How many GCSE graphic design project books does it take to create a photo-opportunity? The organisers of the 20056 PrintIT competition know.
In its first year, the scheme was taken up by more than 540 schools and generated more than 6,000 entries - enough to construct a formidable pile.
The photographic publicity stunt they contributed to was a brief respite in an intense and absorbing evaluation day in late January, an occasion where The TES had a chance to eavesdrop on the judges' discussions.
"PrintIT's success is down to a combination of factors, not least of them being good timing," explains John Brazier of Picon, the business support organisation for suppliers to the print industry, one of the sponsors of the competition. "Schools were first alerted to it in May and had to run it in the six weeks leading up to the Christmas break; plenty of time to get set up," he says.
It also benefited from fitting in with the curriculum, matching the criteria for practical work for the GCSE graphic products course - not surprisingly, perhaps, as the competition materials were created by Joanne Hayes, assistant head of DT at Ashfield School in Kirby-in-Ashfield, Nottingham, and lead DT practitioner for the Specialist Schools and Acadamies Trust.
"PrintIT posed students an entirely realistic scenario," she explains, highlighting the importance of the Fairtrade Foundation's involvement, agreeing to be the focus of the students' efforts.
"The Foundation were the clients for whom students had to design a number of items," she explains. "These include collectable stickers which would be suitable for a range of their fruit products, with which customers could claim back gifts, together with a printed collection 'system' for the stickers and web designs for online pages explaining the overall promotion.
And as well as coming up with good concepts, each workbook, laid out to reflect GCSE coursework requirements, also demanded students explain their decisions, illustrating their grasp of the relevant print processes."
Every PrintIT entry will be posted back to schools so students can incorporate the work into their course assessments. Adding to the realism was the prospect of the winning ideas being reproduced for show at IPEX 2006, the international print, publishing and media exhibition, with the overall winner seeing their concept taken up by the Fairtrade Foundation in a marketing campaign in the autumn.
"We receive a great deal of interest from schools as it is," says Harriet Lamb, Fairtrade Foundation's executive director, in a pause between judging one of the 13 prize categories that comprise the competition. As well as an overall winner, among the additional awards were ones for best use of materials, best website design and best use of litho, screen or flexographic printing processes.
"There was already a good degree of awareness out there about our work,"
she says. "And, in turn, this enabled us to create a demanding set of requirements matching the kind of brief we might actually issue."
Joanne Hayes says: "It is clear that this level of realism has been greatly appreciated by schools. It is certainly an improvement on designing the packaging for a perfume bottle, which often crops up as a coursework assignment."
Among the numerous examples of positive feedback, it was frequently the rigour of the brief and the targeted teacher support that attracted praise.
"The lesson plans helped to structure lessons into what at times felt like the proceedings of a professional design company," claims one DT teacher.
In addition to the main PrintIT resources, the scheme boasted two other key bonuses for schools. "The competition provided us with an opportunity to send out the free Printdynamics CD-Rom, an invaluable interactive resource with which students can get a real sense of the variety and sophistication of today's print processes," says PrintIT chairman Martyn Elmy. "Its existence was mentioned during the planning stages of the competition and we decided to include it as part of the entrants' package. It is a fantastic resource, enabling pupils to see print processes in action rather than having to rely on static images or diagrams."
A twinning service was also offered, whereby schools could be paired up with printers who visited the school to explain the industry and provide guidance during the preparation of PrintIT entries. Martyn Elmy returned to his school in Suffolk, where he gained insights into the availability and use of technology in the school. The numbers of handwritten, hand-drawn competition entries was one point repeatedly queried during the judging.
Such multifaceted care underlined the importance of the competition in raising the profile of print production and engineering among young people.
"Ours is an industry facing a demographic time bomb," explained Steve Wicks. "It is the UK's fifth largest manufacturing industry and yet the average age of those working within it is nearly 50. It's image as a craft performed by inky-fingered specialists still persists, while the variety of careers it offers and the scale of potential rewards are frequently unappreciated by youngsters."
Organisers hope that when the PrintIT competition is run this year, the Fairtrade Association will sign up again to participate, enabling schools to build on the knowledge of the organisation already garnered this year.
Meanwhile, some thought may need to be given to the range of competition categories offered, as it was plain that some of the awards, focused on specific print processes, had the judges scratching around for likely candidates to add to their shortlists.
MAKE A MARK
Observations made by PrintIT judges include:
* It is essential that entrants do not play fast and loose with the client's logo. A stipulation that the logo was not to be used to create watermark-type effects was ignored.
* If a design was sent in without an accompanying analysis, it did not make the final shortlist, however good it was. Judges wanted to read students'
thoughts about the appropriate print processes to fit their design suggestions.
* It was important that students consider the practicality of their proposals.
"Printability" was a key consideration, counting against any designs that required intricately shaped vouchers or over-elaborate promotional devices.
"The danger is that the voucher collection mechanisms would be of such poor quality that no one would want to return them," pointed out one judge.
However, the best ideas aimed to set up a virtuous circle - offering, for example, recipes in exchange for the vouchers - which in turn encouraged greater use of fair trade items.
* Despite their constant exposure to online sites, some of the weakest work related to website design, suggesting this is a blind spot for students.
"The idea is to bring the factory to the school," explains the creator of Printdynamics, Darrin Stevens, group training director of Polestar, one of the UK's leading printers.
"With modern equipment in this sector costing tens of thousands, and given the difficulties associated with organising school trips, this resource enables students to get a sense of the processes involved in the industry without having to leave the classroom. We were happy to distribute free copies to schools as part of PrintIT. They fitted in logically with the project."
At the centre of the Printdynamics materials are flow charts illustrating the major print processes, including gravure, flexographic, screen, letterpress and web offset.
At key moments, the chart gives way to film sequences - a big improvement on book illustrations.
The CD-Rom ties in with a website where teachers can download tasks for their students, plus "memory cards" designed to test recall of the flow diagrams and for use in presentations. There is also an online print encyclopedia, with animations and filmed sequences underlining the skills, from chemistry to project management, required in today's print industry.
About 500 free copies of the Printdynamics CD-Rom are still available.