Century of innovation - RSA Journal - RSA

Century of innovation


  • Design
  • Education and learning

The Student Design Awards celebrate 100 successful years supporting visionary products.

Next year marks a significant milestone, as the RSA celebrates 100 years since the inception of the Student Design Awards (SDAs) and runs the final round of this iconic programme. In 2024, we are launching the Design for Life Awards, bringing together the SDAs, Pupil Design Awards and Catalyst Entrepreneurship Awards to nurture the skills and ideas the next generation needs to regenerate our planet. But before we look to the future, we wanted to reflect on the incredible achievements of the past century.

The SDAs, launched in 1923 in collaboration with the V&A and driven by visionary silk manufacturer Frank Warner, aimed to bridge the gap between art and commerce. Going beyond recognition of exceptional design students, Warner envisioned a platform to foster the emerging field of industrial design.

In their inaugural year, titled the ‘Competitions of Industrial Design’, submissions poured in from around the world, with entrants from as far as Australia, Canada, South Africa and Pakistan. During their first year, over half of the winners and commendations were bestowed upon talented women, a significant accomplishment for the time.

Iconic design

In the early 1950s, the competitions expanded their scope to include craftspeople, clerks and individuals from various industries. David Carter, a former naval radar mechanic and student at London’s Central School of Art and Design, won in 1950 for his design of a domestic solid fuel burning appliance. His prize included a travel bursary that allowed him to explore design in Scandinavia, setting the stage for an illustrious career, which notably included his design of the iconic Stanley Knife.

Margaret Hall, who received an award in 1959 while attending Bromley College of Art, also embarked on a transformative journey to Scandinavia which shaped her identity as a designer. She later spearheaded the creation of a department at the British Museum dedicated to designing its permanent galleries and special exhibitions.

A student at Canterbury College of Art named Martin Lambie-Nairn clinched two awards, in 1963 and 1964, for typography and advertising design, respectively. His subsequent achievements ranged from designing the BBC’s iconic brand to conceiving the satirical television puppet show Spitting Image.

In the 1970s, the SDAs welcomed team submissions, paving the way for the formation of numerous successful collaborations. Jony Ive, later renowned for his work as Chief Design Officer at Apple (including his vital role in the designs of the iMac, iPod and iPhone, among other products) was a student at Newcastle Polytechnic when he won the award twice in the late 1980s for envisioning the designs of a future landline phone and an automated teller machine.

Student Design Awards

Our competition for emerging change-making designers.

Transformative journeys

Less well known is that Ive’s Apple colleague, Richard Howarth, also earned an SDA in 1994 while studying at Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication. Howarth’s winning design, the ‘Telepathik Fish’ (an iPod-like device for music subscription), proved instrumental in kickstarting his career. He credits the RSA’s travel bursary, which enabled him to visit Sony designers in Japan, for opening doors to exciting opportunities. Twenty years later, Howarth established the Richard Howarth Award within the SDAs, ensuring future generations of young designers could embark on similar transformative journeys.

Throughout the years, the SDAs have shifted to focus on design for social impact. Northumbria University student Matt McGrath won an SDA in 1999 for designing the world’s first laryngoscope with a built-in camera, radically improving the quality of medical diagnostics. The invention was the foundation of his company, which sold for £72m in 2015.

Elena Dieckmann and teammate Ryan Robinson won an SDA​ in 2016 for their submission to the brief ‘One Man’s Trash’. Their idea, ‘Pluumo’, turns locally sourced waste feathers into packaging that ensures greener food deliveries. ‘Pluumo’ has gone on to raise over £1m ​in grants and investment.

Recently, Athul Dinesh, at the National Institute of Design in India, won the 2021 Centre for Ageing Better brief with ‘Four Walls’, an app to increase the number of accessible buildings and home adjustments for older adults.

As we embark on the Design for Life Awards, we pay tribute to the legacy of the SDAs. This new chapter in our design journey promises to inspire, empower and support the next generation of innovative designers, continuing our 269-year commitment to harnessing design for the betterment of society.

Design for Life Awards

Our awards for collaborative and inclusive learning experiences for children, learners and entrepreneurs helping them grow the capabilities and ideas needed for a regenerative world.

To get involved, visit the Pupil Design Awards and Student Design Awards pages of our website.

To learn more about the Design for Life Awards on our website.

Anton Howes is Historian in Residence at the RSA.

Anna Markland is Head of Innovation and Change at the RSA.

This article first appeared in RSA Journal Issue 3 2023.

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