The Robots Are Coming For Your Unpaid Internship

For his graduate project, designer Julius Ingemann Breitenstein built a product that aims to automate busy work.

If you’re a designer who works with clients, here’s something you’re probably familiar with: the project that never ends. The actual designing may take a matter of hours, but presenting the idea to a client, making little tweaks and edits, finding a middle ground between your vision and theirs? That process can take months–or even years.


If you ask Julius Ingemann Breitenstein, a recent graduate in product design at Central St. Martins in London, the problem lies in the ideation stage. “When you’re talking to a client and they say something like, ‘I want it to feel more jazzy,’ he says, “you can spend a week sketching, then come back and they say, ‘this doesn’t feel jazzy to me.”

For his graduate project, Ingemann Breitenstein spent time in product design studios across London researching the inefficiencies in that designer-client process. The result is an algorithm that takes a basic idea for a product and generates countless variations on its design–as directed by a physical controller. Ingemann Breitenstein calls the machine the Unpaid Intern–a tongue-and-cheek nod to the mindless photoshopping and last minute tweaking it could conceivably reduce.

Right now, Unpaid Intern is still just a concept (no need to fear for your position just yet). Ingemann Breitenstein has built out a prototype of the controller, which looks a bit like a synthesizer. The controller corresponds with a screen, where a program similar to CAD will show the product’s basic design. The lower level of knobs on the controller manage the pre-settings, so that you can customize them to range from radical to conservative, for example, or simple to complex. One you’ve set those, the top row of knobs changes the designs on the screen.

In practice, that would look a bit like this: A designer creates a product, a simple T-shaped object, for example, within the software. She can then use the preset knobs to define the design language–is she iterating for the shape? The complexity of the surface modeling? That can all be decided ahead of time. Then upper knobs can then be used for refinement–to control how much or how little those setting affect the object. The T can morph into something soft or angular as the knobs turn, or it can take on the elements of a new shape. It’s a tool that would be most useful in presentations; essentially, it allows you to iterate on a design in front of a client in real-time.

The idea of using generative algorithms in design is not a new one. The Dutch designer Joris Laarman, for example, uses a computer algorithm to generate the design of his Bone Chair based on the way that a bone would grow. In her MIT Mediated Matter lab, Neri Oxman employs algorithms to organically design all kinds of exotic objects, most recently a skeletal mask for Björk. The difference with Unpaid Intern, Ingemann Breitenstein says, is simply that it employs the use of algorithms earlier on in the process, rather than to spit out the final design.

Ultimately, the end goal is a device that will allow designers to collaboratively iterate–with each other or with clients. The idea is that by getting everyone on the same page early on, you can cut out the back-and-forth. The next step, Ingemann Breitenstein says, is to actually program the algorithm, a job he’ll have to outsource to a web designer. In the meantime, he’s post-graduation and on the job hunt–and hoping to skip the unpaid internship.


About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.