internship building

Excited D&AD 2012 graduate Student Award nominees pose for photographers as ravenous creative agency heads look on, drooling.

Working for nothing is now a prerequisite for a career in graphic design. The creative industries think little of helping themselves to the best of the year’s graduate brains for nowt in return – some travel expenses if you are lucky, maybe even a ‘gift’, for the most fortunate of all even something called a ‘job’. Apparently this is fine. For agencies and successful graduates, internships really work. For thousands of others? I did wonder how we came to so vigorously embrace this exploitative state of affairs. Then I remembered that this was how I got started.

I am about eight years old. Some people are still looking at large black & white TV sets, not everyone has fixed line telephones and none have mobile communicators, which are barely a gleam in Gene Rodenberry’s eye. I am not sent to work up chimneys, nor live in a workhouse, but at this point in history mothers do still turf their sprogs out to explore the world after breakfast and neither know nor possibly care where they are until they (usually) return at tea-time. On such a day out I stumble across the local museum, a four-storey Edwardian house and universe of its own where live exhibits (newts! frogs! mice!) share space with static displays of gin traps, roman coins and methodically skewered moth corpses.

Behind the scenes a freezer contains a shark, assorted roadkill and dead pets pending possible taxidermy, and after-hours staff séances among the relics are not uncommon. I bring in my thrilling local fossil findings for examination, hang around persistently and eventually get asked to help out with various chores. Most days of the week I help a wonderful old boy in his eighties who beautifully paints plaster casts of fish and magical dioramas. I begin to learn something of visual communication, producing my first public artwork (a fabulous scale rendering of a flea) and dabble in typography via the futuristic new technology of Letraset. So it is that I develop a lifetime interest in a) the natural world and b) visual communication. By age 11, in my head I am an intrepid exhibition designer–zoologist. Outside it unfortunately I am just an irritatingly precocious geek. In the Disney version of this story I now reveal that I am in fact Director of the Natural History Museum in London. Back in that actual reality however, though old enough to work part-time I am denied a real museum job, put Letraset and entomology behind me for gels, guitar music and guzzling cheap beer like the rest of my peers. But soon I pick up a copy of ‘Design’ magazine and things begin to fall into place…

So an unpaid three-year internship that would today be categorised as criminal child abuse taught me my first visual skills, ingrained a lifelong love of design and nature, ‘kept me off the streets’ and saved me from boredom. The modern internship (not even a word in common UK usage until recently) is the ethically dubious result of oversupply in a shrunken market – but for the keenly committed graduate it is also a door to invaluable knowledge and a better professional life.

I read somewhere that being able to simultaneously hold two contrary ideas in your head is a sign of true intelligence. I read somewhere else that not being able to make up your mind is a sign of ignorance and mental enfeeblement. I firmly believe both statements to be true. There’s quite a nice view from up here on the fence anyway.





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