The Student Design Awards' most ambitious year yet - RSA blog - RSA

The Student Design Awards' most ambitious year yet


  • Business and entrepreneurship
  • Community and place-based action
  • Design
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Education and learning

The Student Design Awards, the world’s longest-running design competition, are marking one century since their launch. Every year, we welcome young designers and students from across the globe to apply their skills and creativity to answer design briefs that focus on the most pressing social and environmental challenges.

The Pupil Design Awards – turning 10 this year – opens up these briefs to UK secondary schools. This is in part to combat a growing disinvestment in design skills among 11–18-year-olds in the UK. In 2022, the number of design GCSE entries was just 20% of their 2003 levels.

As we celebrate this unique double birthday and launch the 2023-24 round of awards, we want to invite even more people to participate. This blog explores our legacy of active inclusion and outlines our commitments to make this year the boldest and most far-reaching awards cycle to date.

Inclusion and the RSA design awards

Centred on the emergent practice of industrial design, the founding purpose of the Student Design Awards was to bring together different disciplines, break down boundaries and invite new perspectives. This meant being open to global entrants (applications in the first year came from as far afield as Japan, South Africa and Pakistan) and platforming those who had less access to learning opportunities (over half of the initial winners were women).

Student Design Awards

Our competition for emerging change-making designers.

Today, we remain committed to ensuring our design awards welcome participants from all backgrounds to lend their talents to solving real-world issues. The awards continue to champion women designers across the generations. For example, we worked with Pupil Design Awards judge Andrew Knight (Head of the government's Policy Design Community) to offer award winner Lily Macaskill and her teacher Laura Gray the chance to feature as a case study on the GOV.UK blog, Public Policy Design.

Pupil Design Awards

Inspiring social change through design thinking.

We launched a global bursary in 2016 (and expanded to UK participants last year) to address the financial barriers which might prevent students from entering. To date, around 45% of our submissions are from outside the UK, with entrants from over 20 countries. We’ve had incredible international winners; 2020-21’s Home Sweet Home brief winner Athul Dinesh entered from India’s National Institute of Design and has gone on to teach there.

Most importantly, those who participate find the experience deeply impactful in terms of building confidence, expanding their design practice and providing insight into both community and commercial realities.

The students loved it, they really loved it… They really took away a lot from it careers-wise and understanding of the wider world.

Years 9 and 10 2022-23 submitting teacher
Student Design Awards - The RSA

We know there’s still more we can do to actively weave in the talents and ideas of those not yet able to participate. While interest in the Pupil Design Awards from state schools is high (over 50% of registrations in 2022 were from state schools), their submission rate was 38% (compared with 62% from independent schools) and the proportion of state school pupils receiving a commendation was only 25%. Similarly, in 2022’s Student Design Awards, all our winners and commended students were from universities in the UK and Ireland. Most educators and applicants for both design awards were – unsurprisingly – those who already saw themselves as designers, completing related courses. Our goal of inclusion is the same, but now our strategies need to change to fit today’s context.

Being involved in this brief allowed me to do something that had a real-world impact. It also helped me understand, from an industry point of view, how we can create tangible solutions that change life for the better.

Student Design Award winner 2023 Robert McKinna
Student Design Awards - The RSA

New commitments after a century of awards

For the centenary year of the Student Design Awards, we have set ourselves ambitious targets for outreach, equity and inclusion. We know for these to be achieved, we need to proactively reach out to new partners and address access barriers in our processes. Some of these blockers (eg reduced resources for prototyping ideas and English-only briefs) we might already know and be looking at resolving. Others we are hoping to uncover through deep partnership work.

For the Pupil Design Awards, we want to get much closer to reflecting school attendance in the UK, where around 90% of pupils are in state education. To do this, we aim to double the number of submissions we receive with at least 60% of those coming from state schools (particularly those with more than 20% of pupils receiving free school meals). We are also in the process of finding partner schools among special education and alternative provision institutions to offer more intensive support to their children. We will adapt our judging process so that 60% of those shortlisted for commendations are also state school pupils. We will invite teachers from across disciplines – biology, geography, politics, media studies and more – to join our workshops. Our funders at Comino Foundation, as well as our connections through previous RSA projects (eg Preventing school exclusions), are helping us learn more about pupil, parent and teacher needs.

For the Student Design Awards, we are again mindful of the power of cross-disciplinary teams and want to reach out to a broader spectrum of students, having 20% of applications come from those without a design background. We want to strengthen the nascent ties we’ve begun to create with further education colleges and make the awards exciting and relevant for students pursuing vocational studies and apprenticeships. Our target is to have 10% of submissions from non-university institutions. Finally, we will leverage our global Fellow network, as well as links with our affiliates in North America and Oceania, to seek 50% of our entries from students outside the UK.

I started off being a bit anxious about [engaging people outside of the classroom]. But then I started to get positive feedback saying that ‘what you're doing is really creative’ and ‘you should keep this up’. That just made me want to do it more and get as many answers as possible.

Years 9 and 10 2022-23 pupil

As this round will be the last outing of the Student and Pupil Design Awards in their current incarnation (we’re launching the reimagined Design for Life Awards to more strongly align with our mission from September 2024) the team see a chance to test and learn what is needed to truly make our awards the most inclusive in the world.

Can you help us deliver on our promise?

The design awards team would welcome support from anyone interested in our inclusion campaign and our wider awards offer. There are multiple ways for you to get involved:

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