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90 Years of the RSA Student Design Awards
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Image Credit: Ahmad Dirimi

A History of Bright Ideas: 90 Years of the RSA Student Design Awards

Published today: ‘Design for Good: 90 Years of the RSA Student Design Awards’, a new publication from the RSA, co-authored by BOP

Paul Owens

Co-Founder and Director

Paul Owens is a leading international advisor and practitioner in cultural policy and creative economy. He is Co-Founder of BOP, and alongside his fellow directors he has pioneered now well-established methods to measure the impact of cultural policy. 

Paul Owens - Founder and Director  | BOP

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The Royal Society for Arts (RSA)


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Today the RSA publishes a report celebrating their Student Design Awards 90th birthday. The report describes how the themes tackled by the Awards have mirrored, or in some cases pre-empted, changes in society, business, and government since 1924 – a potted history of 20th century design – and shows how they continue to be a compelling and relevant string in the RSA’s (and the UK design sector’s) bow today.

BOP had a lot of fun delving into the RSA archives, and interviewing current and former managers of the awards, to surface material for this report. What was particularly striking to us was the central place that rewarding innovation (and a very democratic view about where innovation might come from) has held in the RSA’s history. Although the Awards are only one in its current portfolio of activities, the idea of eliciting ‘designs for the public good’ was the founding remit of the organisation, all those years ago in 1754. Since then, the RSA has run numerous competitions for drawing and invention across many categories, so although the Student Design Awards are celebrating 90 years, they can be seen as part of a longer heritage.

Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, the Awards have played a significant, if often undersung, role for the design industry in the UK. Many household names have been associated with the scheme, as students, or in later careers as judges and supporters. The challenges that the briefs set have consistently expanded design students’ conception of what design might be: for example, several of the current crop of socially-conscious designers were propelled in that direction by the inspiration of an RSA brief. And this is only the most recent in a long line of paradigm shifts for design urged on by the RSA, including universal/inclusive design and sustainable/eco-design.

The interesting question for the RSA and the Awards in 2015, then, is where next? How might the scheme best address those oft-repeated pressing social, economic and environmental challenges of the 21st century? The RSA (and BOP) would love to hear from you.

You can download the report below, and find out more about the Student Design Awards here.

RSA Design Student Awards

A report from the RSA Student Design Awards charts the transformation of design education and the design industry from a collection of arts and crafts artisans in the early 20th century to today’s generation of creative and socially-responsive problem solvers.

Project Report

Design for Good – 90 Years of the RSA Design Student Awards

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Published today: ‘Design for Good: 90 Years of the RSA Student Design Awards’, a new publication from the RSA, co-authored by BOP

A History of Bright Ideas: 90 Years of the RSA Student Design Awards

The Royal Society for Arts (RSA)

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Paul Owens - Founder and Director  | BOP

Paul Owens

Co-Founder and Director

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