How are the Student Design Awards delivering impact nearly 100 years on? - RSA

How are the Student Design Awards delivering impact nearly 100 years on?


  • Picture of Toby Murray
    Toby Murray
    Former Senior Policy Researcher
  • Picture of Jillian Linton
    Jillian Linton
    Delivery Manager
  • Design

How often can a single invention change the future? If you look back over the RSA’s 260-year history, you might be surprised by how frequently it has happened.

Take the Scandiscope, the winning design to a challenge launched in 1802 by the RSA, that dramatically reduced child mortality rates, instantly improved the health and wellbeing of thousands of working-class children, and saw a revolution in childhood education. Today, we know it better as the chimney sweep.

Launched in 1924, the RSA Student Design Awards (SDAs) embody that same optimism for the potential of design for positive social impact. Now in their 97th year, the SDAs work closely with some of the world’s most impact-driven organisations to task students and young designers with applying their design skills to tackle the most pressing challenges of our time.

The world’s oldest student design competition

Since their inception, the SDAs have championed innovative, practical solutions to the challenges of the time. In the 1920s, they played a vital role in promoting British manufacturing and design in rebuilding the post-war economy. In the 80s, they were a leading voice on the importance of inclusive design and launched the careers of some of the most respected contemporary designers in the world. Now in 2020, we’re inspiring students from across the globe to apply their design skills to address the greatest social and environmental challenges of our time; from fighting climate breakdown through circular design, to providing equality of access to healthcare, to ensuring everyone is guaranteed the right to clean air.

Our history shows how much emphasis we place on enabling designers to think and do better, and build a more inclusive design sector. This includes making sure we’re doing the best we can, and we recently overhauled the competition to build equity and inclusion in at every stage.

The RSA Student Design Awards is a pioneering curriculum that nurtures the next generation of creative talent around the world

Betty Jackson, OBE RDI

Leveraging the power of creative students around the world

Every year, over a thousand students from all over the world take on one of our SDA briefs. Over 44 percent of our winners come from outside of the UK.

Our challenges are not your usual agency brief: whether that's asking how to encourage citizen participation in democratic processes; applying circular design to reduce waste in emergency medicine or textiles; reducing economic insecurity; or supporting safety and dignity in refugee camps.

The design briefs may seem ambitious in their scope, but we have seen time and time again that the students are more than a match. We actively support students to think differently about the boundaries of their work and inspire them to explore design as a tool for social change, through our briefs, bespoke toolkits, resources, workshops, targeted briefings and events. But it’s the students’ own ingenuity and motivation that really shines through with the awards.

In 2019, NHS England sponsored a brief that asked students to produce an animation exploring the importance of talking about illness and planning for death when someone is affected by a serious health condition. The winning animation Passing Conversations, by Emma McKell, is in plans to be used in GP waiting rooms and in hospice nurse trainings throughout England.

In 2017, Unilever challenged students to design a solution for Fast Moving Consumer Goods based on circular design and value creation. Winner Pippa Bridges’ brilliant response? Infinity Mascara: a refillable mascara applicator that would save an estimated 25 mascara bottles from landfill, per person.

All briefs are the result of a co-design process between the SDA team and our partners. The only stipulation is that the brief addresses a complex social and environmental challenge. One that we make sure aligns with our partners’ strategic objectives and the RSA’s impact programmes. Time and time again, we hear from our partners that the innovative thinking from the competition broadens their own perspectives beyond their own agenda, and gives them the freedom to explore fresh ideas and address the challenge from a completely new perspective.

“Collaborating with RSA on the SDA's opened up a whole new diversity of thought to contribute to one of the world's most pressing challenges -- the dignity and safety of those forcibly displaced by conflict. My experience was overwhelmingly positive and I'm grateful I could contribute to these efforts.”

- Chris Earney, Head Innovation Services UNHCR

A talent pipeline of designers for social change

RSA Student Design Award winners have a history of making ripples wherever they go. Internationally acclaimed fashion designer Betty Jackson, a winner in 1970. Designer of the iPhone and iMac Jony Ive, a double winner in 1988 and 1989. Co-founder of IDEO and designer of the first laptop Bill Moggridge, a winner in 1968. These are just a few names from an ever-growing list of the best of the best in the design world who launched their careers through winning a Student Design Award.

Winning an RSA award does not only launch stellar careers, it also benefits partners who can understand first-hand how students engage with the latest tools, methodologies and approaches. Our criteria push students to understand the problem from a systemic point of view, to consider leverage points to make effective change, and to act entrepreneurially when imagining solutions for change. This training is invaluable when they head into the workplace.

Many of our winners begin their careers through an internship, offered as part of the Award prize. Some of those students are hired directly into a full-time role. Partners like NCR have run internship programmes for years and others like Philips have recruited SDA winners who have risen far up the ranks, to become an essential part of their operation. Some students have longer-term relationships with partners over time, exchanging value and support one another’s career and growth journeys.

In 2012, Rebecca Penmore won a Waitrose & Partners internship for her winning entry, the Pub Hub Club. Rebecca thrived at Waitrose and once she finished her internship she went on to work for Pentagram - a dream role for her. However, Rebecca always maintained that relationship with Waitrose and, when setting up her own design consultancy some years later, she was able to count them as one of her first clients.

“Simon Ritchie, who won the very first year we sponsored, is still at GSK. He’s been promoted all the way through the ranks, and is now [a] Global Design Director.”

Greg Anderson, Device Director, GlaxoSmithKline.

Be an RSA partner in change

The SDAs benefit from being embedded in the wider RSA community, including our affiliates RSA US and Oceania, with access to 30,000 fellows and our esteemed Royal Designers of Industry. With almost 100 years under our belt, we have deep reach into higher education institutions and strong connections with educators. Whatever an organisation’s social mission is, the SDAs can help to convene thought leaders to have meaningful conversations, bring educators together to embed it into the curriculum, and spread that message further. With our reach, our partners are able to speak publicly to a wide audience at our launch events and workshops, but also benefit from the expertise that we bring together for our judging panels.

As the longest-running student design competition, we continue to innovate our approach as well, updating our processes and criteria to be more transparent and inclusive and introducing a global needs-based bursary to support international students. 

We have an impressive legacy that would not have been possible without collaborators, networks and partnerships from across the globe. If you would like to discuss partnering with us on a brief, please contact our team at [email protected]. If you are a student, educator, designer or interested in design for social change join our community and hear more about our activity by signing up to our newsletter.

We look forward to taking on the greatest challenges of our time with you.

“It was a pleasure to be involved in the RSA Student Design Awards. We were incredibly impressed by the quality and creativity present across all of the entries. There were a wide range of highly innovative proposals, and we look forward to seeing how they evolve in the months and years to come”

Katy Minshall, Head of UK Government Public Policy & Philanthropy, Twitter.

Partner with us

The Student Design Awards are a brilliant way to engage students from around the globe in open innovation, to identify and attract the best new talent, and to amplify partners’ social purpose and vision. If you'd like to find out more about being one of the SDA’s Partners in Change, get in touch:

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