This is Sarah Kowalewski’s second year with the DME internship as a graphic design intern. Sarah’s interest in veterans began when a family friend, who served in the Vietnam War and had dealt with PTSD, inspired Sarah to take the first step to helping veterans. Her job as a graphic design intern involves creating #VeteranOfTheDay, A Veterans Story and Veteran Resources graphics, as well as overseeing other projects by new interns. #VeteranOfTheDay posts, or VODs, are collaborated on Trello and crafted by many departments which showcase the life and valor of a selected veteran. The graphic design team has to find good quality pictures of the veteran and display their medals and the branch of the military that veteran has served in. Sarah is also a co-division officer of Veteran Resources where she helps gather and approve resources and puts together a weekly newsletter that goes out every week on the VA website.
Use the audio player to listen to Sarah’s full interview, or read the transcript below:
Ep 21: Grace Yang – DME Interns
Shannon Moran: The Department of Veterans Affairs does not endorse or officially sanction any entities that may be discussed in this podcast, nor any media products or services they may provide. Hello and welcome to the intern podcast here with the Department of Digital Media Engagement. My name is Shannon Moran, and I am an intern and Executive Team Leader here with DME. I help run multiple podcasts within our platform, and host this one as well. We work really hard to make sure that you, the listener, get to learn more about what we do here within our DME program, tour fellow interns, and hopefully you can learn more about the other departments that we have within our program, and maybe compel you to apply if you are not an intern with us. That being said, I hope you enjoy!
Mercedes Hesselroth: Hi Sarah, so to begin, you’re a Studio Art Major, but you’re in the graphic design internship, can you explain the difference between those two disciplines?
Sarah Kowalewski: Yeah, of course! So basically, at my university our art department is just considered studio art, however a lot of us do more than just basic studio, we do a lot of digital work, video work, that kind of thing. So I’ve always studied a lot more of the graphics side of that, so I do a lot more of graphic design, logo design, a lot of different stuff.
MH: And so you actually started the internship last year, what drew you to the graphic design department and why did you pick the VA for your internship?
SK: Well actually, I have family members who are veterans and I’ve always had a deep respect for them. So I thought this was a great opportunity to help recognize them and bring awareness to veterans. In terms of the department, the minute I saw they wanted graphic designers I was like oh my gosh, this is perfect. That was like a given top choice for me.
MH: Can you talk a bit more about the service members in your family?
SK: Yeah, so it’s on my mom’s side. He’s not technically a family member but he’s like a family member, like an uncle. He served, I want to say Vietnam. He’s dealt with some issues after in terms of PTSD and I’ve grown up seeing it, and I always thought I wish I could do something to help. Granted, he’s gotten better over the years, but it’s always still kind of there, and it’s always been a big thing for me to help out veterans.
MH: And so what are your typical responsibilities as a graphic design intern?
SK: So basically, a lot of what I do is, I’ll make Veteran of the Day graphics, Veteran Story graphics and Veteran Resource graphics. Which vary from resources that are local, more broad for veterans across the country. And the VOD’s (Veteran of the Day) they are veterans that we’re showcasing and just kind of talking about them and celebrating them.
MH: So for people who have never seen a Veteran of the Day post before, can you explain a bit about what that is?
SK: Yeah, so basically there’s a lot that goes into it, we have the writers, researchers, and the graphic designers. My part of it I find the images that can work for it, I just put it together, I think of it as a little puzzle. I try to make it as unique to the veteran as possible, showcase them, celebrate them. We display the medals they’ve gotten, their branches, all of that. Once the VOD’s are completed, they’re posted to the blog.
MH: So the graphic design internship is not your only role, you’re also the Co-Division Officer of Veteran Resources. Can you talk about that?
SK: Yes, that’s a relatively new thing. Back in November of last year was when we started focusing on veteran resources in the internship and a lot of my job at that point was just helping get the resources approved and also putting together our weekly newsletter which is also called Veteran Resources. It goes out every Wednesday. Recently, we decided to develop a department for it, called the Newsletter Development. And with that, we have a small group of interns that will be helping us put everything together every single week. So that’s kind of what I’ve been doing, but it’ll be more in depth. And it’s a lot of fun, I’m really excited for it.
MH: So since this is the second year of your internship, what have you noticed has changed since way back in summer of 2019 when you started?
SK: Ooo, well I don’t want to say a whole lot. I want to say I loved seeing the growth of everybody. Everyone just seems a lot more comfortable with each other. Everytime we get a new intern to join, for example, everyone is just so excited, so welcoming. It’s really fun seeing the different talents that come through.
MH: So when you’re working on the graphic design projects, what is the cross-team communication like? How do you interact with the other departments?
SK: Yeah, so a lot of the times we communicate either through Slack or — well a lot of the times it’s really on Trello. Each Veteran of the Day has a little card, and everyone that’s working on that specific VOD can communicate on that card together. So we can be like, hey you know, can you update this, or hey this graphic needs this added to it, can you do that? And so that way we’re all able to easily discuss everything and not get our messages jumbled up or anything like that. It’s really easy and it’s a really fun way to communicate.
MH: So since the internship is completely virtual, how does it compare to the kind of projects that you do either for your major or for other jobs that you’ve had?
SK: Well it’s not too much different. Like in a previous job I had, I helped design some flyers and a charm- I worked at a jewelry store. And I did all of that outside of my store, so I did all of that at home anyways. In terms of projects at school, a lot of is done digitally since I have to focus on the digital stuff, but it is different because of school I can actually go to our digital media labs and sit in there with my professors and other students and collaborate easier. Whereas online, it’s a little bit different, but it’s not too different to where it’s making it completely different, if that makes sense.
MH: Yeah, and so since this is your second year, you’re now onboarding and leading and guiding people who are joining the internship for the first time. What has that process been like?
SK: It’s been really fun, I’ve always loved helping out in terms of a leadership position, helping just guide everybody getting used to everything, because I know it can be a lot. When I first joined last year, at first I was like oh my gosh, what is all of this, what’s Slack, what’s Trello, what is this? So I really like helping everybody take a step back, take a breath, and realize okay this is how this is formatted, this is what this does. It’s really fun just seeing how eager our new interns have been and how talented they are too, they’re amazing.
MH: As the department head, how do your responsibilities differ now from when you were a regular graphic design intern?
SK: So basically, I don’t make as many graphics anymore, every now and then I do make them though. But a lot of my time I spend kind of behind the scenes, formatting new projects that are coming out, organizing, keeping track of reports, communicating with the interns if they need help with anything, I go on Trello and check on the cards and make sure that they’re all getting completed in a timely-manner– yeah, that kind of stuff.
MH: So since you’re in your last year of college, what do you see yourself doing once you graduate?
SK: Well my dream is to eventually work towards my master’s. I want to go to the Savannah College of Art and Design, and focus on graphic design. So hopefully that can be achieved.
MH: Back when you were talking about the difference between studio art and graphic design, how do you see the applications of graphic design in terms of veteran communities, communication with non-veteran communities, getting the word out there, things like that?
SK: I think graphic design is so important in that sense, especially nowadays, since our society is so reliant on social media, which of course isn’t a bad thing, but with that, graphics and imagery is what can draw people in, same with like a movie poster, we’re inclined to look at something that interests us, and we’re like oh what is this about, I want to see it, I want to know more about it. So with graphics, say with a veteran resource graphic, we really want it to capture the viewer with an image and like a text that kind of describes the resource they’re describing. I think it’s a crucial part especially with communicating with veterans nowadays.
MH: Are there any accessibility considerations that you have to keep in mind when you’re designing a graphic card or anything like that?
SK: Not usually, a lot of the time, we keep everything pretty straight forward like in a simple kind of template, if that makes sense. So any accessibility issues that we come across are usually easily solvable.
MH: Looking back at the past year that you’ve been an intern, is there a certain project that stands out to you and why?
SK: Yes, actually my very first Veteran of the Day was for Mr. Hans — I hope I’m not pronouncing his name incorrectly. I remember right after we posted his blog post, his family reached out and thanked the interns for the graphics, for the story, and just for highlighting him. And that’s stuck with me this entire time, and every veteran card I make sticks with me, but that one especially has always stuck. That’s kind of what I want to do, I want to bring joy to the families and to the veterans themselves, and just highlight what they’ve done for our country.
MH: And so looking ahead to the future, are there any graphic design projects that you’re excited to be working on, or that you wish you could bring on as a new project?
SK: My biggest thing right now, I’m really excited to help our new interns work on holiday graphics. So like the Navy birthday, the Army birthday, that kind of thing. That’s going to be a lot of fun, because last year we didn’t focus a lot on that, so this year I’m hoping we can focus on that. I’m also very excited because recently we’ve been making a lot of graphics for the secretary of the VA with quotes that he’s said, so that’s been fun to see the interns develop that as well. So I would say those two are what I’m most excited to see.
MH: So if somebody was interested in the graphic design internship, what do you think are some things they need to know beforehand?
SK: Reliable internet. Hahaha. That’s a big one. A work ethic, a strong want to help veterans, because we all take it very seriously. But it’s a very fun environment, it’s honestly my favorite job I’ve had, it’s amazing. Really just being eager to help out and bring awareness to the veterans.
MH: Is there anything you would say to students in a non graphic design major or who are doing graphic design as a passion outside of academics completely?
SK: In terms of like, do you mean as in like joining the —
MH: Like who might not know if they’re qualified enough for the internship, might have some hesitations.
SK: Oh yeah, yeah so I wouldn’t even worry if you’re not a major, I wouldn’t worry about that. As long as you show that you’re knowledgeable in what you do, you have a general understanding with Photoshop, and all of that, and you enjoy making these graphics, you’re going to have a lot of fun doing it.
MH: So can you guide us a bit through the application process that you did last year to become an intern and also the process that you went through to become the head of the department?
SK: Yeah, so last year when I was applying I remember going through the VSFS website, and at first I was overwhelmed, because there were so many different positions. The minute I saw graphic design, I was like that’s what I want to do. I immediately made it my top choice and I was going through it. It’s a very easy process, very quick honestly if you have your resume already done and filled out and everything. Once I got through that, it prompted me to state why do you want to work for this department? Like what is it about this that makes you want to work with us? And for me it was having a passion for helping veterans because my family members are veterans and I’ve always had a passion for helping them. Once I completed all of that, I submitted it, very easy, very quick, and yeah, it was great. In terms of becoming a department head, I remember back in February, our Executive Leadership Team approached me and asked if I wanted to take it on and become a Department Head and I was like oh my gosh, yes, this would be amazing. It was pretty simple, it’s really not a whole lot different from being a regular intern, like I said I was more behind the scenes, so I was little bit more trained in how we track everything, how we communicate with other department heads, and how we develop other projects and communicating and everything like that.
MH: For the veteran resources project, can you guide us through the entire process of building each newsletter week by week?
SK: Yeah, so when I’m building a newsletter, what we do, there’s always a template made, usually it’s just based off of the last week, we just recycle that same template and alter it. So we have a bunch of links in there to our other podcast, Borne the Battle, to our veteran news network on YouTube, so we update those links according to new videos, new podcasts, that sort of thing. Same with Instagram, that’s also on there too, we highlight a bunch of fun social media stuff. There’s always one main top story that we talk about. It has a detailed description, a picture, and links. Below that, there’s more resources, or as I call them main stories. Same kind of thing, there’s just a smaller image, but it has a description, the links to them, and all of that good stuff. And then later on, we’ll put if there’s any events coming up, like a webinar, we’ll highlight those. We also have a giant button to go to nrd.gov which is a huge database for all these different resources available to veterans. And then, towards the end of the newsletter, we have links for the blogs and also for the VA news releases. With those, we update them for every single week, so usually between after the last newsletter was posted, and right before the next one is posted, we update those links into theirs so there’s no imagery with those, there’s just a link, the title, and that’s pretty much it. Same with VA news release, it’s the title with the link attached to it. That’s pretty much it, it’s really straightforward, it’s a lot of fun to do.
MH: So in your view, what’s the value of having a graphic designer on any kind of digital media team, versus having just an all text post or a non graphic oriented newsletter?
SK: I think having graphics just helps draw people in. Having a graphic designer who is knowledgeable with programs such as Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, we’re able and we know how to draw people in, what draws people in. And although basic text posts, they can draw people in, a lot of times nowadays, everyone is so all over the place, always thinking, just multitasking and we see something that captures our eye, we’re like oh, this can be cool. Then that usually draws us in. So having a designer who knows how to draw somebody in but also how to highlight what’s important really is beneficial.
MH: So you mentioned Photoshop and Illustrator, what are some of the other tools that you used during this internship, and what should potential interns keep in mind that they should have some proficiency in before they apply?
SK: Biggest thing is Photoshop. We don’t supply a subscription to Photoshop, so does have to be acquired outside of the internship. But I know one of our interns uses Gimp, so really any program that can work like Photoshop, so Gimp, or I think Clip Studio is another good one. I’ve only ever used Adobe programs myself, but yeah, mostly anything that’s like Photoshop that we can use and is easily accessible, those are the big things.
MH: So with the rise of do it yourself resources like Canva, a lot of people who don’t do graphic design have been taking on those responsibilities themselves. What kind of perspective does an actual graphic designer add to a team?
SK: Well an actual graphic designer really adds in knowledge of a design principle. There’s a lot of things in imagery that we don’t think about on a daily basis that are important, like a composition, the coloring, all that stuff. Overlaid text, and it’s really helpful to have somebody who understands okay this is what will work here, this is what we’ll cut out, so that really does help make something more successful.
MH: So, when you’re making your way through the world, how do you personally differentiate between bad graphic design or graphic design that doesn’t meet its goals, and good graphic design?
SK: Well nowadays everything is so personalized, like to one person something could be great, to another person it could be horrible. A lot of graphics that you see nowadays like if you’re in Times Square you see all of these logos, those were all made by graphic designers, really it’s a matter of what it is portraying, it gives it a voice without really having to state it. I think originality is a huge thing with that, like the Nike swoosh, like that’s a huge thing. That really differentiates them from everybody else. So I think just really looking for originality and what it’s saying about the company that it’s representing.
MH: How common are opportunities like the VSFS graphic design internship where you can actually be designing for a good cause for something like a veteran community?
SK: I see them a lot, honestly, with the VA, the VA has the most designers I’ve seen. A lot of other internships are like “Oh, we’re just hiring one person,” whereas with the VA, we have a huge, amazing team. It’s harder to find internships I don’t want to say jobs in general but it’s definitely a little more tricky nowadays with COVID going on. I think VSFS has done an amazing job of bringing designers together to help with a good cause like the VA.
MH: And so looking forward beyond the internship, how do you see your engagement with veteran communities in the future?
SK: Oh, I’ve always been very vocal about my support for veterans, and I’ve always researched it, and how I can help and donate. Like I know I donate to the veterans every month they request clothing, like I try to help with stuff like that. So I think outside the internship, I’ll still continue to be looking out and just finding ways that I can help out, even in the smallest ways as in donating clothes, or money or something like that.
MH: So for the year ahead, what’s a certain goal that you have, either personally or in terms of the internship that you’d like to achieve?
SK: Well personally, I hope to graduate. I’m supposed to graduate next May. For the internship, I’m really hoping we’re able to get everyone easily used to the internship because I know it can be overwhelming at first. Hopefully, everyone’s just very happy and eager to work and help out, like that’s my biggest thing, I think.
MH: So you mentioned that the graphic design team is larger than usual, how do you navigate the differences that people have in their approach to graphic design or even their approach to things like communication and workflow?
SK: So in terms of graphics, a lot of us have a similar approach, especially with the VOD’s and the –. In terms of communicating, everyone’s pretty similar as well actually. We’re all always on Slack, or they’re emailing me, I have my notifications all set up everywhere, my personal email, I have the graphic design email I check, I have Slack always on for notifications on my phone and my computer, but everyone’s very good with talking to each other and helping each other out, especially within different departments. Say if a writer comments, hey this card needs a graphic designer on here. Before I even get on and see it, one of my interns will be like I’ll take it! I’m like oh my gosh, you’re amazing. They’re all just great.
MH: So for an intern who’s never worked virtually before, what kind of pointers for communication or talking to you and the other coheads would you have?
SK: I would just always say, don’t be nervous. I know it can seem intimidating, we’re all interns, we’re all here to help each other out and just have fun and bring awareness to the veterans and the veteran communities. But really just learn how to communicate, how to check Slack daily, that’s the quickest way to get into contact with everybody. Mainly because, I know for myself, I have emails coming in all the time, whereas with Slack, if I get a personal message, it pops up immediately, it doesn’t get lost in my huge array of emails. Yeah, just being eager and open-minded and just wanting to connect and communicate.
MH: And so since it is your second year, you offer a different perspective on the intern team. What would you say is the biggest thing you learned over your first year on the internship that you’re taking into your second?
SK: I would say communication, for sure. That’s always been a big thing, especially with a virtual internship, it’s so much different from being in an office. I’ve only ever worked in-person before my previous jobs, and working solely virtually at first was a big change for me. I was like oh my gosh, I’m not seeing anybody face-to-face. But with opening up and communicating with everybody, you get to know everybody, you make friends here, we all joke, we laugh together, so, I think communication is just the biggest thing for me.
MH: So, how did you decide that you wanted to do graphic design as your focus?
SK: We’ll I’ve always had a big fondness for graphics, what really got me into art in general was just regular Disney animation as a kid. But as I grew older, I got really intrigued by logos and advertisements and how they format it and all that stuff and I was like this is something I can really have fun with, and work with, and use to the greater good like with the veterans. Help bring awareness and celebrate them. So I think that was the biggest thing for me, like working with the VA has really helped me love being a graphic designer even more, because I’m able to celebrate our veterans.
MH: So when working around a VOD, or the newsletter, or any other project, what would you say is the balance between creativity, and sticking to the template or functionality?
SK: Oh yeah, that’s a big one. I would say, I always keep in mind what we’re trying to portray. Because every designer has their own kind of style. We all have different ways of organizing and planning, and it’s very important to remember what we’re doing, and who we’re doing it for. So we don’t want to do anything super stylistic, we want it to be unique to the designer to a slight extent. We want them to be like oh yeah, I made this, but it still has to focus on the big picture, which in this case would be a VOD or veteran resources.
MH: So when you’re working on a VOD, do you get the writing first and then form the graphic after, how does the process work?
SK: With the VOD, yes. Most of the time, we usually get to a card after it’s been written. But sometimes it isn’t written. If it’s not written, we’ll go and see like oh, what branch are they in? Because a lot of the times, these are submitted by the public, like a family member. So they’ll be like they were in the army or the navy, or something like that. So while the research team and the writers are getting everything together, we’re able to go ahead and start working on a graphic. But sometimes we have to hold off while we’re waiting for the team to find say imagery for them if we can’t find any ourselves. Or if we’re waiting to hear back from the source. But 9 times out of 10, we’re able to just immediately get to work on it, just start working on it. If a writer has already updated their drafts and everything, we’re able to be like oh, okay, they have these medals, they were in this branch, they were this, they were that, and we’re able to just make a graphic, make it personal to them, and get that squared away.
MH: How if at all does knowing the veteran’s story impact how you’re designing the graphic?
SK: It helps a lot knowing their story because it really makes you feel like you’re talking to them sometimes. You’re like oh wow, they’ve done this, this is how they served, this is how long they served, and it makes it feel more personalized I think instead of being just like oh, name, army, here’s their medal, this is what they did. By getting to read their story, we’re able to also feel that appreciation and almost like a connection to them.
MH: Alright thanks so much for talking to me today, Sarah.
SK: Yeah, of course!
MH: Is there anything else that you’d like to say to people who are considering this internship?
SK: Yeah, I would say do it! It’s so much fun, like I said, it’s my favorite job I’ve had, it’s amazing. Everyone here is great, it’s an amazing opportunity, just do it, it’s really fun!
MH: Yeah, thank you!
SK: Awesome, thank you so much!
SM: Thank you for tuning in to the DME intern podcast. We hope you learned something about your fellow interns, more about our program, and that you come back and listen to us soon. Have a great rest of your day!