Emily Henderson

15 do's and don't's when trying to get (and keep) a design internship or assistant position.

Oh i’ve had some real DOOZIES.  I mean, we once had an intern who literally came to set, went to the  craft service table, made themselves a plate of funyons and bugles and just sat and watched us. It’s as if we were performing a live show just for them. Sometimes he/she would clap, sometimes laugh, sometimes criticize, it was genuinely HILARIOUS and TOTALLY BAFFLING.

You don’t want to be that person.  In fact i feel so genuinely guilty that i didn’t sit them down and tell them that they were never going to get a reference with a list of reasons why. I felt like i did them a disservice by not telling them that they were the worst worker i have ever in my life seen.  So, sorry bad intern, but i’m glad you enjoyed the show.

On the other hand…. A good intern or assistant is soooooo valuable and is to be treasured.

Let me tell you a story about one intern named Rebecca.

Rebecca wanted to intern for the show, but she lived in Las Vegas. So she was going to commute two weeks a month and stay in Los Angeles with a friend during those weeks. This seemed totally crazy to me, but i figured sure, lets see.  She came on set and slowly made herself totally indispensable. The weeks she was there were always more smooth. And then weeks we wasn’t weren’t as good.  She was fast, resourceful, easy to be around, had a good attitude and had lots of design skills.  Within a few months she was hired full time as an assistant because everybody on set knew that we needed her.  We actually found room in the budget to pay her – that’s what happens when someone can’t live without an employee – you just make it happen.

Orlando is obviously another great example – he was hired for the show and within weeks i NEEDED him. Now, post shooting, i’ve hired him as a designer in my company.  Indispensability, folks.

So here are 15 keys to getting hired as an intern OR an entry level assistant: Just my experience and just my pet peeves and needs, but i hope you find it helpful. 

1. There is a fine line between persistence and annoyance, and you want to stay on the side of persistence.   If you are stalking a potential employer and you get irritated that they don’t tweet you back or email you back immediately and you email them saying ‘why haven’t you emailed me back’, you may have just crossed the line into annoyance and you’ve just lost the job.  INSTEAD, send simple sweet reminders every other week that you would love the opportunity to help out in ANY capacity.  OR even better, send unsolicited design ideas.  For instance, i’ve had potential interns send me ‘i thought you’d like this stuff on ebay’ emails, or ‘I know you are busy but i thought you would love this artist i found’. And don’t get mad if they don’t reply.  This shows me that you a. love design and b. don’t mind giving of your time for free, and c. you have a good eye (hopefully).  It shows me that you are obsessed with design, not just desperate for a job so you can having drinking money, or something to put on your resume.  You don’t want to nag your future boss, but you do want to stay in their radar – so send them HELPFUL emails, not needy ones.  There is nothing worse than a high maintenance intern/assistant that makes you feel guilty.

2. Know that you won’t be doing the fun stuff at first. I can’t tell you how many interns we’ve had for ths show that only want to do the ‘fun stuff’.  But here’s the deal, I want to do the fun stuff.  Orlando wants to do the fun stuff, and we still don’t get to do enough of it.  Expect to do expense reports, returns, accounting, coffee running, more returns, running to get extra lampshades, driving to Santa Monica for a West Elm pickup, etc, for a while.  I still do all of those things and a good assistant would be someone who doesn’t make me feel guilty for asking them to do some of them either.  The fun stuff always comes, i promise but not if you are impatient – you won’t last that long.

3. Manage yourself and Volunteer for everything.  It’s widely known that i’m not a very good boss. I don’t like telling people what to do, i don’t like managing people. So it is extremely important to me that the people i work with can manage themselves so i don’t have to.  If tasks aren’t obvious then ask ‘what can i do this week for you?’ instead of waiting for them to give you a task.  It shows that you want to work.  I hate it when people wait for me to call them up, especially interns that aren’t getting paid – i always feel guilty.  But if you email or call me and say ‘how can i help you this week’ then the guilt is gone and your eagerness is extremely appreciated and you become indispensable.   Rebecca was constantly taking annoying tasks away from me and doing them.  Your motto should  be ‘i’ll do it’ as an intern.

4. Computer skills aren’t enough to get the job.  Auto-cad, Sketchup, etc are needed, indeed, but you need to show more than that to get a job at a creative company.  Create mood boards for your fantasy house.  Bring in those concept boards in ADDITION to technical floor plans. I can’t tell you how many interior design graduates show up to interviews with these portfolios full of commercial building projects they did in school and i get no sense of style or personality.  Again, you need the former, but if you can’t show me that you love shopping and style and design then its not going to happen for us. Start a blog.  Print out your pinterest page.  Show that you are obsessed with design and that if i send you vintage stores to shop for lamps that you have an eye and an IMAGINATION. Resumes are boring, so shake it up.  Also care about what you wear.  I’ve been baffled before by schlubby style-free outfits from interns – you want to be in a creative field? You better dress the part.  (this has nothing to do with money, thrift store outfits show me way more about you than your boring yellow tank top, too small jeans and flip flops.)  You represent your boss at all times, so you kinda need to dress like it.

5. GET YOURSELF A WORK ETHIC.  Seems obvious, but it isn’t.  Kids these days….. i mean, THERE IS ALWAYS SOMETHING TO DO!!! You can clean, you can organize the tool box, you can tape up receipts.  As someone new, as the lowest man on the totem pole, you should always be helping.  We’ve hired so many interns on the show that only do what they are told and again, have to be told, instead of simply seeing what needs to be done and doing it.  Stay late if you need.  Show up ON TIME.  Traffic is not an excuse.   Go above and beyond what you are expected to do.  We notice, i promise and you’ll get hired.

6. Be resourceful and figure stuff out on your own.  Obviously i don’t mean the composition of the room, but coming up with the solution instead of asking for it is invaluable.  If you say ‘Home depot doesn’t have shades, where should i go?’, thats fine, but if you say  ‘Home Depot doesn’t have shades, instead i’m heading to Lamps plus and Pottery Barn’, then thats using your head. If the hardware store is out of flux capacitors, ask them first what would be a good substitute, then google it, then call your boss.

7. BE HAPPY.  Naturally we are all allowed to complain now and again, but there is a difference between being frustrated with the client at times, and being moody and grumpy often. Walking around the office clearly in a bad mood, sucks the energy out of all of us and makes us not want to ask you to do something which is a sign that this relationship isn’t working.  Your boss should always feel able to ask you do to something, and you should always be happy to do it.  The interns/assistants that i’ve avoided asking are always the ones that were let go.  You simply can’t be moody or grumpy at work (often). And if you feel really tired, just keep it to yourself because I PROMISE, your boss is more tired than you are.

8. Don’t expect to be best friends with your boss. Unfortunately you are there to work, not hang out and make friendship bracelets.  Obviously friendships may form (hopefully), but they also may not, and that’s ok.  This has happened to me a few times where there is bitterness and it causes stress.  Rebecca never showed for one second that she was jealous of our friendship and eventually she was the one that became our friend.  Work first, and if friendships form, great, but that is not why you are there.

9. DON’T MAKE COMMENTS ABOUT HOW BROKE YOU ARE.  I think i might be extra sensitive to this, but your finances are not your bosses concern and you should never make your boss feel guilty about how much you make. You know going into any job or internship what you are going to get paid. You said ‘Yes’ to the job.  After a few months if you are struggling to pay the bills and may need to leave because of it then schedule a conversation with your boss about that, and hopefully it can be worked out.  BUT NEVER complain about the low or lack of wage, its totally unprofessional.  We all started out working for pennies, but you won’t forever, or for very long, i promise.   The assistants and interns that don’t complain are the ones that get turn into paid assistants or get raises.  I don’t think Orlando has EVER complained about money (even when i knew he was struggling) and that is why i always try to get him more money when possible and make sure he is satisfied.  He makes me WANT to make him more successful and more financially comfortable.

10. Write things down – listen and take notes.  Please.  I promise you, there is NO WAY you are going to remember everything.  Write EVERYTHING down. Repeating yourself is frustrating.   And don’t call to ask where Crate and Barrel is – find it on your own.  (don’t get me wrong if we are already on the phone don’t be scared to ask that, but don’t just call for that question).  

11. Predict questions and have answers.  When sourcing anything get all of the following information:  price, lead time, size, availability.  Take proper pictures, get ample amount of swatches. Don’t just get what i’m asking for – if i say ‘go to Noho vintage and look for lamps’ and you see lamps but also some awesome coffee tables, take pictures of those, too.  Follow directions, but go beyond that – they’ll love that.  Think about what questions you would ask of the pieces and get the answer beforehand.  As a side note if you are sourcing stuff on the internet, don’t send links, send pictures in the body of the email with the price underneath (and then the link).  That way you don’t have to have to click on 20 links,  You can see the pictures and then if you want to get more info you can – it saves a lot of time.

12.  Be efficient.  Multi-tasking skills are crazy important.  Make phone calls in the car (**if you have hands free) while driving to the  fabric district.  Google your next errand while in line at Pottery Barn.  Don’t go home and walk your dog during work unless you ask.  Work fast.   It will prove you are worth every penny.

13.  Don’t give unsolicited negative feedback.  OH, this is a big one.  If i’m, lets say, styling a coffee table and i’m still deciding what to put on it, don’t say ‘mmm i don’t like that’ just to assert your opinion.  It doesn’t prove to me that you have opinions or are smart or have good taste. It just proves to me that you like the sound of your own voice.  Sure, you can give unsolicited positive feedback, but not negative, at first.  For me, once i start trusting people then OF COURSE i need/rely/am desperate for opinions and get annoyed when you hold back criticism, but new interns and assistants should watch and learn and prove yourself first.

14. Predict Needs.  This is where you totally become indispensable.  If you see your boss about to hang a bunch of art, grab a hammer and some nails and put them next to them.  If you see that their computer is running out of batteries, plug it into a charger. This stuff is assistant GOLD, people.  When i was assisting it was like a game to me – i LOVED figuring out what Cindy would need next and have it there for her.  The second i got to set i would throw the flowers in water (clip the ends first to give them fresh stems) and i would lay the clipper next to the bucket with some vase options.  She’s good to go.  I would set up the ironing board minutes before i could tell she would need it.  I was constantly organizing the prop table to make sure everything was visible, and if i could tell she was struggling styling the mantle i would quietly bring objects over and just put near her for options.  PREDICT NEEDS.

15.  Don’t be sensitive. If your boss doesn’t like any of the lamps you took pictures of, don’t get annoyed or sensitive.  If they don’t like the fabric you swatched, don’t cry, its ok.  It takes a long ass time to know the specific tastes and needs of your boss, so don’t worry about it.  I try and say ‘why’ i don’t like something so they can learn, but know that it takes a while to learn somebody else’s style – it took me a long time with Cindy, too.  Rebecca at first showed me lots of stuff i didn’t like, but she didn’t care, she just turned around and shopped for more.  And after a couple months she started getting it.  I want to feel comfortable enough to say, ‘nope, too Liberace-y’, ‘Nope, too ‘cheesy bachelor’, ‘nope, too old lady’.  But i’ve had people get sensitive and annoyed, and again it becomes my problem.   Ask ‘why’ so you understand, but then take the info and move on.

For all the bosses out there, comment away on your advice for interns and assistants.  Tell them the stuff that you wish you knew when you were starting out.  Or vent with your pet peeves.

I normally don’t encouraging venting on the blog, but i really feel like there is a influx of really poor workers out there that need to know this stuff, or they won’t be able to get or kep a job.  Its for their own good, i swear.

Newest update:

There has been some negative feedback, which i totally understand, defending interns.  Ultimately i think its a compromise – 50/50. The employee/intern has to be proactive and work hard and ask as many questions that they can think of to try to learn, and the employer has to teach them as often as possible and ultimately try to help them move on and get a job if its not there.  Neither party can just sit back, both need to work at the relationship.  I’m revising what i said earlier, it was harsh and hasty.  (i was on a roll…)

If you don’t believe in free internships then that is a whole other debate that i understand both sides to. Unfortunately in creative fields free internships are the norm because of lack of funds.  In general they are very flexible though and allow for other jobs. I think an unpaid internship at a really exciting, but small creative company is way more valuable than a paid internship at a big company.  Again, if you prove to be indispensable you will get hired.

But let me be clear:  interns or entry level assistants are supposed to be looking for valuable experiences and they should be getting it – thats kinda the trade off.  I’m sorry if it came across ungrateful, i’m actually the opposite i swear, its just the entitlement that kills me.