5 tactics to propel your design internship into a design career

David Wu

Sep 20 · 5 min read

So you’ve just gotten yourself a design internship. How do you make the most of it?

If I could go back to myself when I started my design career and got my first internship, there are five things I’d tell myself to make the most of those early career steps. I’m now paying it forward to the broader design community out there by sharing the five tactics that, looking back, have helped shape me to be a better designer.

During your internship, you have virtually unlimited and easy access to:

  • People much better at what you do
  • People doing things you might want to do in the future
  • People doing things you may never have thought about

A good way to leverage this network is to set up coffee chats and 1:1s with people in your company, starting with your immediate team and then branching out. For example, you might start with your immediate design team, then branch out to chat with an engineer, a product manager, a product marketing manager, a data scientist, etc.

The purpose of these meetings is to learn more about who they are, what they do, and understand best practices on how your discipline (i.e. design) collaborates with them.

Intro methods differ for every person, but here’s an example of a calendar invite that I might send to someone I’d like to introduce myself to.

While you can still reach out to people after you leave your internship, it’s far more difficult because communication channels aren’t as responsive. You can’t just set up a calendar event in a moment’s notice.

A company’s product development process involves many different people and disciplines. However, users don’t see products as individual contributions from individual people and disciplines. Instead, users see products as an end-to-end experience from the very first touchpoint, through its discovery, engagement, and usage. As a designer, you should work to ensure that the entire end-to-end experience is seamless, so that the lines between product, marketing, engineering, and design aren’t visible to the user.

For example, in an intern project, I proposed three separate communication channels for product launch. I was able to do so because of our UX research findings and my ability to quickly mockup and storytell those communication strategies. My role as the designer also put me in the best position to seamlessly integrate each of those three touch points into the core product experience.

Sharing your work doesn’t have to be reserved for high-fidelity designs; sharing your work is just as critical in low-fidelity, framework, IA, and research phases. By sharing your work, you’ll prevent silo-ed work, strengthen your relationships with your coworkers, and earn the trust of your team and cross-functional partners.

As designers, we often feel a very strong personal connection to our craft. We can fall into the trap of attaching self-worth with the quality of our work. By extension, we can also end up attaching self-worth to the comments on our work and the ways that we receive feedback. I’ve been there–and yeah–those feelings can be emotionally and mentally draining.

The antidote to those feelings and the way forward in improving designs is to continually share work. Don’t be afraid to share incomplete designs; design by its nature is an incomplete process.

Tip: Avoid prefacing your work by saying something like, “These designs are still work-in-progress.” Don’t downplay your efforts or your craft at any stage in the design process; your designs are better than you think and you are often your own worst critic.

Don’t be afraid to share design work that isn’t “final.” Sharing early-stage designs is just as critical as sharing higher fidelity screens.

While uncomfortable situations are exactly what they are–uncomfortable– they are also among the best learning experiences. In the beginning of my design career, I struggled with ambiguous projects that had little product definition. When I was handed a project that was exactly that, I have to admit I was very confused. I had lots of questions and didn’t know who or how to obtain answers.

Powering through and unblocking those uncomfortable situations requires a mental shift — a shift from a “I’m overwhelmed” attitude to a “I’m going to tackle this because of [some reason]” attitude. In the end, this mental shift made me a much stronger designer, because it taught me to embrace challenges in design and in my career.

Being vocal about your career development is an important skill to have. Especially in the early career stages, we often haven’t seen our workplace strengths and weaknesses first-hand yet. As an intern, you get to test out your skillset, and you should ask for feedback for how to improve.

By asking how you can improve, you are communicating that:

  1. You’re serious about your future
  2. You want to improve
  3. You value the opinions, feedback, and criticism of your peers

Some ways you can get feedback:

  • Set up regular meetings with your mentors and managers, where you go over goals, successes, blockers, etc.
  • Create a document to write down and track your progress, goals, strengths, and areas needing improvement

Both of those tactics above are more structured formats of feedback delivery.

For more organic feedback delivery, I usually just ask. For instance, if I gave a presentation or shared work in a design critique, I would ask someone from the room for feedback. I used to ask something along the lines of “how was that design critique?” to which the reply was “it was fine.” The feedback was not helpful–not because the person didn’t want to give feedback, but because the question I asked wasn’t effective. Instead, ask more targeted questions, like “was there any context that you felt was missing from my design critique?”

Categorized as UX

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