What Level is Your Design Business?

3 Lessons My Intern Taught Me As a Principal Designer

3 Lessons My Intern Taught Me As a Principal Designer

It’s pretty clear that I am a super fan of the A Well-Designed Business® podcast.

I take the advice given from LuAnn, the designers, and professionals who serve as a wealth of knowledge to us pretty seriously. So, you won’t be surprised when I tell you that a couple of years ago, I listened an episode with Kae Whitaker (she’s been on many times and has several GREAT discussions with LuAnn) about How to Hire and Train Interns and I was intrigued.

It wasn’t the right time for me to take on an intern when I had heard this episode for the first time, but I always had it filed away in my brain for when I was ready. Towards the end of 2019 (pre-COVID) I determined that 2020 was my year to try it out and bring on an intern, so I set out to follow the advice of Kae to prepare!

Kae’s process to find and bring on an intern was spot on.

From her podcast with LuAnn, I was able to know the difference between paid and unpaid internships, which I hadn’t before.

If you are having the intern do a billable task, they need to be paid. If its admin or back-end office work, such as marketing, email sequences, or social media strategy they can be unpaid, but there is a fine line and it does depend on the state you live in.

I also learned from Kae that each school has their own guidelines and protocols that must be met. I knew as I was interviewing potential candidates that I needed to do some extra research about the requirements of their internship based on where they went to school.

I am really thankful that Kae gave me the idea to bring an intern into our team. With 2020 such a crazy year, it was very nice to have an extra set of hands working on some things that were falling to the back burner due to the fact that I was working more IN my business than ON it.

Even though things felt a little crazy (thanks to COVID), my team and I knew we were ready to bring an intern on because we already had an employee handbook with our processes and systems defined and written out.

We knew it would just be a matter of being organized enough to provide this person with productive work that would bring value to them as the intern and also to our design firm.

As we on-boarded our intern, I started realizing that I was learning lessons that nobody could have prepared me for.

Kae had us set and ready to go with the structure we needed, but there were things I learned from my intern that I, the Principal Designer, did not expect. I thought I’d share these moments with you today just incase you too are looking to add an intern to your team for the first time too and didn’t know what to expect or where to turn.

3 Lessons My Intern Taught Me as A Principal Designer

1. You Don’t Know What They Do or Don’t Know

Call me crazy, but I expected our intern to come through the door and have experience sourcing product, working with vendors, selecting fabrics or even mapping out a general design process from start to finish.

Why did I think my intern would come to me with “real life” design experience? I’m not sure. After all, this was her internship, where she was coming to learn! I guess I just thought they would teach or model some kind of realistic examples like this in the classroom.

It took us some time to figure out where she was coming in at, what kind of skill set she had under her belt already and what she was looking to learn through this experience.

We really had to start at step one, meaning my team and I had to teach our intern how to log in and source from our vendors, explain why some fabrics work for certain situations and not others, and explain our design process from start to finish because she’d never really seen something orchestrated in such a way.

I found it interesting that their schoolwork did not point these students in the direction of real experiences they may be working with when they enter the workforce.

Thankfully we had a “Team Resource Sheet” that served as a cheat sheet for her and she quickly learned to navigate certain vendors, their styles, price points, and other relevant information.

I’m so glad our team was able to teach our intern this relevant and useful information so that she could go into her first job with that kind of experience under her belt.

2. Teaching My Systems Tested My Systems

As you may know, I love my design systems and processes! These processes keep me and my team in check and ensure that the packages we sell are consistent, efficient and memorable for each client we work with.

When it came time to teach our intern the ins and outs of some of our systems and processes, I found several holes that were either because of a mistake, because we had not fully completed the process loop, or because we simply dropped the ball.

As someone who actually has a Master’s Degree in Education, I know the power of teaching. In order to teach, you must know the content inside and out. Why? Because students have questions and you need to be able to answer those questions.

So when our intern asked questions about specific areas of our workflow and I didn’t have a good answer, we were able to adapt and pivot to create a better process in those areas where our errors were exposed. Not exactly what I wanted to learn in that moment/day/time, but overall a great learning experience for all of us involved.

3. Having An Intern Helped Me Hire

Having an intern helped me determine what kind of personality, skill set and experience level we would be looking for when we hired.

Going into this internship, we knew our intern would not become a hire as she was still a junior in college. Knowing this was off the table allowed us to use this experience as an exploratory period where we would learn about our team, workflow, etc.

My admin team and I learned that we are looking for a very specific type of personality, skill set and pace to be a good fit for our team. We work at a very fast pace, adapt and pivot almost daily, are all open to constructive feedback, and we are extremely committed to creating an exceptional end product and experience for our clients.

We have a “whatever it takes” attitude deep down in our core. I realized that not everyone is as passionate about their job or interior design as I may be and that’s okay, especially when the role is a mandatory experience to graduate from school.

I started to notice that we do have a variety of personality types on our team, but it never occurred to me that one of the common threads among us was that we all shared that “get it done at any and all costs” attitude, which was helpful for me to learn through this process.

Our intern helped me to see that different personalities can fit into different roles within my company.

By the time we were through the experience, we discovered our intern’s “super powers” and helped her realize the lane she would probably be most successful in as she entered into her design career, which was very fun!

We also realized that we don’t need super driven and fast paced people for all roles on our team. There are some areas of the business that require a slower pace such as marketing, finances, blog posting, social media, etc. That opened our eyes to becoming more diverse across the board.

We went on to eventually hire an employee several months after the internship was complete and we took these very valuable lessons along with us as we searched to find the perfect candidate for the exact role we were hiring for.

Having an intern on my team was just as eye opening and insightful for me as it was for the intern herself.

I so appreciate LuAnn having Kae on her show to talk about this concept and introduce me to the idea of it being a possibility for my firm. I am not sure I will have another intern join us again until things (AKA COVID, uncertainty, etc.) calm down a little bit. However, I am so happy I had this experience and am thankful for the lessons my team and I were able to teach and learn.

If you’re tossing around the idea of bringing on an intern, I highly recommend you listen to Kae’s episode about internships and I also challenge you to listen to the many other episodes that Kae has been on with LuAnn . Everything she says to do really does work! Kae is a wealth of knowledge in her craft and truly an expert at what she does.

Take the time to prepare for the experience if you do decide to take on an intern—make sure it’s a valuable learning opportunity for the person as a student.

Teach them the things you were never taught be that guiding light for them. Just know it’s not necessarily easy on your end. It will take time for you to invest into your intern, whether that be preparing, teaching, pivoting, etc. but it will serve you both, I promise.

I hope this information was helpful to you! And remember, no matter what you do, decide to do it well. Whatever the arena, show up and be excellent, friends.



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What Level is Your Design Business?