How to go from intern to full-time product designer

Tips on maximizing your growth as a new designer.

You secured that new job and oh boy, are you jazzed. 🎉 New role, maybe new industry, and an all new you. 🙋 The first day rolls around and you can’t sleep. You’re psyched, scared, and oh god what if they realize they made a mistake in hiring you. 😅😳😱

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

If this is something you’ve experienced, you’re not alone. We’ve all been there. As Gusto’s first ever product design intern, I was that newbie. This internship was my transition into product design. Since my contract ended, I’ve become full-time at Gusto. 🎉

Internships can be confusing — you’re not a full-time employee and you’re there to learn but you also want to show your value. So how do you maximize both your growth and impact? Keep reading.

1. Convince yourself you’re not “just an intern.” 🤓

Early in my internship, I got great advice my teammate Will. I asked how I could set myself up for long-term success at Gusto. He told me to jump headfirst into anything I wanted. To not shy away from anything because, “I’m an intern.” I took that advice and ran with it. I became a team captain at our annual Gusto Games and co-founded the San Francisco chapter of our environmental group, Green Gusties. All things I may have shied away from because they weren’t within my defined role.

You may or may not leave at the end of your contract, but don’t let that change how you integrate yourself. Figure out what else is going on at your company that interests you, and dive in. You’ll grow in new ways.

You can grow up without “growing up.” From my favorite bar in Chicago, where I attended Designation.

2. Grow confident in your whole-self. 💗

I’ve struggled with this. When I get nervous, I can become formal — but in actuality, I’m a goofy, light-hearted person. So at Gusto, I invested time really getting to know my teammates and figuring out ways to help others. Fostering these connections allowed me to feel comfortable being my whole-self which, in turn, helps me create my best work.

Me at my purest—case and point.

Being new is hard, but be yourself. Figure out how to be the “professional version” of yourself without changing who you are. The sooner you can figure this out, the happier and more connected you’ll feel at work.

3. Build yourself a seat at the table. 🏗

In the beginning of my internship, I worked on a cross-functional project with remote partners. I witnessed our progress halt and after a few days, connected with someone who had expertise in recruiting customers for interviews. They taught me how to run a data query and pull the customers I needed, allowing me to unblock our project. Moving forward, I continued this approach. It helped grow my voice as a team player.

Take initiative. Don’t wait to be asked to do things. Figure out how to make progress and put the ball in motion. If your work is blocked, advocate for yourself.

I helped organize for Gusto to host an Inclusive Design event with A11yBay.

4. Develop unique design interests. 🔮

I’m passionate about Inclusive Design. In December, I met Michael, an inspiring senior designer at Airbnb focused on inclusion. When I arrived at Gusto, I discovered our head of design was his mentor. I jumped at the opportunity to bridge this gap — I organized for Michael to give a guest lecture to our design team and for Gusto to host an event with his Meetup group, A11yBay. I also joined task forces to help improve accessibility of our own physical space and product.

Find individuals you respect and ask them to mentor you. Seek out opportunities to invest in design topics you find interesting. If you can, build your interests into your project work and see if you can leverage them to teach others. It’s also a great way to meet new people and build connections — you never know where your teammates might end up!

Working on a new product in a new space, I quickly learned that the people around me had some serious expertise. Some are visual design ninjas, others have a depth of knowledge in animation, chatbots, or interaction design. I threw my imposter syndrome aside and asked for feedback and time to pair. Their perspectives helped me learn and push my designs further.

Ask for feedback often and early — there is no better way to learn. Before sharing, give context on your project and set goals for what you’d like to focus on. Remember, everyone hates their own initial designs. Don’t gleep. Avoid your silo and learn from all those awesome people around you.

6. Improve your presentation skills. 💬

Over the course of three months, I presented A LOT. I presented at small group critiques and hackathons, as well as to cross-functional teams, department heads, and eventually to the entire executive team. That’s right, as an intern I had the opportunity to present my final designs to our c-suite. It was awesome (OK it was scary, but I survived). Instead of feeling like I was the smallest person in the room, I took it as an opportunity to meet and learn from new people. Each time I presented, I gained comfort and iterated on my preparation and presentations based on feedback.

Introducing myself and my work to our executive team.

For most people, presenting is terrifying. Presenting is a muscle and, without practice, muscles wither away. Flex your presentation muscles. Try different preparation techniques. Learn from your feedback. You will get better every time and the future you will thank you.

7. Learn how to prioritize your process. ⌛

My first project was a customer service chatbot with a tight deadline. My original plan had three rounds of customer testing — after getting feedback and reflecting on my goals, I cut two. I realized due to the human nature of chatbots, interacting with a clickable prototype wasn’t going to give us the data we needed—but a live demo later on would. Knowing this, I cut two weeks off my original proposal and, more importantly, met my deadline.

You’re not designing in a vacuum. There is no ideal process. Evaluate your time and resource constraints and create a realistic plan. Ruthlessly prioritize it. What do you need to learn? What is a must-have and what is a nice-to-have? Use these questions to craft a timely and effective plan. Know your plan will likely change. Be flexible.

These are just a few tips I’ve learned so far during my time at Gusto — there are still many many lessons to be learned. 📕

Our new office. What do you want to do in life with Gusto?

If you think this sounded pretty neat and that you would be interested in growing here too, the good news is we’re hiring! 👋 Find me on LinkedIn and let’s chat.

Thank you to my mentor Ann, manager Will T, and teammates DJ Will and Jason for all the help and feedback over the last three months!

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