Landing a UX Design Internship

Illustration by Kyle Webster

I lead the experience design practice at my agency so I see a lot of job applications, from senior hires to design interns. The competition is fierce and I sometimes think about the challenges that new practitioners face today and how different it was for me when I started out.

After university I was broke but wanted to travel, so I got a job teaching English overseas. Unfortunately that coincided with the collapse of the Southeast Asian economy I was working in, so I came home ever-so-slightly poorer than when I left. My degree wasn’t in a particularly well-paying field so when an opportunity came up to design a website for a company my friend worked at, I jumped at it.

I met with the owners and explained that if they purchased some software for me (the precursor to the precursor to Dreamweaver) then I could make them a very cost-effective website. They did and I spent the weekend reading the manual to try and figure out how websites were made. A couple of months later, they had a website and I was a web designer (we hadn’t come up with the term UX yet — yeah, I’m super old).

The industry today is very different and dumb luck isn’t enough to overcome the competition, but many of the fundamental principles still apply. In fact, the core of the example above was putting myself in the shoes of the people who hired me. Without realizing it I was applying UX thinking to the problem of my employment — my advice is that you do exactly the same thing.

When faced with a user experience design challenge we usually start in the most obvious place — the user (it’s right there in the title). In the case of getting an internship the user is the employer. What do they want? What are they looking for? What is their relationship to a candidate, namely you?

The first thing I’d suggest is forgetting about the concept of someone “giving” you a chance. While it does happen from time-to-time, most businesses are run like, you know, a business. They’re not in the habit of doing favors or giving things away for free without getting something in return. If they’re willing to pay you (and an internship should absolutely be paid to be valuable for both parties) then you need to provide value in return. The relationship is symbiotic so don’t think of it as asking for something, think of it as offering something. This may sound trivial but I cannot stress enough how important this mindset is. While it’s true that the scales of exchange are unbalanced for an internship, and you’ll become more valuable over time, you’re still bringing something to the table and the more you bring the better you’ll do.

So let’s look at some of the things you can bring to the equation other than work experience.

One of the most valued qualities at our agency is entrepreneurship. Of course an intern is there to learn so training and investment are required, but those that show a history of doing it for themselves always get our attention. There are lots of ways you can demonstrate this trait beyond the obvious idea of starting a business. Did you start any clubs in school? Volunteer for organizations you believed in? Are you passionate about something and have you done anything to follow that passion beyond going to school? Have you taken any calculated risks that paid off? What can you point to in your life that you’ve accomplished and that you’re proud of? The entrepreneurial spirit goes beyond UX so your examples can be from almost anything.

Hey wait, I’m looking for an internship because I have NO experience! Where are you supposed to get a portfolio if nobody’s hired you yet?! Well it’s sort of a good news/bad news thing. The bad news is that I don’t know anyone in this day and age who has hired a design intern without seeing a UX portfolio first. The investment required in time and resources to take on an intern is not trivial and nobody wants to take a gamble that big on an unknown quantity.

The good news is that there are lots of ways to build a portfolio without experience or a huge investment of time. Fun fact: I used to work at a very good agency where the lobby had posters on the wall showing the covers of beautifully designed case studies for projects we’d done. The projects focused on well-known brands, covering all of the industries that we worked in. At least half of the projects up there were ones that we did on our own and never shared with the companies because they weren’t actually clients of ours. We still did the work, did the research, the thinking, and created insightful recommendations and beautiful concepts. We also never lied about having worked for them, but honestly it never came up.

A portfolio exists to show the quality of work you can produce. For an agency the client list is also important as it builds confidence but for an internship there’s no such expectation. Building a small portfolio of work that shows the kind of work you want to do, how you approach it, and what your current skill level is doesn’t require previous work experience, and given point one above, it’s actually more impressive sometimes when you just did it on your own.

Part of the reason I landed my first gig was that I showed uncharacteristic (for me) maturity. I went to my interview showered and dressed simply but professionally. I was organized, on-time, and I had some knowledge of my prospective employers (on top of that, I was ready to answer all those very common UX interview questions). My emails to them were timely and I double checked the spelling and grammar.

The sum of these things builds confidence in people that they can trust you with the big stuff because you’re already taking care of the small stuff. If you’re late, unprepared, and can’t use a spellchecker, how can you be trusted to become an asset to the company? Fun fact: if we have the appropriate job opening we will always look to make an existing intern that performs well a permanent member of the team over hiring someone new we don’t know. A huge part of that decision is based on the maturity of that intern.

Think about an employer who’s put out a job posting for interns. If their firm is in any way attractive, how many applicants might they get? When they open the twentieth or thirtieth one, what might they want to see and what might fill them with dread? I can tell you that when I hit that point and I see more than a paragraph or two, it’s not getting read. A cover letter is a pitch so it should be concise, interesting, and explain what you’re offering in exchange for the opportunity.

The same goes for a resume. I just use LinkedIn unless they specifically request a resume in which case one page is great, two is fine if necessary. Don’t fill it with ridiculous charts showing star ratings of the software you know. Describe what you know how to do, and mention that you know the relevant applications if you feel you must. Can you imagine a junior carpenter showing a five-star understanding of hammers? The most valuable thing you bring is your thinking and attitudes. We assume you know how to use Adobe XD and that if you don’t, you will before your first day on the job.

Not every internship will be judged as I’ve described. Some will be very formulaic, run by an uninspired HR department looking to check specific boxes. If you want to build the skills that will propel you into a long and satisfying design career, avoid those. Look for places where you’ll work with the best people, on interesting projects that will teach you the most and set you on the right path. That’s what internships are for.

Product strategist, designer, writer, public speaker, urban rancher. @burtbrumme | linkedin.com/in/kkrumme

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