DBA competition aims to improve lives of the disabled

For designers with the time and motivation to enter competitions, there appears to be few more worthy than the DBA Inclusive Design Challenge. Its organisers claim it is commercially compelling, teaching designers how to produce for a market that consultancies may lack the skills and knowledge to exploit.

Organised annually since 2000 by the Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Research Centre and the Design Business Association, the competition invites designers to create products and services that improve the quality of life for disabled and older people.

Shortlisted designers – usually six out of about 18 entries – will spend a month in October working with a panel of disabled and elderly mentors, who test ideas and advise designers.

Wolff Olins won the 2006/07 competition with its Go Steady mobility graphics project. ‘The challenge was thoroughly enjoyable to work on,’ says the consultancy’s design director, Hazel Macmillan. ‘The more research we did into the issue of mobility, the more passionate we became about it, until the project ended up taking on a life of its own.’

‘This is an issues-based assignment, which always motivates the industry,’ says DBA chief executive Deborah Dawton. ‘Ultimately, this competition gives designers the skills and knowledge to promote themselves to clients in the disabled products and services sector.’

Dawton argues that the market has growing commercial potential. ‘As the UK population ages, more people are acquiring disabilities,’ she says. ‘The market for disabled products and services is ever-increasing and yet few consultancies are educated to serve this sector.’

The figures are arresting. The spending power of disabled adults, who constitute 15 per cent of the UK population, stood at £80bn in 2006, according to the Department for Work and Pensions. Research group Defaqto estimates that the over-50s have a spending power of about £175bn.

For those inspired by either the commercial or learning opportunities – or both – this year’s challenge offers two briefs. The DBA sets a general ‘blue sky thinking’ brief, while competition sponsors Sanctuary Care and the London Centre for Dementia Care are offering a more focused brief – ‘thanks for the memory’. This asks designers to address problems associated with dementia’s principal symptom, short-term memory loss. It suggests entrants look at designing communication devices, awareness campaigns, wearables, care environments and new forms of service delivery. Designers can submit multiple entries on either or both briefs.

‘The winning entry tends to leap out at you as the one that makes sense, whatever design discipline it comes from,’ says Dawton. ‘The resultant work must also have a commercial application, and represent a business opportunity for companies.’

The potential for winning entries to enter production is, realistically, small, says Dawton. ‘We are delivering knowledge into design consultancies. We are not running this challenge so that they have a product to take to market,’ she says. ‘If they are lucky enough to have contacts or attract attention as a result of PR after the competition, then fine, but that is not the aim of the challenge.’

However, Macmillan reports that Wolff Olins’ Go Steady project has attracted considerable interest since the competition finished in February. ‘We featured the project on three websites, including its own minisite, and within days received a great deal of interest from the UK and abroad,’ she says. Enquiries came from disability organisations, research institutes and one local council.

‘We never saw this as something that would end when the competition ended,’ explains Macmillan. ‘We really wanted the solution to be something that could come to fruition – for one thing, that means the competition itself has more resonance. Our ambition is to stick with the project and see what happens.’

The full brief is available on the DBA website. The deadline for submissions is 13 September.

6 September – launch and lecture at the Royal College of Art
13 September – deadline for written proposals (maximum 300 words)
14 September – shortlist announced
1 October – workshop, briefing meeting and lunch for shortlisted teams
October – user forums for shortlisted teams
14 January 2008 – deadline for submission of completed projects
21 January – judging at the RCA
18 March – presentations and awards ceremony at the RCA

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