Although the U.S. economy faltered in 2008, it is now slowly improving. Demand for
design work is increasing, but there are so many young designers seeking to join
the workforce each year (approximately 14,000 from four-year programs alone) that
junior design jobs are highly competitive and salaries remain relatively flat.
Even many busy design firms are not hiring, perhaps because principals have vivid
memories of staff layoffs during the economic contraction. Needless to say, this
raises the issue of internships—and whether or not they should be paid.
The federal government is unequivocal on this issue: if internships at profit-making
companies are to be unpaid, they must demonstrate an educational experience
geared toward the interests of the intern, not the firm. To determine whether for-profit private sector interns must be paid the minimum wage and overtime under
the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the U.S. Department of Labor has outlined six criteria that must be applied:
If all of these factors are met, an employment relationship does not exist under the
FLSA, and the act’s minimum wage and overtime provisions do not apply to the
intern. Interns know they are starting at the bottom, yet they are often willing to
put in long hours, working harder for lower wages. They are seeking educational
experience and respect—and like it or not, money has become a key measure of
An internship—distinct from a training or volunteer position—should not only be paid,
but it should be advertised in a transparent manner and open to all applicants. It
should not result in the displacement of existing employees.
Today’s interns are becoming organized. Intern Labor Rights, a New York–based
group, is committed to raising awareness of intern rights, and the
Fair Pay Campaign is mobilizing demonstrations on campuses in an effort to convince colleges to stop
steering students into unpaid internships.
The intern rights movement picked up steam this summer following a June ruling
that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated federal and New York minimum wage laws by
employing two interns to work on the film Black Swan for no pay. Headlines since
then announced that former interns are also pursuing litigation for unpaid wages
and violating labor laws at Columbia Records/Sony Music Holdings, MTV/Viacom, Donna Karan International, Major League Baseball, Condé Nast and Gawker Media, among others.
In an effort to uphold the value of design, support better business practices and
encourage meaningful experiences for interns, AIGA Philadelphia is challenging all
private sector businesses to make a pledge to honor the law and fairly compensate
the design students they may employ in the future. If you are interested in learning more about intern rights, see the Paid Internship Pledge on AIGA.org.
Richard Grefé is the executive director of AIGA, the professional association for design. While guiding all of AIGA’s activities, his most significant contributions are in strategy, formulating new initiatives to enhance the competitive success of designers
and advocating the value of design to business, government and the public.
AIGA Insights is a collection of articles and webcasts that together reveal the thought processes behind key organizational decisions. We welcome discussion from members and the broader design community.
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AIGA Insight, AIGA news, governance
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