I teach design at a public university in the American south. I also serve as the internship coordinator, connecting students to meaningful opportunities in art and design fields. I am routinely in conversation with businesses looking for interns. Sometimes these exchanges promise a beneficial experience for both the student and the employer. Too often, they favor the business, disadvantage the student, and perpetuate an environment in which design work goes unpaid and undervalued.

It’s common, for example, for employers and leaders in this field to suggest that a love for design is reward enough for working, as if inspiration alone can pay the bills. They want me to send them someone with “the fire,” positioning the internship as some sort of Pentecost. Some celebrity designers don’t pay interns based on the conviction that interns are already lucky enough to be working for them.

I feel very strongly about this: unpaid internships are unethical. There are rare exceptions to this rule. I support designers who donate labor to a non-profit organization with a noble mission. If the work is for course credit and meets a long list of student-centered guidelines from the US Department of Labor (i.e. the intern should receive training and may not displace employees), then the opportunity may be fair and valuable.

They want someone with “the fire,” positioning the internship as some sort of Pentecost.

But individual instances aside, the widespread expectation of unpaid labor in our field is a form of systematic exploitation. It’s dangerous to both design and designers, and it’s the responsibility of mid-career and advanced professionals to advocate for younger practitioners. I know many designers who justify unpaid internships because they themselves had one. Rather than perpetuating this practice, we should normalize paid internship labor.

This is my appeal to anyone who asks me to endorse unpaid internships:

First, note the rising cost of a college education. According to the College Board, a four-year public university education in the United States (including tuition, fees, and room and board) costs, on average, more than $20,000 a year. A four-year education at a private school is more than twice that. According to US News, the average annual tuition at a public school the year I started college was $3,168. Today it’s $10,691. When students have to pay this much for college, how can they afford to work for free?

At the University of Tennessee Chattanooga where I teach, our students are often first-generation college students, from low-income families, or somehow financially disadvantaged. Our students often pay for college themselves. This means that most of them must work, sometimes more than 20 hours a week, during the school year. Last year, one of our sophomores worked an all-night shift at a trucking company before coming to my 8 a.m. Visual Literacy course, always on time, twice a week. One of our juniors works 40 hours a week on top of three rigorous studios and a critical theory course.

When you ask my students to work for you for free, you are assuming that someone else will pay their bills. Someone else will feed them. Someone else will put clothes on their backs. When you request unpaid interns, you may be asking students to give up their income, which may be their only means to their education.

Next, consider that the field of graphic design is not socio-economically diverse. We’ve been asking why for longer than most of my students have been alive. In her 1991 article, “Why is Graphic Design 93% White?” Brenda Mitchell-Powell discussed the need to remove barriers to increase opportunities for marginalized groups. “When you find someone with talent, foster that talent with financial incentives and demonstrative means,” she writes. Issues of diversity and inclusion are complex and there are many reasons why the design industry in particular struggles with them. But one clear factor is who has access to resources like an affordable education and paid employment.  

When you ask my students to work for you for free, you are assuming that someone else will pay their bills.

Who but the affluent has the ability to work for an extended period of time without pay? If access to entry-level positions is reserved predominantly for the wealthy, the lack of diversity in graphic design will only be exacerbated. The unpaid internship scheme adheres to a hero-centric and class-dominated past. If designers want a more equitable field, we need to think about how designers gain entry into the industry.

As a first-gen college student from a working class family, I’ve noticed that it’s often the people who have enough money who say that money isn’t important. I remember my first few weeks in design school. I loved design, but I wasn’t sure it loved me. I had to buy tubes of gouache that cost more than my clothes. I couldn’t make mistakes on my projects because I couldn’t afford to buy the materials to redo them. I had scholarships, took out loans, and worked sometimes three jobs at a time to pay for tuition and fees, art supplies and books, rent and utilities, and food. I sold my car once so that I could move to New York for an internship. Thankfully, it was paid.

In fact, I had three six-month internships in college and was paid a fair wage for every one of them. My professors at the University of Cincinnati advocated for fair labor practices through a cooperative education program. If I had been expected to work for no pay, I never would have been able to become a graphic designer.

Getting that first job is important. It’s easy to take advantage of students, because they need that first job to get the next one and the next one. More than that, shortchanging the next generation of designers has far-reaching effects on the entire profession. In her 2011 article “The Cost of Free Labor,” Maribeth Kradel-Weitzel argues that unpaid internships lower salary expectations for an already underpaid industry and accelerate “brain drain,” with designers feeling forced to move on to more lucrative fields just to survive.

The unpaid internship scheme adheres to a hero-centric and class-dominated past.

I understand that small businesses are also vulnerable. They need to keep costs low and production high to stay afloat. These are the choppy waters of capitalism. But employers, if you run a for-profit business, you should charge enough for your product or service to pay your skilled employees. Remember that your employees are likely in debt because they paid for an education that makes them skilled in the first place. Student interns are still gaining their skills, but they are not unskilled, and there is a reason why you hired them.

Designers, if we want our field to be enriched by multiple points-of-view, we need to make education and employment accessible to a broader socio-economic spectrum. When you invest in a student, you invest in your field. And don’t you love design? If so, perhaps you should bear the financial burden, not a student.