This is something that I’m asked a lot by students and graduates. My answer would be that it’s definitely worth considering doing this, as it can be hugely beneficial for all parties. You just need to exercise some caution with how you choose to approach it. Work experience can be a great learning tool and it can give you a competitive edge if it’s conducted in the right manner with the right people, however there is always a risk that your time and skills can be exploited.

I’d recommend to only volunteer your work and time for free for a reputable company or interior designer, so make sure that you do your homework before approaching a design firm or interior designer. If possible, the best option is to work as an intern. Designers who offer a formal internship program often are the best way to go because the role, expectations and outcomes are structured and everyone is on the same page at to what and how everything is going to happen up front.

When you’ve found a design firm whose design ethos is compatible with yours, the next step is to make phone contact to determine whether they have any work experience positions available. This is your opportunity to find out who you should be speaking with in relation to this and who you need to forward your resume and portfolio to for review. From your homework, you should have gained a very clear picture of the type of employees that they hire and the types of skills and abilities that they seek, which means you can work towards tailoring your resume and portfolio to suit (it’s not ok to have a ‘one size fits all’ resume). I’d also recommend that if you don’t have a resume and portfolio ready to go then wait until you do before you make contact. Once you’ve forwarded your resume and portfolio through, if you haven’t heard from anyone within a week, then give them a follow up call to make sure that everything was received and whether they had any questions. Let them know that you’d be keen to meet with them to answer any questions that they might have or to discuss any points further. Hopefully, they’re eager too and would like to meet with you and if not, this is where you thank them for their time (you should also ask for any feedback or areas for improvement in relation to your resume, skills, and/or portfolio of work). If you’re successful in having an opportunity to meet with the design firm then treat it like a job interview for a paid position. The old adage ‘you never get a second chance to make a first impression’ is very true. If you don’t progress to interview then don’t be disheartened, take on board any feedback you’ve received, apply it and you can then be better prepared for next time.

If I’m unhappy with a work experience position, do I have to stay?

If this position is not what you expected it to be and you’re being treated badly, or not learning and developing your skills as a designer then of course you don’t have to stay. I’d recommend though that you make a time to sit down and discuss with the company how they feel that you’re progressing, and what their ongoing plan is for you. You can also politely and professionally let them know what your concerns are. If you can’t come to a mutual agreement, then it may be best at this point to go your separate ways. If possible, always try to create a work experience agreement in writing before you start and get all parties to sign it, so that it’s clear what you’ll be doing day to day or week to week and it’s also documented. Something to always agree upon upfront it how many days and hours you’re going to be working and how long this will continue for. For example, will your work experience continue for 1 week, 1 month or 1 year? Personally, I feel that anything less than a month is really not worthwhile as it doesn’t give you ample time to really learn.

Should I do some freelance work for free to gain some experience, and so I can add it to my portfolio?

This is a question that I’m often asked, and my advice (although controversial) would always be ‘no’. The reason that I say this is because when you perform work for a client without charge I believe you’re inadvertently devaluing the work that you and other interior designers perform. I once performed freelance work at no charge and at the completion of the job (which was hugely complicated and time consuming) I wasn’t even provided with as much as a ‘thank you’. The fact that I hadn’t placed any value on what I was providing meant that they didn’t either. If you’re keen to undertake freelance work at no charge then it’s probably best to do it for your own home or project.

I’m keen to hear your thoughts and experiences on this topic too.

Please note: the advice and views in this piece are based upon my experiences within the design industry and they should not substitute for any professional advice that you may have already received.

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