News / Opinion

The creative behind Payinterns wants to empower you to get the wage you deserve

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Christian Dubovan

Barron Webster is an American graphic and interaction designer, who has worked on a variety of fantastic projects for a variety of super interesting clients. He’s also the creative responsible for the creation of payinterns.nyc — an online resource which acts as a navigable list of companies and studios in New York City that pay their design/creative interns more than the NYC living wage, which currently sits at $13.6 an hour without benefits. Recently, the open-source code was used by UK designer Gabriel Keogh for a London version of the site; where you’ll find out who pays the London living wage of £10.20 per hour.

As part of this year’s Grads project, we asked Amalia Illanger to detail some of the ways in which interns can learn how to spot the best opportunities and have the courage to reject the duds.

Today, Barron details goes deeper into why he created the website in the first place – and just why the fight for a living wage is crucial if we want to ensure that young creatives aren’t priced out of the careers they deserve.

Recently I ran an admittedly unscientific poll on Twitter:

Have you (or someone you know) ever considered taking a poorly paid internship to advance your creative career?

95% of the respondents responded with, “Yes (ugh)”. This, sadly, will not come as a surprise to anyone in the creative field — especially those who have gravitated toward urban areas where the bulk of jobs in the sector are found. Of course, these are the same urban areas that happen to have astronomical costs of living.

The prevailing narrative in the creative industries is that it’s normal for internships to be either underpaid or completely unpaid. Unpaid internships are often illegal, and perpetuate inequality. There are, should you want to read them, some great takes on the structural damage caused by such schemes.

When firms do pay interns, some only offer compensation for lunch or travel, while others provide a rate that often fails to hit the US minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) - especially given that many interns work longer than the standard eight hour day. I know many students who have had to squeeze multiple interns into overcrowded and often illegal sublets while working at a loss for well-known firms with CV-friendly names.

You might think that, well, that’s just the way of the world, some internships pay better than others, and students should be applying for the positions that they can afford to take, rather than risking fiscal life and limb on a whim.

The issue at hand is not that finding any internships or jobs that pay living wages is impossible. The issue at hand is that students shouldn’t be severely disadvantaged in an industry because they can’t afford the internships that lead to success in it.

Around a year ago, a student I know started a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds that would allow her to live in New York while taking an internship at a well-known design firm. Said firm wasn’t paying enough to make a living where they operate sustainable.

I started working on payinterns.nyc that week.

Put simply, the site provides a simple list of firms that pay their creative interns the NYC living wage. It is an attempt to make those choices visible to students and graduates, while also, hopefully at least, setting a standard. If your firm isn’t on the list, why?

Poorly paid internships aren’t a problem confined to the five boroughs, and for that reason, I engineered a site that is easily and freely replicable. Creating a mirror site for Mumbai or Marrakech, Lisbon or Lima, is as easy as changing the colour scheme and domain. Just last month Gabriel Keogh rolled out payinterns.london.

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The layout gets people looking at the list as fast as possible. One thing I’m hoping to implement soon are filters for different types of firms—illustration, graphic design, animation, etc—that help students can filter for exactly the type of role they’re looking for, be it animation, graphic design, print, etc.

The whole list runs off of a Google Sheet and submissions are done through Google Forms, so it’s very easy to manage submissions and make a new list—just make a new spreadsheet. It’s hosted on Github pages, which is free, so there’s no cost involved there. The font, Inter UI, has an open-source license.

As a student, it can often feel like it’s in your best interest to work a poorly paid internship — for the name, the work, the connections, a glut of reasons.

One action you can take if you can afford to take unpaid/underpaid internships is encouraging the firms you intern for to pay a living wage. Even if you, personally, don’t need the money, it sets a standard that someone less financially secure will benefit from. It’s always daunting to ask for more money (no matter how far along in your career you are!) but if the firm respects their interns, they should rethink their practices.

If you can’t afford to take an internship you’ve been offered, don’t be afraid to ask for a living wage. If the firm can’t offer it, consider trying to find a firm that values its interns enough to pay them — and yes, this is slightly shameless self-promotion, but payinterns is a good starting point!

In either scenario, reference internship programs that do pay a living wage. One of the reassuring parts of making this resource has been learning that there are studios out there that do a great job treating their interns well. Firms like 2×4, Huge, Big Spaceship and Pentagram all pay their interns a living wage or more. And hopefully one day, all the studios you know and love will appear on the list.

Finally, if you’re an employer, you should be paying your interns a living wage. If you can’t, you’re probably contributing to the inequality of the industry.

Is having interns worth that?