Holding a mirror to the zeitgeist: the RSA Student Design Awards

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Last week the RSA published a report I co-wrote for them, looking back on 90 years of their Student Design Awards scheme. There are more official blogs here and here about it, and you can of course read the (quite fascinating) report itself here. However if you don’t have time for the whole thing, you can either read pages 11-14, which pretty much sum it up, or read on for some bitesize takeaways, also known as ‘my favourite things that I learned from working on this report’.

  1. Who knew (well probably lots of people), but the RSA was fundamentally about design from the very start, although it wasn’t termed as such. The Awards and its other design work are only one of many things it does today, but in 1754 the organisation was initiated on an agenda of eliciting innovations and inventions from the public that would solve the some big problems facing the nation. These competitions were called ‘premiums’, and clever ideas were sought across the domains of: manufacturing, agriculture, trade, the ‘polite’ arts, chemistry and mechanics. After a while the RSA diversified into other activities, but the idea of triggering creative responses to a brief, and the importance of drawing, and other artistic skills, have always been somewhere in its DNA. This is all the more remarkable given the number of other initiatives instigated by the RSA that have spun out, been taken on by others, or simply ran their course. Design has been quite tenacious, which I think says something about its universality as a mode of human endeavour and practice.
  1. If you ever needed convincing that the idea of ‘the zeitgeist’ is actually a thing – trawling through 90 years of design briefs and projects might just do it. I’m a big fan of understanding design in its historical, social, cultural and political context. I’m less interested in the design itself, and more in what it tells you about the world in which it was made. In the Awards in the ‘20s you can see the vestiges of 19th century belief that the environment had the power to enlighten or corrupt, as – against a backdrop of far too many things of German provenance invading the homes of Britain – artists and makers were encouraged to design domestic and decorative objects that would crowd out foreign imports. Post WWII, it all gets very utilitarian as the nation tried to rebuild itself. Not a decorative porcelain figurine in sight: ‘solid fuel burning appliances’ were called for. The end of the 20th century was dominated by the rise of the computer, businesses worrying about ‘customer experience’, and environmental concerns becoming mainstream. More recently the awards have reflected widespread concerns about the damage inflicted on the environment and society by the designs of yesteryear, as well as the increasing agency and autonomy citizens expect in their own lives.
  1. It’s amazing how what constitutes ‘design’ has evolved over the course of the last 90 years, and I couldn’t help feeling nostalgic for the simplicity of the 1920s, a time when the boundaries of design were more narrowly and definitely drawn, and the knowledge of what constituted designing was more certainly held. The briefs read delightfully: students were asked to produce designs for a book jacket for Fielding’s ‘Tom Jones’; the layout of a bedroom in the ‘William and Mary style’ (whatever that is) and a library for a collection of rare books, including the positioning of certain ‘objets d’art’; the form and surface pattern of earthenware vegetable dishes, tea cosies, clerical vestments and other homely items. At a time when many designers seem almost embarrassed to admit that part of what they do is fundamentally about making aesthetic judgments, it’s rather refreshing to be immersed momentarily in a world where such values were openly debated. By contrast, today’s young designers are wading into a profession where they are required not only to make decisions about the appropriate arrangement of things, but to do a whole load of other stuff first: conceptualise a problem requiring solution, determine the best mode of solving that problem, before going on to plan the execution of that response. This is both exciting for students, and incredibly demanding – and possibly a little scary for the rest of us. Because when the skills required in designing are things like:
    • an ability to understand systems, to determine causes and effects within a system;
    • an ability to choose between alternatives for intervening in that system, and evaluate the likely effects;
    • the knowledge of how to intervene;
    • and finally skills in the arrangement and execution of elements,

…it’s not immediately clear that only those grounded in a craft-based training are qualified to act here, and in fact a traditional design education may omit a few important things.

  1. Finally, we are now, apparently, in the era of ‘the system’. The challenges of the 21st century will be ones of scale and complexity – so really we should all get involved in solving them. This idea is already being embodied by a wave of problem-solving initiatives such as global jams and hackathons, open innovation challenges, and projects that crowdsource scientific and creative work. Perhaps the next stage then for the Student Design Awards is to open up beyond designers?

If you’re looking for some inspiration, you can check out this year’s briefs here.

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Filed under creativity, Culture, Design

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