How to get experience

I've seen  this photo  everywhere, but it's apt today.

I've seen this photo everywhere, but it's apt today.

I recently gave a talk to quite a large group of emerging Designers and graduates — this talk was part of a local industry association's event series where 5 people with less than 5 years experience share their early-career insights and learnings.

I was invited to provide a point of view from the other end of the career/experience spectrum and as I sat in the audience and listened to the first five speakers, I found a common thread building.

A narrative, that made me feel increasingly uncomfortable and sad that so many intelligent young people who had so much to offer, were resorting to unpaid work.

These were inspiring, talented and intelligent young people who opened my eyes for reasons you wouldn't expect.

Throughout the night I listened to them speak and celebrate their five year journeys and I slowly began to realise that the common thread through some of the presentations was a celebration of 'winning' a free (or nominally-paid) internship at a 'prestigious' and 'reputable agency' and chase an ideal of working in a prestigious agency business. 

They were very specific. 

One speaker turned down paid employment in favour of doing an internship at one of these 'prestigious businesses.'

Yes. Turning down paid employment to work for a nominally-paid internship.

I, along with my two colleagues who accompanied me that evening, were gobsmacked.

As I prepared to step behind the lectern, all I could think of saying was "you've been conned." Needless to say, I made my point during my talk.

Afterwards I deliberately made time to ask some of the people in attendance about this drive for internships in 'prestigious businesses'.

This is a collection of the answers I received:

  • "Our lecturers tell us that we have to do it."
  • "We were told at Uni that we'd have to intern at certain studios to even have a chance of getting a job down the line."
  • "My lecturer told me that it's what the industry wants me to do."
  • "Recruitment agents tell me that I need experience. I don't have experience. It's the only way I can get experience, and they're still not happy."
  • "I have a job interview next week, but I'm not sure I should go - should I wait until the right studio contacts me?"

And it went on.

One very eloquent young woman said to me: "If most young people within an industry are naive to the needs of the industry they're trying to get into — to whom must we rest blame?"

Alas there were some intelligent voices that night.

Yes, internships are a wonderful way to get experience — but not if they're unpaid or nominally paid. Fair work equals fair (and legal) reward.

I felt sad. I felt sad that a belied existed, that this was the only way they could forge a career.

I also felt sad that they didn't see the multitudes of options available to them.

The two most common narratives in the answers I received from my mini-post-event focus group were:

  1. "I'm doing what I was told to do."
  2. "I'm doing it for experience."

To the first, all I can say is that some people need to learn to for themselves. If I listened to what my lecturers told me to do, I'd either be working 16-hour days and fail to recognise my children if I saw them across the street, or I'd still be interning at "Fuck-Knuckle & Sons Advertising."

In an attempt to answer the second concern I decided to see what the industry actually thought, so I sat with a few colleagues during the week, emailed a few more and asked them a simple question:

"How can a graduate or a young, emerging Design professional gain experience without having to do unpaid (or nominally paid) internships?"

Upwards of 15 industry professionals within my network responded and I've collated their responses below. I'll be updating this list each time someone emails me a new idea.

Since posting this at 10am on May 9, 2017, I've had a great response from readers who have helped add ideas to this list. If you have any to add, please get in touch.

For those of you who are being conned into thinking that unpaid work is the gateway to a fulfilling career, we've put this list of things you can do to gain experience without selling your soul.

Add everything you do below to your CV and celebrate it as your experience:

  • Do a short course. Learn something new and network while you're doing it.
  • Find mentors and add them to your CV
  • Develop self-initiated briefs to real, commercial projects. These are enormously valued and respected. Make them meaningful, relevant, creative and by all means commercially relevant to the people you're trying to work with.
  • Include failed projects within the conversation of your experience. Dammit include them in your folio. Document and celebrate the process.
  • Volunteer for a charity that you admire. It may be free, but it's on your dime and they're not profiting. Document the process.
  • Volunteer with an industry association. Network with everyone you meet.
  • Create a product with a view to monetise it. Didn't work? No big deal, that's entrepreneurship! Document the process. 
  • Develop a series of events for people without experience. Invite industry (or people without experience) to speak at them.
  • Can't find work in a studio? Start your own business.
  • Write about your career journey.
  • Collaborate with friends/colleagues on a business/product.
  • Find a brand with a problem — solve that problem with work you've initiated yourself.
  • Network with the industry, have a coffee (or tea) with people, learn from them, build a network and offer your freelance services when the topic comes up.
  • Get a job. Any job that is related to professional services. Pay the rent and put food on the table. It's experience. Get admin and people skills and other skills that will establish your professionalism.
  • Ask your lecturers about industry placement programs and get involved.
  • Understand the difference between a "passion project" and a "side hustle" — a passion project you do for thrills, a side hustle you do for thrills and dollars.
  • Volunteer at a Design conference. Meet people, network and aim for freelance or collaborative gigs.
  • Get involved in industry associations, collectives and event hubs. Don't know any? Ask around.
  • Go to a local meet up event.


As you can see there are a myriad of ways you can gain experience without having to do unpaid, or nominally-paid work.

In the instant you agree to work for free, or for a nominal fee that is below the standard, accepted legal salary for the country you live in — you've established your value in the eyes of your employer.

If you choose $0. You're starting from zero.

If you think a list of internships is impressive — think again.

List your mentors, your experiments, your failures and your learnings on your CV and see how much more respect (and meaningful conversation) that list gets you over a long list of free gigs at design studios designed by fuck-knuckle architects.

I've written an number of articles over the past year that tackle this very issue — here they are for ease of access:

A simple job-hunting method
Two types of people
Where to next?
Don't be a Title Chaser
How to find a mentor
Building a career is complex
The first step in building your network