Case study: internships at digital design agency Clearleft

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Inadequate training at university means employers must take matters into their own hands – and reap the rewards

Location: Brighton

Number of employees: 20

Case study focus: The value of paid internships to fill the skills gap left by inadequate university training, and to inject fresh thinking and energy into a business

The organisation

Clearleft is a digital design agency founded in 1996 and based in Brighton. Clients have included The Wellcome Trust, Channel 4, John Lewis and the BBC.

The challenge

Andy Budd only has to check his inbox to get a sense of the skills issue facing the UK design community.

“I get at least one email a week from a frustrated student who’s having to teach their lecturer what to do, for example,” reports the founder and managing director of digital design agency Clearleft, adding: “It’s criminal that a lot of universities are charging so much and providing so little.”

It was while visiting a friend who had founded a similar company that Budd realised Clearleft could do its bit to combat this issue. “I was talking to an intern at that company and he was telling me what he was doing and I thought: this is fantastic, they’ve let you gain a huge amount of experience.” Budd realised offering internships was a way to give something back to the industry, and repay the favours and support that helped him get where he is.

The method

Clearleft started, back in 1998, by offering internships to those a few years out of university. This was necessary at the time because the non-transferable nature of skills learnt on university courses meant graduates were too poorly equipped for the world of work for the company to manage.

Budd says this was still a highly valuable exercise. “Those were people who had been in the industry three or four years and been stuck, perhaps struggling at low-end agencies,” he says. “But [through the programme] they did amazing work and then went off and did great things.”

However, the company decided two years ago to embrace the challenge of offering internships to graduates. To make things more interesting and valuable from Clearleft’s point of view, it decided to select people from outside its immediate industry. “We’d get a product designer, someone studying interaction design, and an electrical engineer for example, then we’d give them a loose brief and three months to build something,” says Budd.

The most recent cohort ended up creating three interactive planning permission screens for Brighton, which can also be used as a local residents' network – to communicate lost pet messages for example.

Budd explains that all briefs sit outside what Clearleft “does for a living.” The aim isn’t to benefit Clearleft financially, but rather introduce “new ways of thinking and new ideas” to the business and get it talking to people it wouldn’t otherwise come into contact with, such as Brighton's planning officials. “We wanted to benefit from that youthful energy – that energy is so refreshing,” he says.

To enable this the interns are given a space well-integrated with the rest of the firm. “That was so our employees could see what was going on. When they were making a coffee they could have a chat and share ideas,” he says. “You have to make it public, make it open.”

Also key is investing the time to get interns off the ground, and then helping them problem-solve each time a barrier is hit. “We find graduates have been taught to quickly produce an idea rather than stepping back and exploring different options,” says Budd, explaining that it's crucial to balance giving interns space with constant mentoring, including support from outside the company, such as graphic designer support at the midway stages, and a hardware expert at the end.

Budd is also a firm believer that all interns should be paid in order to access as wide a talent pool as possible. Clearleft pays its interns the living wage.

The result

While larger companies might offer internships to source future talent, for Clearleft it’s a wider endeavour of ensuring the health of the design industry at large. “I’d rather train people to then go and work for our competitors than see the industry diminish,” comments Budd.

He adds: “Of course education institutions should be doing something about this. But in a vacuum where that’s not happening people responsible for this sector need to step in.”

The energy and buzz the interns create each time have made the endeavour well worth it, says Budd. He adds that creation of mentoring opportunities for staff is also highly valuable. “As a growing company it gave us a feel for what it would feel like to have more people in the office.”

Clearleft’s strategy could work well for larger firms wanting to shake up their way of doing things. “This could potentially benefit larger companies more because they tend to be a bit stuck in the mud. For them it might unlock a whole new level of creativity,” says Budd, adding: “Doing interesting stuff is infectious.”

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