Tool #10: Alternatives to standard internships

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Having graduated, besides doing a standard internship, you might want to consider other options to gain work experience and to further clarify what direction to take your practice in, such as:

• Setting up on your own – or collectively run – a design practice
• Voluntary Civil Service (national or international, 12 months)
• European Voluntary Service (2 weeks to 12 months)
• Erasmus+ programs (2 weeks to 12 months)
• Artist Residencies (often only up to the age of 35)

Setting up on your own – or collectively run – a design practice

Once you have graduated, you might immediately consider setting up – or working towards setting up – your own practice rather than investing time, money, energy and skills in working for others. For setting up your own studio, depending on the country you reside in, there may be support structures that exist for you. For example, try to inquire at a regional or national level to an organisation representing the interests of co-operative businesses. Here, they should be able to also advise you on the availability of national or European funding schemes for your endeavour.

For ideas on how to work towards establishing your own practice, see “Creating a fertile ground for your practice”.

Voluntary Civil Service

This is a good opportunity to see what you can bring to associations who work on social and environmental issues. Voluntary civil servants generally get a small monthly stipend, pension contributions, accommodation (depending on the host institution) and training sessions specific to their sector. Very often, associations are happy to have designers on board and often even have some production budget to produce your design contributions.

If you consider this option, getting in touch with the association you would like to volunteer for is important so that you can get a more concrete idea of what you will be in for.


Servizio Civile Nazionale, Italy, 2006-2007:

After my BA in Design, I was unsure whether I really wanted to work as a designer as I was missing the engagement with social issues and was unsure how through working as a designer I could contribute positively to social change. By accident, I came across an announcement for a year of voluntary civil service in Italy, which I saw as an opportunity to test out in practice what it would mean to change direction. So I enrolled to volunteer for a year with an association that works with and for drug addicts and their children.

There, I worked 30 hours per week, split between the research office and a boarding structure where people chronically addicted to drugs were given support. In the research office, I helped running the library, organising public events, assisted in educational workshops and did some design work. In the boarding structure, I would take people to medical visits, would help shopping and cooking, engaged in leisure time activities with the patients and finally also run a participatory video workshop. Throughout this time, amongst many other things, I learnt to value my design skills and realised how they can be activated in order to bring valuable aspects to social work which the other operators in the field are lacking.

Stipendiary of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), Laos, 2010:

After my Bachelor studies, I was curious to learn how the “traditional” career of a designer was like and started working as a Junior Art Director for a medium sized advertising company. But I missed the feeling of doing something meaningful and soon started looking for better alternatives. By chance I came across the job market of the (back then) “Deutscher Entwicklungsdienst” and half a year later I was in Laos, supporting the Tourism Department in developing and implementing sustainable tourism projects as part of a stipendiary program.

For the first time, I could make full use of my interdisciplinary background: among others I was a graphic designer, photographer, illustrator, product designer, facilitator, co-designer, moderator, storyteller, interior architect, exhibition designer, teacher and student… The lack of educated designers (or other creatives) within the local as well as the expat community made me more aware that my skills set as a designer is truly unique and that design can bring positive impulses to a variety of projects that go far beyond those of traditional design practice. However, designers continue mostly to be employed “as those who make the posters” and the potential of for instance design-led inquiry, co-design and other emerging design practices is still yet to be seen overseen.


European Voluntary Service

This European Commission’s project allows people between 18 and 30 years old to volunteer in another country (mainly, but not exclusively, European countries ). From a period of 2 weeks to 12 months, you have the possibility to work in a wide range of fields, such as arts, culture, youth, children, environment, development cooperation and so on, receiving free accommodation, food, insurance, pocket money and a 90% refund on travel expenses. It seems to be a bit tricky to be accepted, but once you are in, you can negotiate your tasks with the organisers and propose new initiatives, using time, resources and a network of support to experiment with activities you like.

Erasmus+ (former Leonardo Da Vinci programme)

Erasmus+ funds work placements in a country other than your own. Depending on the country you go to, the European Union will fund a monthly stipend, a language class and contribute towards your travel expenses.

The studio, institution or association hosting you needs to register and file an agreement about what you will learn during the placement. This process requires very little bureaucracy, which means that if you find someone to host you, they can newly register without much effort.

Contact your national Erasmus+ agencies to find out how you can access this option in your country.


After almost a one-year period of “complete post-MA disorientation”, in August 2012 I went to Holland for an internship with the Institute of Network Cultures in Amsterdam. For access to the Leonardo da Vinci bursary, I had participated (almost by chance) in a competition at my former university (IUAV Venice). I had been in Milan, where I went to “find work”, but without having clear ideas of what I wanted to do or become. In my background in graphic design I have always been interested in the cultural and sociological implications of communication tools, especially on the web and new technologies.

The work with the Institute has been in the area of research and I’m really happy about the possibility it gave me to get acquainted with what it means to do research – which during my studies (at IUAV) was not really covered.

The Leonardo da Vinci bursary has been really helpful in sustaining my living costs. On top of that, the Institute also provided me with a monthly reimbursement for expenses. At the beginning, I also had some financial support from my family, which allowed me to live well in Amsterdam.

Once the internship was finished, I decided to pursue a path other than research and so I decided to attempt to set up my practice in Rome. Despite the difficulties that came with this, today I am happy about the work I do and the way I live. So I would say that the Leonardo da Vinci experience did help me a lot: not necessarily in defining my professional career path, but very much in getting me out of a dead end situation. The financial support through this bursary has been fundamental because it gave me the possibility to be almost completely independent from my parents support and to finally start reasoning and acting like an adult. Only who is responsible for his or her own choices is able to find the clarity to decide about one’s life.


Artist residencies

Depending on your practice, you might want to apply for paid artist residencies. These allow you to develop self-directed projects in a supportive and well-networked environment. Timewise, residencies can be tricky as they are often either announced last minute or ask you to plan more than a year in advance. However, once you are accepted, the hosting institution is often flexible with when you can start.

Here a variety of websites where residencies are announced and where you can sign up for monthly newsletters:
Dutch Culture / Transartists
Cultural mobility information network
Worldwide network of artist residencies

Last edit: 02.06.2014