Design mentors: supporting innovation in young designers - RSA blog - RSA

Design mentors: supporting innovation in young designers

Blog 1 Comments

  • Design
  • Education and learning

As we conduct our mentor visits for the 2022-23 Pupil Design Awards, Milla Nakkeeran, Senior Delivery Manager, shares her thoughts on why the role of design mentors is so vital to young innovators.

The Pupil Design Awards turn ten years old in 2024. In that time, design mentors have played a crucial role in supporting pupils through the design thinking process and developing their creative self-efficacy. Involving winners and finalists of our Student Design Awards (which themselves celebrate their centenary in 2024) design mentors also help cement a mutual relationship between our design award programmes and between school and university-age students.

As schools registered for this year’s awards begin to prepare to deliver the project, here are four reasons why we think the role of design mentors is so important.

1. Creative role models

With lived experience of the design competition process, mentors act as creative role models to pupils. We know creativity and design incorporate a set of capabilities that can, and should, be taught from a young age. Design mentors play an important role in modelling this to younger pupils.

If even one pupil who was perhaps unsure about their next steps was inspired to pursue a career in design, that would be a win for me and the design community.

2021 Student Design Award winner and 2022 Pupil Design Award mentor Renata Dima


Renata Dima's Student Design Award-winning project is a digital tool that helps migrant non-profits maintain and grow their organisation.

Design can be quite a nebulous thing to understand. Having mentors from industry there to talk about their experiences in the real world makes it tangible for pupils. When you show something you've worked on, you see that pupils immediately get it. It's the lightbulb moment when they realise that everything around them is designed by someone, and that someone could be them.

2014 Student Design Award winner and 2022 Pupil Design Award mentor Dave King

2. Breadth of social design and innovation

The diverse range of backgrounds and experiences of design mentors also contribute to the varied approach to social design and innovation within the cohort. This is invaluable in demonstrating to pupils the range of approaches to tackling real-life challenges through the design process, as well as the breadth of design career opportunities available to them. As one mentor noted: “It is important to teach design thinking to pupils in school because when I think back to my days at secondary school, I did not know design was a real career.”

3. Developing skills of mentors

Not only do pupils gain from the insights of the design mentors, but the mentors themselves develop important skills and experiences by working with school-aged pupils. Acting as co-creators in the design process, mentors develop their ability to communicate to a wider range of audiences as well as experiencing both the joys and challenges of enabling pupils to engage with design thinking in the classroom.

The mentorship opportunity has opened a window to a completely different culture. It has also improved my confidence to teach and mentor others.

2021 Student Design Award winner and 2022 Pupil Design Award mentor Athul Dinesh

Four Walls

Athul Dinesh's Student Design Award-winning idea was Four Walls, an app which helps individuals update their homes by signposting accessible home design options.

As recent, or soon-to-be, graduates begin to forge their early career paths, mentoring for Pupil Design Awards gives student coaches foundational experiences with which to begin their careers.

4. Creating an RSA design pipeline

This relationship between the Pupil and Student Design Awards, forged by our mentors, is also pivotal in building an RSA design pipeline – a pathway which provides a life cycle of opportunities, rooted in social innovation and social design. In this vision, pupil designers might progress to become student designers, who in turn later become Catalyst Award innovators or even Royal Designers for Industry.

Even as a design student at university, the subject matter of the RSA briefs by their very nature are hard to tackle. It's really important to have someone there who's been through that process to guide and mentor the pupils in their projects as they can be quite different challenges to what they are used to. It's also important to bring to life the opportunities that working on the RSA briefs can bring. Winning my award really has given me the drive to shape my career in so many positive ways and I think it's important to tell pupils that story to show them where their projects might take them.

2014 Student Design Award winner and 2022 Pupil Design Award mentor Dave King

Community Toilet

Dave King's award-winning Community Toilet redesigns the toilet using a people-centred design philosophy that considers long-term sanitation issues and what will improve people’s lives.

We’re sure there are many more reasons why the relationship between pupils and design mentors is so important. This is precisely why the RSA design award programmes are structured and delivered the way they are. And after a decade of the Pupil Design Awards and a century of the Student Design Awards, we’re excited to see what the next 100 years have in store for our young designers.

Is your school taking part in the Pupil Design Awards this year? Get in touch at [email protected] to book your free mentoring sessions for pupils.

Are you a mentor in the design industry? What are your experiences working with those starting their career? Let us know your rewarding stories in the comments section below.

Join the discussion


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

  • Milla, great to see you drawing attention to the superb opportunity for schools/pupils to be supported by young, successful designers as mentors. Those not entering for the awards just don’t know what they’re missing.

Related articles