No More Fetching Coffee: How Employers Can Level Up Their Interns

Elizabeth Cardone Baldwin



For design students, landing an internship at a company can be a stressful time—does your portfolio stand out? Will you make an impression in your interview? Will you even find someone willing to interview you? And then once you're hired, will you be trusted to actually contribute to the team? Will you be taken seriously? Will you feel like your work matters?

I was lucky to have attended the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art & Planning, where you become well acquainted with the trials and tribulations of getting hired for your first (or next) internship. At DAAP, part of the curriculum is what’s called the Cooperative Education Program (Co-op)—a 5-year program designed to require students to rotate between semesters of classes and semesters of professional working experience. Basically, you have 5 internships built into your undergraduate education (I could go on and on about the benefits of graduating with nearly 2 years of working experience, but will save that for a later date.)


So when Brightwild leadership gave me the green light to hire a co-op student from UC DAAP for the summer semester, I was determined to take everything I had learned from being a co-op student to now being a co-op employer. Enter: JP Mathe. 

JP joined us in his 3rd year at UC DAAP for his summer co-op. If you haven’t already, check out JP’s blog about his experience with us. Luckily for me, this is an easy blog to write because candidly, JP is a really hard worker, talented designer and gentle-hearted person who from day one was busting out the Brightwild brand like a seasoned vet. That being said, there are some key things I learned during our four months together that helped us to make the most of the semester:


Things I learned worked well


1. There is no such thing as onboarding too thoroughly.


I can remember the stress of the first few days at a new internship. You get thrown into your first project too early, without enough context and inevitably are left feeling like the newbie that you were. To avoid this, here is how I structured our first three days together:

- Set Expectations. Set expectations first thing. I put together an onboarding deck that restates the role, expectations, day to day logistics and team policies.

- Tech Setup & Software Training. I planned for tech setup to take a day (it did), and made sure to train on all software we use and how we use it (Asana, Pitch, Slack, etc.) We even made sure to set up Adobe Libraries with Brightwild brand assets such that when we kicked JP off on his first project, he was ready to go.

- Company Overview. Give as much information as you can about what you do, how it will impact their work, the teams that you have, the people you work with, your company culture, your team values….all of this helps get ahead of confusion down the line.

- Brand Guidelines. After a thorough rebranding with our partners at Matchstic, we were left with a 92 page brand guidelines document. One of JP’s first tasks was to not only read the brand guidelines, but to study them and come prepared with questions the next day for review. This allowed him to jump into his first projects very quickly with, candidly, much less feedback required than I had anticipated.


After the first three days, JP made a point to give me feedback letting me know that it was helpful how comprehensive his onboarding process was. In my own internship experiences, this is a step that can be clunky & quickly skipped over. Planning ahead and blocking two-three days to onboard is certain to pay off in the long run.


2. Set Goals early and check-in often.


One benefit of having been through the co-op program myself is that I know students are required to reflect on their goals each semester before applying for their next job. Do employers typically go over this sheet? Not to my knowledge. Did I kindly request JP to bring it to our first one on one meeting? Absolutely. This goal sheet became our roadmap to growth throughout the semester. While DAAP teaches design principles, it is largely up to co-op employers to teach design professionalism.


So when one of JP’s goals was to work on communication skills, I knew what to look out for on a daily basis to give additional coaching. For example, in the beginning, he might’ve sent a next round of design with a note:


See below for the latest round.


While he successfully shared artwork for review, it could use additional context, framework for feedback, a recommendation based on his expertise and a call to action for next steps from the reviewer. We checked in frequently to grow in this area—practicing drafts of communication back and forth until it had the right ingredients to send off. By the end of the summer, JP’s communication looked more like this:


See below for the latest round. Based on the feedback, I have addressed the following:
-   Feedback
-   Feedback
-   Feedback
A few additional callouts to consider based on the design and goals of the project:
-   Callout
-   Callout
-   Callout
My recommendation is ‘x’, as it best ladders up to the strategy for ‘xyz’ reasons.
Please let me know any additional builds by ‘x’ timing.


JP mentioned in his blog how helpful setting goals early on was, and it really showed when he was quickly able to level up in key areas within a few short weeks. It helped us both get the most out of our time together to collaborate as effectively as possible. When he comes back in the spring, we will be able to continue goal setting and building from this foundation.


3. Give room for success and room for failure. And in both scenarios, feedback is a gift.


I saw a quote recently that said, “The first time you do anything, it probably won’t be very good. So just get started so that by the 100th time you do it, you have something that IS good.” As an intern, you learn the most by just getting in there and doing. I can personally be guilty of being afraid to give room for failure—will the project timeline go over if I assign this? Will we have to go back to the drawing board if the design goes off the rails? At the end of the day, it’s worth leaving the room for failure, because either I will learn they’re capable of handling more, or we can talk about how to make changes and grow for the next time. By the end of the semester, JP was able to manage his own projects more and more, which was a huge lift from my plate and freed me up for more design work, making the team more efficient.


Which brings me to my next point: feedback is a gift. As a manager my job is to put you in a position for success such that the team can work together for positive outcomes. This will require feedback. But feedback doesn’t need to be scary! I made a point to build a relationship of trust and honesty with JP as quickly as possible. By sharing some of my own failures and own areas of improvement, we were able to create a safe space for feedback. That way when things came up, we could talk through it together right away and keep moving forward.


I would also be remiss not to mention that there were many times we got to celebrate positive feedback and successes together as well. Did he do an awesome job framing up rationale? I’ll be sure to let him know! As our Director of Brand, Dave, has said to our team before, “What gets celebrated, gets repeated.” It’s always fun when opportunities present themselves for me to be a cheerleader (even for the little things.)


Things I want to work on for the next intern:


1. Build in a range of short-term and long-term projects


One thing I noticed, and JP was able to call out as we were wrapping up his semester, was that there were times when he’d send me something for review, I’d be tied up in a meeting or project and couldn’t provide feedback right away. While I tried to have enough projects on deck that there was always something that he could be working on—there were still a few idle times. Next semester, I want to set at least one long-term project that can be worked on in the background during the semester. Something that doesn’t have strict timing, but is productive and useful to the business–for example, organizing server folders that have become a mess, competitive audits of other brands for future property projects or online tutorials to hone in on design skills.



2. Find their natural strengths and give them opportunities to flex them.


Nothing will make you feel more motivated and excited about the work you are doing…than being assigned things you like to do! While I don’t think this was a huge miss during my time with JP, I do want to be more proactive about seeking this out next time. During our weekly one on one sessions, I’m going to integrate questions like:


·  What was something that gave you a jolt of energy this week?

·  When did you feel like you were most in your flow?

·  What was something that felt frustrating or draining this week?


I also think identifying an intern’s creative thinking profile (clarifier, ideator, developer or implementor) will help me assign projects that put them in their zone.


In summary…


At the end of the day, interns are a great resource that can be made more valuable by their managers being committed to getting the most out of their time with your company, and never viewing them as “just the intern.” JP was a talented, contributing and valued member of the Brightwild brand team this summer, and I am so grateful for our first semester together. I can’t wait to welcome him back in the spring!


And no, he was never once asked to fetch a coffee.



Elizabeth Baldwin

Design Manager at Brightwild