Design Ventura: A real-life design challenge


The Design Ventura challenge pushes students to their limits and provides a year-long project to inspire design and technology teaching. Teacher Sophie Tomlins explains more

Professional design is a fast-paced, ever-growing sector that is characterised by creativity, innovation and resourcefulness. It is a thriving area of the economy that has continued to generate jobs throughout the downturn and shows no sign of abating. It offers a viable, professional career for people with a creative, technical and entrepreneurial outlook.

Unfortunately, this image has not always translated to design and technology as a subject in school. As a former graphic designer who retrained to become a teacher, I have been frustrated by the bad press from which design and technology has suffered. 

Design and technology is an excellent subject for students who thrive on a haptic approach, but it is not just for “students who are good with their hands”. It’s for holistic thinkers who are keen to apply learning from across the curriculum to solve problems by marrying creative approaches with technical know-how. 

It is also an incredibly rewarding subject to teach, since the creative and technical responses of individual students help me to learn something new every day.

I have been teaching at Weald of Kent Grammar School, an outstanding girls’ grammar school, for almost two years. The ethos of our design and technology department encourages students to be risk-takers and to experiment with development techniques.

I introduced Design Ventura, a design and enterprise project run by the Design Museum, to my GCSE design students in the school year 2013/14. Each year, a leading designer sets a brief that challenges students in years 9, 10 and 11 to design a new product.

The project is free, run by teachers in their own classrooms across the UK. The key attraction is that it offers a “live brief” to students and the design of the winning team is developed and sold in the museum’s shop.

The professional designer’s brief connects students’ learning to life beyond the classroom, helping them to consider what it takes to develop an idea from a first concept through to a commercial product. The project provides an inspiring context for research and design development with opportunities for active learning in the tangible surroundings of a museum.

It is an ideal way to kick-start the GCSE year, as students can see relevance beyond the tasks set for weekly lessons. The stretch and challenge that comes from thinking and acting like a professional designer, considering business implications of creative ideas and testing designs until they are commercially viable takes students through a range of skills and raises their level of thinking at the start of the school year.

It is also a motivating gear-change from key stage 3 into key stage 4, helping new year 10 students to shift their perspective and see how this next phase of study will propel them into young adult life.

The Design Museum provides CPD for teachers – essential time to step out of the classroom to invigorate practice and reflect on teaching and learning strategies, including how to use a museum as a primary research source and ways of using approaches from the design industry to reinvigorate classroom practice.

It is a great excuse to meet colleagues from other schools, to exchange ideas and, because the course is attached to a live project, Design Ventura provides the momentum to apply ideas from the CPD back at school, making it very practical. A further benefit of the CPD programme is that it includes pathways to the MA in design education at Goldsmiths College (where I studied my BA in design).

The Design Ventura brief we tackled was to design a product for the museum shop costing about £10 at retail and relating to the theme “handy”. In September I put my students into teams according to their skills and personalities – hoping to create group dynamics for positive working relationships.

I showed the students a short film of a designer presenting this brief and ran a series of lessons supporting them to respond to the brief through creative idea-generation, designing, model-making, business-planning, marketing and branding. 

I used a range of techniques and resources from the Design Museum that encouraged my students to mirror the thinking processes of professional designers. These activities were not drastically different to the lessons I would normally run but, because they were endorsed by professionals, they added an authenticity to the learning experience that resonated with my students.

We made models from everyday materials, we explored the brief trying to think of everyday situations in which handy products could solve a problem, we visited the museum exploring exhibitions to gather new ideas, and we looked at the shop to understand the business context of the brief.

The museum also offers opportunities to attend short workshops with a professional designer and a business volunteer from Deutsche Bank to give students tips, encouragement and feedback on the work they produce.

The teams came up with different responses to the brief so we held a pitching event to choose one team to represent the school. The chosen team was eventually shortlisted in the top 10, from around 250 schools that enter Design Ventura each year.

Teams in the top 10 are invited in December to pitch their idea to a panel of judges, that for us included eminent designer Sebastian Conran, a senior marketing expert from Deutsche Bank, and the commercial director from the Design Museum among others.

It was nerve-wracking seeing my six students presenting their idea to this panel but they rose to the occasion. I was bowled over by the ideas presented by other schools and it was key to broadening my students’ horizons.

At a smart evening awards event in February, prizes and commendations were handed out. I could see my students becoming slightly disheartened as the list of prizes presented to other schools mounted. And then – we won! As first time participants I had never expected, or even considered, that we would be the overall winners. The team of year 10 students designed a product called “Sliderz”, a laser-cut acrylic slide with a small slot cut into it to help in squeezing the last bit of toothpaste or tomato puree out of a tube.

Over the months, to the end of the school year, we worked with a team of graphic designers, a product designer and the museum team to develop the idea, make a prototype and then a final concept that could compete alongside the iconic designs sold in the museum shop.

Working with professionals was invaluable for the students – a fantastic boost to both their personal and design confidence. With the support of the Design Museum, the students were involved in each step of the development and manufacture. This included renaming the product due to copyright issues, understanding the intellectual property rights associated with it, assembling the components into a finished item, as well as packaging, pricing and shop display. They even had the opportunity to sell the first “Sliderz”.

Design Ventura is challenging but it is well worth the hard work. Student activity begins right at the start of the academic year. This is excellent for signalling the tone and pace for year 10s beginning their GCSE course, but a struggle to get to grips with new classes and timetables alongside this intense project. However, the excellent resources helped make the planning easier. 

Design Ventura also requires students to work in teams while GCSE assessment is geared towards individual outputs. It takes careful planning and monitoring to ensure that every student contributes equally and that the outputs are attributable to individuals, as well as to the team. 

It was an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the relevance of design in the real world, not only for my winning team but also for the whole school. I continued to see the benefits as the class referred to what they had learnt while completing coursework projects and preparing for their written examination.

  • Sophie Tomlins teaches design and technology at Weald of Kent Grammar School.
Further information
Design Ventura is run annually by the Design Museum, supported by Deutsche Bank. Entry is free and registration for this year is open now. For those unable to visit the Design Museum in London, resources are available online. Schools can participate in interactive sessions and pitch online. Visit
CAPTION: Creative thinkers: (from top) The 2013 winning product –  Squeezeys; the team from Weald of Kent Grammar School working with industry experts; pictured with their prize; and selling their product (Photos: Design Ventura)


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