Published in Intern Magazine
Camberwell Press stands proudly as an exception in the current climate of unpaid internships, so often defined by tales of mundane and monotonous errands, exploitative hours and a lack of worthwhile benefits other than a name on a CV. Let there be no mistake, the interns are unpaid and the press is undoubtedly very aware of this fact, but it is the nature of the internship that sets it apart as an anomaly in the intern-sphere. For two days a week, a team of graphic designers, illustrators and artists, freshly graduated from University of the Arts in London, work in the studio on a range of client-orientated projects for no pay in return. Why? It’s twofold. While the team of grads are free to roam the studio space and use the equipment on campus, they are also offered the opportunity to expand their portfolios and acquire a wealth of valuable experience in creative publishing. With full exposure to everyday working environment situations potential ventures, they sit down and begin their weekly meeting over hot drinks from the university cafeteria. It was at the Monday meeting where intern were able to sit and observe the true dynamic of the press come to the fore. With James at the steering wheel of discussion, the rest of the group sustained the ebb and flow of conversation; probing debate and casting the die. What was most notable about the conversation between the team was the total centrality and importance for a project’s feasibility in the real world. As proposals from both clients and members of the team were considered, a pressing sense of whether the project could be seen through from start to finish was constantly at the helm of discussion. A client’s proposal of a perforated black and white enveloped book was met with questions of “could this be too expensive?”, “how many would we need to print?” and “how much would we set as the design fee?”, evidence of the interns’ ample understanding of the complexities of professional publishing.
What is unique about the press is its focus on paving a bridge from university education at Camberwell to the real world of work in a way that can be as enriching and worthwhile as possible. With an education system so focused on individual achievement due to the difficult nature of fairly assessing collaborative and contributing to client-funded projects, the interns are given the opportunity to publish their own work straight out of university – a break that talented arts graduates often have to toil for years to achieve in the working world.
The press is nothing short of what you would expect from a design studio; the white-washed space is kitted with large work tables, an abundance of Macs and the scattering of artwork on the walls was used to decoratively bind the Into the Fold publication that summarised a series of talks, workshops and design projects hosted by Camberwell Press. Residing at the South London campus of Camberwell College of Arts, the studio is a working space co-founded by James Edgar, the current Director of Camberwell Press, tutor at Camberwell and founder of This Is Art and Darryl Clifton, Design Program Leader and Course Director for BA Illustration, also at Camberwell. For the pair, the initial motives behind the press set up were inspired by the lack of research within the design industry with a mind to furthering progress in the field. As two teachers in design leading the venture, Camberwell Press began as a research project into the sociology of design education, and gradually evolved into something far more substantial. Those who are really sailing the ship, however, are the ‘interns’ – a slightly misleading name to describe the majority of the team who have such a rich and vital influence in the company. Now with only the Studio Manager – Kirsten Houser – to assist James on the fundamental running of the scheme, it’s the interns who make up the bulk of the studio team.
At 10 o’clock every Monday morning when most of the team are in the studio and able to come together to discuss new ideas and work, the press strives to fill the void between the practical skills learnt on an arts course to proficiency in putting them to use as a professional creative. An intern is encouraged to discuss project ideas for client commissions, print sponsors and budgets and to bring their creative solutions to the table. They are expected to be independent and original whilst they learn crucial aspects of the creative trade, an experience that is simply unattainable or inauthentic on a university course. As associates in a close-knit team, the interns choose their own direction whilst immersed in a place of business and education where they can reap the benefits of support from experienced design professionals.
Camberwell Press can be easily distinguished from a publishing house by the unique nature of its staff set-up. It is also far more substantial than other press groups that work in a similar way because of its strong attention to research, design, publishing and hosting events. In fact, James goes as far as arguing that a recent graduate can get far more out of interning for the press for a year than studying an MA in Graphic Design because of the way skills are shared and learnt amongst the group. The very passing on of skills and knowledge is an aspect of the press that James intends to be developed into a mentor scheme for new interns. Older members of the team who complete their year and choose to stay are given the position of mentors, to continue to use the space and teach new associates certain skills to help the press progress and reduce the risks of repeating old mistakes. Although any feeling of exploitation is absent, James recognises that these roles need to be paid and this aspect of pushing Camberwell Press forward is one that is currently at the front of the Director’s attention.
Notions of collaboration, group effort and a flow of constructive communication are at the centre of James’ encouragements – particularly in the weekly Monday meetings. A strong emphasis is placed on the need to instigate and maintain a dialogue, not only internally within the studio but outside of the college walls, too. For the upcoming week, James proposes a group visit to London College of Communication before a spot of lunch to engage with new people and to create that all-important dialogue. Generating and maintaining a dialogue is something that should be done more, he urges, to encourage exposure and increase potential collaborative opportunities for the future – not to mention it provides great content for their newly launched website.
The most pressing question behind the scheme lies in its funding. Where is the money sourced from and why can’t the internship be a paid opportunity? Initially setting sail as a research project, the press started as a group of people who used any available space and met in the university cafeteria until the project generated value and saw money for enterprise initiative. With an injection of £40,000 from the (then) Dean of Camberwell College of Arts, Camberwell Press was able to invest in the facilities and equipment it needed to fully function. Currently, the press is funded solely by its clients’ projects, covering the salary of the Studio Manager and the material resources needed to make the projects a reality, with little overspill to pay intern wages. As Director, James is met with the constant issue of sourcing more funding with the specific goal to begin paying the interns of Camberwell Press, while maintaining the aspects of the scheme that keep it unique and as non-commercial as possible. For two years the press took on a Business Manager to help increase their revenue, but this changed the environment in the studio to one that was more focused on working on an increased number of projects purely to reach financial goals. Now free from the shackles of constricting profit plans that turned the press into something quite constrained, James recognises that the only way the press could afford to pay its interns while maintaining a flexible, part-time environment would be to source outside funding. For the future of Camberwell Press, finding this new means of funding is a priority.
Speaking to the interns themselves, it is impossible to ignore the enthusiasm and the appreciation the team have for the press and the experience that it provides. Alice Tye, a freelance illustrator and Editorial Mentor at the press commented that “I’ve been at the press over a year now and have learnt so much; everything from organising events to learning how a studio runs, and all of this at the same time as being able to do my own freelance work and make use of the printing facilities at Camberwell, that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to use elsewhere.” With most of the current group now getting their teeth into their year-long programme as a part-time intern, they are able to spend the rest of their time earning in paid jobs and working on their own projects on the side. The flexibility of interning at Camberwell Press means that individuals can work around their day jobs or have enough time in the week to freelance in their specific trade. Ultimately, each intern leaves the press with an extensive and impressive portfolio of published work and desirable experience in commercial publishing to a level unheard of for young graduates fresh from university.
Although paid internships are a goal that the press hopes to achieve sooner rather than later, financial backing leaves their immediacy uncertain. What is definite is that the quality of experience and the level of care from its staff make Camberwell Press by no means an exploitative set-up. As one of the oldest current interns, Alice emphasises “I don’t know of any other studios where interns are seen as equals and where as an intern, you can see your ideas directly changing the way the studio runs.” In a myriad of internships where work experience equates to nothing more than collecting lunch for office staff and sending out the post 40 hours a week with only travel expenses paid, Camberwell Press offers an experience far more worthwhile, rewarding and useful to an arts graduate’s career.