George Aye + Nat Ortiz | Essays

How We Shook Up the World’s Oldest Student Design Competition

A story in Design Observer started a life-changing collaboration between the RSA in London and a small design studio in Chicago, Illinois.

It’s incredibly common to write an article and never hear a single bit of feedback from your readership. It’s even more common to hear feedback that’s negative or critical of whatever you’ve proposed. With us, (George Aye and Nat Ortiz), the rarest thing in the world happened: George wrote an article in Design Observer about ways that design competitions in the social sector urgently need to be reimagined. Then Nat came across the article—just as she took over running a design competition that needed reimagining.

Together we encouraged a venerable design competition to become more diverse, more equitable, and more inclusive. Now we’re here to tell you how it happened.

Getting Started
First things first: the design competition that Nat manages. It’s a competition that challenges students and recent graduates to tackle pressing social and environmental issues through design thinking. It’s put on by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), an institution with epic heritage. Although the RSA itself is even older, the competition is 96 years young—the world’s oldest student design competition. This stature means a lot. Just ask Johnny Ive, who won twice in the 80s and went on to join the legendary Apple design team, where he still mentioned the awards in his bio.

But when Nat took over as design lead of the competition, she aimed to uncover ways of increasing the competition’s impact. She immediately noticed how homogenous the judging panel was. Overwhelmingly, it was made of white, male, senior-level experts. Clearly that needed to change, as so much of the conversation in the design world was undergoing a massive rethink toward more diversity, more equity, and more inclusivity.

Then, something else happened. A contest participant emailed Nat to ask for feedback on his film. He’d done well throughout and was shortlisted, but he hadn’t won in the end. Nat didn’t know what to reply. She didn’t have any actionable feedback from the judges to pass on.

There were a few reasons for this. Although the competition was certainly rigorous, the judging criteria weren’t always top of mind during the judging sessions. And, for that matter, the criteria weren’t always clear. One criterion, in fact, was “magic.” How do you tell a student that their film didn’t have enough magic? “Magic” was an abstract term—undefined and highly open to interpretation. This point felt particularly important because the competition was, as usual, mostly made of white students and white judges, and the student who’d inquired was Black. How could she be sure that there’d been no unconscious bias at work, and that this contest wasn’t letting great talent slip through the cracks?

It was a huge conundrum, and one that Nat set out to solve without hesitation. Except she didn’t have a framework for attempting such a thing. Enter: George’s article in Design Observer.

George co-founded Greater Good Studio in Chicago, Illinois. His article laid out everything that was wrong with design competitions in the social sector, and it did so from the perspective of a judge, a role that George had played many times.

Nat found herself nodding at all of the main points in the article. She sent him a note right away.

Then, as we said, the rare thing happened.

The writer and reader not only agreed with each other but agreed to gather in the same place, at the same time, and design a new way forward.

The Workshop
This was two years ago, in pre-Covid times, so now it sounds like some sort of fairy tale, but this next part involved a trip across the Atlantic. A few weeks after getting in touch, George hopped on a plane from Chicago to London. There, Nat gathered up folks who cared about the competition: RSA staff, educators from local universities, partners, past judges and winners, as well as the student who’d asked for feedback on his film. Together (in one room, how impossible that seems now!) a small group of 15 worked up initial ideas for how to change the competition.

Nat reflects on this workshop as a pivotal moment, especially for getting institutional support. She says: “Having that workshop was very powerful...the people who came showed so much support and so much encouragement and interest. Internally, the doors started to open.” That support was important for a number of reasons, including finances. It paved the way for the RSA to allocate money to the budget.

Although the reimagining workshop was led by George and Nat, it was very much a collective effort, reliant on the talent and heart of everyone in the workshop room. All told, it wasn’t about calling people out, it was about inviting people in—and with solid facilitation and an invested group of people, it worked extremely well. A colleague of Nat’s says people were “visibly moved and impacted by the initial workshop. [It was] a reminder of the amazing potential of well-facilitated spaces for open dialogue. And the care and attention that goes into creating and holding those spaces.”

It helped that George and Nat shared common ground on many things, including their own personal journeys. Both Nat and George have suffered from imposter syndrome, and they’ve experienced the difficulties of navigating the design industry as members of marginalized groups.

So what did we all come up with, in the end?

Reimagining the Competition

We should say from the outset that this is still, of course, a work in progress. No one changes a century-old tradition overnight, especially when many of those changes aim to counter many more centuries of oppression and discrimination. But we feel there’s much to learn and unpack here, and so much did change in a very short period of time.

Each aspect of the competition underwent some sort of rethink.

Engagement of students and educators: Although the RSA Student Design Awards are a global competition, the majority of student entrants and engagement typically come from schools in the UK. The new process went farther afield, aiming to make the whole thing truly international, moving on from just promoting the competition to understanding how the briefs sat in a different context. (For example, in Southeast Asia where interest was high but engagement and support was very low or nonexistent). These efforts influenced the briefs in a sort of symbiotic way, because they forced us to ask things like, “What does it mean to be a truly global competition?

Design briefs: The briefs were revised so that students could fit them into their own local context, making them more accessible and no longer UK-specific. For example, a student addressing a brief for refugees in Bahrain will face different constraints than a student doing the same brief in France. The briefs had to work for all.

Judging panel: A small anecdote, here. When Nat first started at the RSA, the judging for that year’s competition was already underway. She was in the judging room watching the overwhelmingly well-off panel speak about student work, when an Eastern European house-staff member came in with the coffee service. He lingered at the boards showing a farming-related brief and said how fascinated he was because, he said, he used to be a farmer. The lightbulb for Nat was that of course, this man could have been a judge on that panel because his lived experience was so incredibly relevant.

For the reimagined competition, we sent out an open call to 30,00 RSA Fellows who could put themselves forwards as judges, rather than going through personal networks. An open call allowed people to nominate themselves and explain their lived and/or learned experience. Some, if they needed it, were also offered a stipend and transport to London for the competition.

Regardless of background, judges were asked to come with an open mind, and to be taken into the students’ work, and their worlds, even if it might not be familiar territory. We also asked them to notice power dynamics within the judging panel itself, and to balance talking with listening. And to embrace productive discomfort, as it was an inherent part of the process.

Judging criteria: We reviewed and redefined what we wanted to award and what we wanted to celebrate from the proposal submitted by the applicants. This includes things like: How does your proposal make a positive difference for people and/or the natural world in your chosen context? How are your insights grounded in people’s needs and desires? What might be some unintended consequences of your proposal? Full criteria.

Evaluation tool: It’s notoriously hard to quantify “good” when it comes to design in the social sector. That’s why George has written so much about it. But evaluating using vague criteria only doubles down on this problem. George has this to say about the use of “magic” as criteria: “There's a great risk that what you're seeking is merely a mirror of yourself, rather than something that is an articulated rationale for why you picked a piece of work or a student or an applicant. That mirroring effect can allow for implicit bias.”

In the reimagined competition, the RSA team prototyped its new evaluation tool extensively, ran multiple test sessions, and created a judging kit for the panel. Judges were asked to reframe their justifications to fit the new criteria. For example, a facilitator might ask a judge to move away from saying "that's not my style" to instead say, "could you reframe that based on the criteria that the student was looking to address?”

Judges responded positively to these changes. One said: “I'd been involved as a judge several times and always felt that the process of reviewing the first stage applications was very difficult. Were the most confident judges the ones being heard? It was really great to go through the process of thinking deeply about how to make the judging a more level playing field. Both for the students and for the judges taking part. I know I feel more confident as a judge, and I think this process is enabling judges from all walks of life to take part and bring their various learned and lived experiences to the process.”

Inner work of all involved: This is hard to quantify, but staff members undertook their own inner journeys to unpacking their bias. The team noted the importance of “inner work” as well as organisational efforts, and seeing the two as interconnected—reflecting from the outset on personal blindspots and biases as well as recognising those things at an organisational level.

One final twist happened because of the pandemic. Instead of getting everyone to London, the competition ended up remote anyhow. In any room there’s a default distribution of power, and the spoils go to whoever shouts the loudest. In a remote process, every entrant, every judge, every human involved in the competition, could see each other in the same-size square on Zoom. Still, arguably, the same voices speak loudest even on Zoom. We added more behind-the-scenes side coaching to the judging process, to make sure it was thoroughly facilitated the entire time.

A remote-friendly process was one small silver lining amidst the upheaval of the past year, and it’s one that will likely continue because it all went so smoothly.

A Few Caveats
Although this all sounds like a lot of upheaval, in many senses it was actually a series of small bets. At every turn, we asked, “What’s the fastest, cheapest way we can test out this change?” Each adjustment was followed by reflection over whether it worked. Reflection was important throughout this process, and ensured that all changes felt supported by the team. On that note, these changes were an enormous collective effort on the part of the entire RSA design team, judges, students, and critical friends. It didn’t take a superhuman amount of time and resources, but instead it required the determination and investment of the team. Their support, willingness, and openness across the organization was essential. It’s impossible to quantify how grateful we are for everyone’s input, but we will say that we handed out a lot of pastries.

We also can’t stress enough that so much of this work requires embracing discomfort. It requires enormous vulnerability and unparalleled effort on the part of white designers as they dismantle a system they’ve benefited from for so long. And it may generate more triggering, emotional labor for the team's designers of color—labor that must be acknowledged and compensated.

Along with that, we absolutely acknowledge that we have much more to address.

One takeaway from a colleague of Nat’s was: “Stamina is a must for this kind of work especially as a BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) person. Intersectionality and hierarchy in diversity is a factor I would like to see addressed further in this work.”

Although we’re still coming to understand the full impact of this competition’s changes, it’s clear that impact is happening. Last year’s competition featured more international students than ever before. We saw a 37 percent increase in international student winners. Our judging panel was much more diverse than ever before, with about half who did not identify as white and British. There’s an organic feedback loop happening, too. Design educators often tailor their curricula to the RSA’s briefs so that their students can enter. The new briefs are shaping the future of design education. And, the process itself has already made a mark on the RSA. A colleague of Nat’s puts it this way:

“We have seen real impact already, both through the process and the way we've gone about this work… Don't underestimate the ripple effects which may seem small early on but can lead to big waves of change!”

Now, Your Turn
Recent Black Lives Matter protests have moved to the forefront of so many conversations in the design world, leading many white designers to question their privilege and the ways in which our industry needs massive, transformative change. But a few tweets and policy tweaks aren’t enough. Reading this article isn’t enough. White supremacy culture is part and parcel of every single aspect of Western society. To challenge this culture, even in a small corner of a single professional field, such as a design competition, is no small task.

At the same time, none of this transformation is (to use that dreaded word) “magic.” It’s possible with enough support, sufficient resources, and plenty of persistence. The details of this particular transformation are well-outlined in George’s original article. We discussed this work during the London Design Festival, and the chat is recorded here. We’re also here to talk you through any hurdles you meet along the way.

And if the RSA can make these changes, after nearly a century of existence, then so can you—whether that’s at a design agency, a university, or other institution. Think, for example, about how you make hiring decisions. How much of that process is at risk of implicit bias and “I'll know it when I see it” decision making?

Of course, as we said, our own work is also far from finished.

Nat puts it this way: “It’s a never-ending journey that requires constant vigilance, care, commitment and a supportive team that has the courage to question and act whilst believing in the same vision.”

It’s a vision that couldn’t be more important right now, for the RSA design competition and also the field at large.

Lindsay Muscato provided additional writing support.

Acknowledgements from Nat: I’m incredibly grateful to the team for the support throughout and to George for everything he has taught me and encouraged me to explore through this process.

The RSA would also like to thank Design Observer for publishing George's previous articles, which inspired us to take action — and we'd also like to thank George himself for coaching and supporting us through our journey over the past year to work towards a more inclusive RSA Student Design Awards.

Acknowledgements from George: I’m so grateful to Nat and the RSA team for going on a slow, patient work of reflection and reconciliation. We so rarely see an institution model these reflective actions and I can only hope this story can inspire established and emerging leaders to keep working on their own inward journeys. And of course, my thanks to Lindsay Muscato for her writing and editing skills across both stories and to Design Observer for publishing the original story which led to so much impact.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Inclusion

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