As the New Year approaches I’ve been thinking back to what I’ve done over the past year. While the two Red Dot awards and three IET awards have been great, one particular experience really stands out. This year I was invited to attend The Royal Designers Summer School, which is organised by the Royal Society of Art. The RDI Summer School invites 24 young designers, 12 wildcards and 12 Royal Designers of Industry (RDIs) to Dartington Hall, Devon for what they call an ‘extraordinary experience’.
The whole weekend is shrouded in mystery. Attendees are given little if no information about the activities or purpose of the weekend. I didn’t know what to expect, building it up in my mind to something akin to the Apprentice with young designers fighting for the approval of the Royal Designers. However the weekend wasn’t about competition, winning or achieving but about experience, process, collaboration and journeys.
The RDIs are there to inspire, guide and share their experiences. They (collectively) have designed, amongst other things, the iPhone, the Harry Potter film sets, the mini-skirt, the Millennium Bridge, the London taxi and the World Wide Web.
Wildcards are not designers but professionals from a diverse range of industries; they included entrepreneurs, sociologists, researchers and healthcare professionals.
Young designers (which means anything between 5 and 15 years industry experience) to my surprise were just as diverse, coming from backgrounds in architecture, set and costume design, graphic and product design. I was there as one of the young designers.
First encounters at the RDI Summer School
After travelling for a few hours to the mysterious and historic Dartington Hall the adventure started with a briefing by Summer School co-director Chris Wise (designer of the Millennium Bridge). We then gathered in one of the rooms for the first activity of the day.
All attendees were invited to bring along a ‘precious wish’. The purpose of the first activity was to speak to other attendees to discuss your wishes. If you felt their wish had some kind of connection to yours we had to link it through the use of tiny threads within a giant bamboo cube. As people interacted and connected their wishes a beautiful web began to emerge. After the session we reflected on what we had created. It was particularly striking that all of our wishes derived from core human emotions such as fear, trust and love. And even though we all worked in different fields and lived very different lives we all had the same aspirations.
Building a neural net of wishes
Over the next four days we experienced a series of ambiguous but impeccably choreographed experiences such as tango lessons, discussions, music lessons, exploring, skipping and even some early morning swimming to gain insight, re-ignite passion and collaborate.
My personal highlight was an activity that challenged teams to explore human emotion. I was teamed up with:
RDI – Georgina von Etzdorf – A British textile designer whose eponymous fashion label was renowned for its luxurious velvet scarves and clothing accessories.
RDI – Robin Levien – He runs the product design practice Studio Levien. The Studio specializes in functional, affordable and beautiful tableware and bathroom design.
RDI – Peter Clegg – Founding Partner of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios. Peter is regarded as a key pioneer in environmental design and low energy architecture.
Wildcard – Owen Jarvis – A social entrepreneur exploring the role of innovation and design in public and social services.
Young Designer – Caroline Sohie – a multi- disciplinary architect working for Arup.
Brainstorming after snacking on raw buffalo tongue mushroom
After eating raw buffalo tongue mushroom that we foraged from a nearby forest we explored a range of ideas. Working through the idea development process I was struck by the confidence of the RDIs. While I was anxious, yearning to apply process and generally worried that we weren’t getting anywhere. The Royal Designers were happy to follow their intuition, confident that we would eventually come to a good idea. After a rich discussion we decided that it would be more interesting to evoke an emotion, rather than trying to somehow represent an emotion.
We decided to create an emotional experience through a multi-sensory installation. The installation would take users up through a spiral staircase into a dimly lit room with something akin to an upside down straw field made from hundreds of hanging pieces of string to create a perfect cube. After walking through the installation users would be asked to describe their emotions.
The creation process
It wasn’t until we started to build the installation that I realised why the RDIs are leaders in their industry. Their talent was obvious and inspirational. The RDIs seemed to understand how delicate an idea can be and give it the time needed to flower before mercilessly killing it. Once we’d decided on an idea they quickly jumped into action creating sketches, planning and making decisions. We were all given roles with me being in charge of string cutting and assisting in room layout.
The string cube
Together we build the installation into the early hours of the morning with bottles of red wine to keep us going. Once complete we invited the wider group to experience the piece we had created. Emotional responses were mixed and quite unexpected with participants saying that they felt fear, anxiety, joy as well as a myriad of other emotions.
Reflecting back on the experience it felt quite life-changing. Even though they worked in different fields I could see common threads running through the way they worked. They strived for excellence throughout development and execution of an idea, focusing on the essence of an idea and clarity of communication.
I will always be grateful to everyone that took part in the RDI Summer School and in particularly to the Royal Society of Arts for inviting me along. I left with a renewed confidence and enthusiasm, ready to take on the challenges of the medical industry.