the role of an intern is, and more. Some held up, and some fell flat when challenged. So, here are my research notes, my findings, my personal points of growth gained through ten weeks with the best of the best.

1. If you want respect in a creative setting, don’t treat anyone as untouchable.
What I mean by this is: don’t ever be afraid to speak up in defense of something you’re certain about. I’ve had my suspicions absolutely confirmed that even the headest of honchos will listen to a clear, confident, good idea from an intern. At the very least, you’ll learn why you were wrong. So be brave, interns! Rise from your back-corner seats! Just not all the time.

2. There’s beauty in web design that blends print metaphors with digital design.
Especially when it doesn’t seem like exploration of one tool or another. While I still cringe (and I know many of us do) when I hear people discuss “the fold” on web, there is absolutely a place for the lessons about readability and layout that classic print design training gives us. This is especially true in content-heavy rather than interaction-heavy websites, but it works both ways . While there are some tools out there to wrest control of layout specifics back from the browser, it’s always something of trying to stick a kerned peg through a FOUC hole. As we get more and more capable, though, I’ll be keeping an eye out for the natural blending of metaphors between the two mediums.

3. There is no Ballmer Peak for design.

4. There is absolutely a Ballmer Peak for writing blog posts.

5. Unicorns are beautiful but not as useful as specialists.
You can’t hook a plow to a unicorn. They don’t run in packs. The real value in a designer who knows about development comes from the understanding of the affordances of the tools developers use, and empathy for their pitfalls.

I’ve seen Peter Merholz talk twice in the past few months about design teams, and every time, I’ve felt like he hit the nail on the head about the idea of a dream employee who can code what they design. Watch his talk from MX 2014 if you want an interesting sense of how to structure teams of designers to support an organization without needing everyone to be cross-disciplinary.  I wouldn’t want to hire a designer who can create everything they design. I would want to hire a designer who knows how to think like a developer.

6. Absolute honesty, tactfully delivered, is the best approach to critiquing.
In college, critiques were either a professor doing all the talking, or everyone saying superficially nice things about the work. My response to that was to be brutally honest about my opinions on others’ work, because I had never learned how to really critique. I found myself on the receiving end of so much considered, supportive feedback that I initially took it as disingenuous. Gradually, though, I’ve started to figure out just how far I have to go.  It takes more than a hammer to carve a sculpture. These days, I’m in the market for a set of more delicate tools.

7. Great design ideas are had in the shower.
I moved a few weeks after arriving in San Francisco. After I moved to the place with the stronger shower (I didn’t move for that reason alone, but it didn’t hurt), I found myself stepping out most nights with a head full of ideas I was excited to write down and get started on.

That’s been a weird commonality across everywhere I’ve worked: A good shower = interesting ideas.

8. Most young designers have no way to engage with the conversations around what their role should be in organizations.
Being at Adaptive Path has put me at the epicenter of the discussion about what designers bring to a business, and how design can play a valuable role in higher level decision-making. That’s great, but here’s the problem: I never once heard it discussed around my design school in North Carolina. I’ve felt it for a long time but not had words for it: there are an amazing number of young designers who are simply left out of the larger discussions around design, especially concerning their own places as more than just short-order cooks (to borrow again from Peter Merholz).

As a young designer, your engagement with the scene comes mostly from local organizations (which are often largely just job-seekers), your teachers (who are often not working in the industry), and the internet. It’s telling that Fast Co., one of the most single-serving, feel-good graphic style blogs around, is among the first results when you search for design blogs. Being a spectator of design is great for non-designers who feel they have a creative edge, but as a young designer from a smaller design community, being on the outside of the real meat of the discussion is a harsh reality.

Beyond that, I’ve heard a lot in San Francisco about design principles beginning to be taught in business schools, in engineering schools, in finance and law. I think we as designers need to turn around and help bring up our own ranks. We need to teach young designers the breadth to take ownership of their creative power, and the confidence to be decision-makers instead of gap-fillers.

9. The best (visual) design tends to happens late at night.
If I think back to much of my favorite work, the execution part has come from trance-like zen states where I work until well after midnight — not by necessity, but by nature of having a constant flow of ideas that demand to be realized. There’s much to be said for having a team all present in the same space at the same time and the cohesion of ideas that comes from that, but it’s hard to enter a trance of exploration and creation in such an active office.

10. “Networking” is soul-crushing for an introvert, and is unfortunately necessary.
If I had a dollar for every time I dreaded talking to someone random at an event…

No, even then, I still couldn’t afford to live in San Francisco. Somewhere in the middle of my time with Adaptive Path, I forsook the idea of networking at all. I decided that I would rather accept the missed opportunities than deal with the exhaustion of interaction with people I had no reason to talk to.  Luckily for me and all those less socially inclined, spending time at a place like Adaptive Path lets you network without realizing it, just by being a part of such a lively and connected workplace. I knew there was a reason I came here…

…And there’s a reason to leave, too. Maybe the biggest thing I’ve confirmed over the past few months is that throwing myself into alien challenges is an incredibly rewarding way to live. If you have the chance, do it. You’ll never regret testing yourself and finding out what you believe in and what you’re capable of. I don’t plan to stop moving anytime soon, so who knows? Maybe we’ll run into each other.

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