Is work experience a bunch of bull? Does it really teach you anything or are you just a skivvy for free? Nowadays I have to work with young designers on work experience every few weeks and how I treat them is based largely on my own experience in their shoes. It all feels so long a go. Was it any use?

Experience 1 – Skidmore Turnbull

A small design office in Notting Hill Gate which focuses on print work, mainly for the insurance industry, but also spanning identity and branding.

What I did
I spent 4 weeks scanning in trannies of natural disasters. That’s basically it. I remember that the air conditioning didn’t work in the tiny back room corner where I sat all day with the scanner. A combination of oppressive summer heat and mundanity made it almost impossible to stay awake. I discovered Pro Plus. I mainlined it wondering if this what what real work felt like – boring.

I did get to take part in one brainstorm for a pitch. Everyone was asked to come up with name and straplines for an insurance product and present them at a brainstorm. On the day of the meeting I was too busy scanning in burning forests to go to the meeting. I remember being really glad as I was scared that my ideas were way off the mark and well, rubbish. In the end I gave my sketch book of ideas to one of the designers and left him to attend the meeting. In the end my idea and strapline was chosen and a few months after I left I was sent a big cardboard point of sale cutout with my name and strapline on it. I was flabbergasted. It was really nice of them. It really boosted my confidence in my own abilities and ideas.

What I learnt
I learnt that Pro Plus is evil. I had to take a day off work in the end as I discovered what too much caffeine could do to your system. I haven’t taken it since.

I learnt that design isn’t all record cover design. There are a lot of more mundane aspects to real work. I had to really think about what I wanted to actually work on and how you get through doing repetitive tasks.

I learnt that groups of capital letters and numbers can be made ever so slightly smaller on business cards and brackets can be baseline shifted in telephone numbers. This new level of detail blew my mind. It was like I had just discovered typographic detail.

I learnt that presenting your ideas is a skill. It’s scary, especially when everyone else has tonnes more experience than you do and you feel that you don’t know what you are doing. But forcing yourself to do it helps to remove the fear through sheer repetition.

Experience 2 – Interbrand

A global company specialising in big brands, packaging and general design.

What I did
I spent 8 weeks shopping for ribbon, dying ribbon, helping to make dummy shopping bags and making moodboards. There was no space for me to use a computer so if I was in the office, I was either looking through stock image books for moodboards, colour copying stock books for making moodboards or actually gluing and sticking mood boards.

What I learnt
I learnt how to make a moodboard. I got good at gluing and cutting foam board. I had to learn to be a lot neater. They actually had a mocking up department and the guys there taught me lots about making a presentation really slick.

I learnt my way around central London. I was sent far and wide on a quest to mock up fashion retail bags. I learnt all my bus routes and how it’s often quicker to walk. It really was an invaluable skill. I also learnt that if you can’t find what you are looking for, you have to improvise and think up a solution.

I discovered the beast that is market research. It was a whole new world I knew little about. The brands being worked on were huge and all the work that went on behind the actual design work in order to justify the solution was really eye-opening.

Experience 3 – Studio Boot

A two person design team in Holland. I organised this work placement independently of my college because I really loved Dutch design and wanted to experience working abroad.

What I did
I spent 2 weeks cycling 14 miles a day from a campsite out of town everyday to a small studio in the top of a narrow townhouse on the canal. The company did a wide range of illustrative design projects ranging across all fields of design. I did research work, looking up collage ideas for a fashion look book. I also went to the market and bought lunch everyday. I had no idea what I was buying. It was always a combination if meat and cheese from the deli which we would then eat on the beautiful roof terrace.

What I learnt
I learnt how exciting design work can be. I learnt about having crazy ideas and having a relaxed, fun attitude towards work.

I learnt to say a few things in Dutch that are pretty useless, but I also learnt how to get by on my own in a foreign country.

I learnt what I wanted to do everyday and the right attitude to go along with it.

The sum of my experience

Part of being a designer is finding what your jam is. What stops you falling asleep at the scanner. I came away with a much firmer knowledge of what I wanted to do and moreover, what I didn’t want to do.

Now the shoe is on the other foot, I realise the time and effort that employees put into talking to work experience people and guiding them through tasks which would be much quicker to just do yourself. I try to pass on a few skills and get people who are just beginning to find their true jam.

My true jam has changed over the years but it’s always been on a parr with The Mighty Graham, who first showed me about shrinking the size of acronyms and numbers on a business card. That level of typographic detail is my jam much more than the record cover design I thought was my jam when I was a student.