Audi's competition for young designers gives students the chance to show off their skills, as William Stewart reports
"This has taught me it doesn't always happen to someone else, it can happen to you." So said Jack Spencer, Audi Young Designer of the Year 2005.
At the time, the modest 18-year-old, who designed an innovative carbon fibre kite board, had no idea he was this year's winner. But that only makes his words more appropriate.
The "everyone's a winner" cliche really was true for the 16 A and AS-level design and technology students who made it through to the national final of the TES-sponsored competition.
Selected from about 1,000 original entries, their prize included an all-expenses-paid trip to Audi's state-of-the-art factory and design centre in Ingolstadt, Germany. There the students were given an insight into the brains behind the shiny examples of cutting-edge automotive design that surrounded them at the company's HQ.
Audi's top designers held masterclasses showing the teenagers how to improve their sketching, still considered an essential skill despite the development of computer-aided design.
They also gave some unusual design briefs based on words picked out of a hat. The random element meant the students had to design a strange range of products, including vibrating toilets, flying pistols and a fluffy toothbrush.
Florian Gulden, responsible for design communication across Audi, explained: "It seems like a very weird way of handing out topics for you to think about. But it works quite well because it is the normal way to design. You can't choose your own topic in the real world; you are given all sorts of strange things to do and you have to get on with it."
Jamie Loudon, now 19, who entered with a design for a bicycle security system, was impressed. "This trip has surpassed my expectations," says the former student from Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh. "The talk we were given by the Audi designers really opened my eyes. I am going to be reading general engineering in Norwich, but this has made me consider design as a career now I have seen the creativity involved."
The respect is mutual. Experience with the competition's finalists in recent years has persuaded Florian Gulden that British design students aged 16 to 18 are two to three years ahead of their counterparts in Germany.
"I am quite surprised that these young people can handle such complex problems at such an early age as they do in these design awards," he says.
"I personally think the British school system is much better in the way people are supported very early on in interests such as design at school.
"They are given the possibility to follow their interests through. Here in Germany we have a much more general education but the problem is you can't focus on a specialised subject."
But he believes something goes wrong after school in Britain. "UK students have an advantage and it is up to each individual to keep that advantage,"
he says. "But there are not that many designers at Audi from the UK. You would expect the world to be full of British designers, but that is not the case. Maybe they are not pushed or engaged as much at university and they lose that advantage."
For Michael Farmer, director of the Audi Design Foundation, the Audi-funded UK charity running the awards, the rot sets in earlier. "I am not having a dig at the teachers, but a lot of our exams are about ticking boxes," he says. "The Government has put schools into a situation where they have to worry about league tables, and the pressure on teachers is not to teach pupils how to be a designer but on getting them through these exams.
"When I see some of the portfolios these days, I weep. So much of this is about a process that is not really relevant. It is about jumping through the hoops that have been set."
Ashley Elliot, from Hereford Sixth Form College, has entered students for awards over the past four years, including Sam Mitcham, one of this year's finalists. Ashley sees the competition as an antidote to that kind of education.
"I want students to have a chance to be judged and to see what industry standards are like, rather than going through the treadmill of simply passing exams," he says. "The Audi awards are designed to be no extra work, because students enter their A and AS-level coursework, and I like that because time is so precious. If there were more competitions like this better designers would come through because it encourages them to do more than just pass exams."
This year's high standard of entries only proved his point. Highlights included a collapsible travel guitar, designed by 18-year-old Henry Dodson from Bryanston School in Dorset, one of last year's finalists. Jonathan Freeman, 17, from St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School, Bristol, designed a cardboard sofa for newly-housed homeless people that really was comfortable to sit on. The same material was employed by Julie Crawford, 18, from Grosvenor Grammar, Belfast, for an emergency relief cot that could be used for newborn babies following disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.
But it is the overall impression made by the young designers, as much as their products, that the competition aims to reward. In that respect the finalists all made the judges' job very difficult by delivering very confident presentations.
Jack, from Alton Sixth Form College in Hampshire, impressed judges with his single-mindedness and determination. He is now seeking a patent for his kite-board design which gives riders greater stability thanks to a radical new steering system. His prize includes pound;5,000 for his college's DT department, a personal prize of pound;5,000 to be spent on education and, most importantly, a paid work placement of up to nine months in Audi's design studio, which could launch his career as a designer.