Designing in partnership with students at a distance

This blog was co-authored by Abbie Jackson, Anna Ward-Stancheva,  Leo Rees-Evans, Mar Reyes and Rebekah Manston, Design and Innovation students at the Open University as well as Georgy Holden and Nicole Lotz, Senior Lecturers at the Open University.

On June 25th 2020, the third annual exhibition of work of OU design students was launched. Our students study at a distance, but every year, we invite students to the Milton Keynes Campus to design the exhibition together with academics from the Design and Innovation Qualification.

The COVID crisis meant the 2020 exhibition needed to be wholly online. A call for volunteers resulted in applications from eight geographically dispersed students (from the Outer Hebrides to southern Spain). Of these, two helped select winners whilst the rest designed the publicity, exhibition site and catalogue, using MS Teams to meet, share files and exchange ideas asynchronously.

Below, five of the six student exhibition designers and two staff share their experiences and insights designing the end of year exhibition at a distance and in a team that had never met before.

Leo Rees-Evans (U101)

“Hi Leo, Thanks for applying to be a member of the Annual Show 2020 exhibition design team. With great pleasure, I want to congratulate you on being successful in applying to be part of the team who will design an engaging and exciting Virtual Exhibition of Students Work this year.”

From this moment, I was filled with a mixture of excitement and suspense! I have to admit, with the whole country being in lockdown as far as the east is from the west, knowing that this collaboration was going to be solely online, the team having never having met each other before, I didn’t know how long it would take and how it would all go…I think it is fair to say this exhibition was designed in extraordinary circumstances!

The design process was never boring… collaborative, creative, and involved decision making that at one point arrived at a crossroads and took another turn altogether! My first thoughts entering the project into that first team meeting was “I’m the only male!!” … I left a week later feeling I had made 7 new friends that I hope to work together on future projects with. A sure testimony of how close we all were throughout the project, how supportive of each other’s ideas, talented and hardworking each of those individuals are, an excellent choice for this year’s team. I was so impressed with the work we created, the catalogue and the exhibition with the ‘quirky additions’ such as the team video including outtakes!!

The hours put in, the battle between convergent and divergent thinking, the race against time and the technical difficulties due to thunderstorms was all an experience I thoroughly enjoyed, was well worth it and feel I learnt a huge amount from. Thanks to our great organisers and fabulous team, keep in touch and keep working hard!! It was a privilege to be chosen for the OU Annual Show 2020 and work with the team involved in this project this year.

Anna Ward-Stancheva (T217)

Anna writes, creating the Open University’s first fully virtual exhibition was a challenge, but the determination to make this year’s exhibition as good as the last was driven by a team of motivated students who worked their socks off to make the exhibition as pleasurable and accessible as possible. From researching online platforms to catalogues, there was a lot of planning, decision making and problem-solving involved, as well as thinking about the user interface and user experience of the exhibition. Thanks to the Internet and modern technology, the team was able to coordinate and work together quickly, effectively and completely online and they pulled together outstandingly to design a brand new OU exhibition experience. Being part of the annual exhibition design team this year has been a wonderful experience.

Rebekah Manston (U101)

Rebekah agrees: Working with the team to create this year’s design exhibition online has been frantic, fascinating and a lot of fun.

Volunteering for the curating team was a nerve-wracking decision, I worried about my lack of technical knowledge and that everyone else would be a much more talented designer and I would quickly be ‘found out’. I think these doubts are something everyone can relate to but what I quickly discovered is it takes a range of skill sets to make an effective team and, as U101 has taught me this year, there is more to design thinking than being a whizz with design software.

I am proud to have been a part of such a happy, effective team that has brought something new to OU Design in such a short time frame. I hope that we have created something that can be used as a template going forward and that the annual exhibition will continue to have an online presence even when a physical exhibit becomes a possibility again.

To anyone thinking of volunteering for the curating team in the future, I would say go for it; the chance to get to know some of the tutors and other students have been great fun and really rewarding.

To the team, I would simply say it’s been an absolute pleasure.

Mar Reyes (U101)

Mar highlights the values of teamworking: One of the reasons I enjoyed the experience of the exhibition was being part of this creative team: we all did different things, we helped each other, and we got everything done very nicely. I am good at communicating visually, but not so much with words, so if I had to do a project like this by myself, I would have struggled with many of the tasks required. Fortunately, we all have different skills and we have used them to create and put together this amazing virtual event, overcoming all the issues we had to face, and this fills me with pride. If we were to start again, I would only wish we had more time, so we could do more in-depth research and try more options.

Abbie Jackson (U101):

Abbie added: I’m astounded at how quickly we were able to pull it all together, and how smooth the evening went – from homemade videos to talks from industry experts, announcing the winners and everything in-between – it was a brilliant event!

The course leader allowed us to make decisions, form sub-teams and mould the event how we saw fit. Every decision had the student’s best interests at the heart, we wanted to create something accessible, whilst letting their work shine. Being able to handle and view student’s posters before the event made us feel fortunate to be a part of a University who congratulates students for their efforts and successes within their modules.

Obviously, this would not have been achievable without our fantastic team, put together by the module board. Everyone was incredibly creative, passionate and supportive, together we built an immersive experience for our peers to celebrate everybody’s hard work on the OU Design courses. I felt so privileged to share this experience with these people, especially during this pandemic – it was refreshing to be able to communicate and work with fellow students across the globe. We’ve all bonded via Zoom video calls, but we are hopeful one day our paths will cross in the ’real-post-COVID-world’.

Helping to curate the Open Universities first virtual exhibition was a great experience and I would fully recommend it to any future students who wish to get involved and test their skills in future years!

It has been an equally enjoyable experience for OU staff.

Georgy said that she has learned a lot about online engagement and about the capabilities of our students. The exhibition, catalogue and publicity were designed within the very short time-frame of one week, this constraint was, in many ways liberating as it led to intense creative focus and rapid, intuitive decision making. I am really looking forward to next year and doing this all again!

For me, Nicole, it has also been an extraordinarily positive experience working with students in partnership. I have worked in teams, some dysfunctional, others draining. This has been the opposite experience. And I am very proud of our students. I wish we could do more projects like this, involve students in tackling real-world challenges and working in diverse teams.

The OU Design Student Annual Exhibition 2020, launched online on June 25th with an event attended by more than 80 students and staff at which two designers talked, Ben Sippel on Design in Lockdown ( and Tanveer Ahmed on Decolonising Design (

Unlike most other design schools, the OU exhibition always features work from across the three stages of the undergraduate degree and submission for the exhibition is entirely voluntary. Students are asked to submit a poster which portrays a piece of work that they are proud of and there is a competition too, just to add interest. The resulting entries span a wide range of design, from graphic design for T-shirts – the very first assignment in the Design and Innovation degree, through to product, service and even system design. Across the three stages, the briefs offer an increasing amount of autonomy to the students and this is reflected in the diversity of subject matter culminating in the final stage project.  Student work also reflects the complementary subjects being studied alongside design, the current degree structure enables students to choose from a wide range of subjects drawn from the Arts and Humanities or STEM.

This year there were more than 60 entries to the exhibition, from these winners needed to be selected at each stage. The selection was carried out by a mix of central academic staff, associate lecturers and, importantly two student volunteers, using a consensual assessment technique. Each poster was rated for communication and the originality and quality of the idea it portrayed. Selectors carried out this assessment individually and then the scores were brought together and decisions made based on the consensus of the team. The quality of entries was high, with some very interesting ideas at all levels, so the decisions were not easy. Finally though, winners were chosen for each stage with the nature of the awards varying to recognise the diversity of the entries.

For the first level module, Design Thinking, two winners emerged with strengths in different areas:

Alexander Foster won the prize for the best idea, a droplet-shaped public water fountain that also enables the filling of reusable water bottles. The selectors felt that this was a very well presented and feasible idea that conveyed the design vision clearly.


Mar Reyes won the prize for the best communication for her use of graphics and 3D models to convey her idea for a pull-down shelf. The selectors appreciated the simple but playful nature of this well-balanced poster.

Commendations were also awarded; to Emily Studholme, for her T-shirt design based on identity which used fingerprints as faces to convey the message of individual uniqueness; and, for game design to Juan Torres, for his game based on the services of a hotel and to Ugne Astravaite, for creative thinking, for her design of a toaster-like phone charger.



The student winner for the second level module Design Essentials was Dean Parsons who responded to the brief to design something to encourage playful engagement at the Ditchling Beacon National Park by creating a monolith which can be interacted with in various ways that interpret the park and its surrounding landscape.

A commendation was also made to Richard Smith for his IKEA hack, a fold-away desk which seemed to the selectors to be particularly pertinent for students trying to find space in their homes during lockdown.

The third level module, Innovation: designing for change presented particular challenges for the selectors because of the diversity of ideas, all of which had merits. With difficulty, two joint winners were finally agreed upon:

Jennifer Norris Taylor presented a design proposal for a range of discrete breast-feeding tops in a very well balanced poster that clearly communicated her idea.


Emma Taylor proposed a kind of ski-pram to enable winter sports enthusiasts to ski with their baby. It was felt that this idea would be particularly useful in countries with heavy snowfalls.

In addition to the winners at each level, there was also an overall winner. This year the winner came from the first year module:

Benjamin Nairn’s design of a device based on piano keys that plays music to stimulate the memory of dementia sufferers and to provide a focus for interaction between them and their carers was seen as a sensitive response to the problems associated with that illness. The idea was well presented, including a well thought out and annotated image of a 3D model

We are very proud of all of the entries to the exhibition, if you would like to see more please go to

You will see that entries have been clustered into themes (called Moodboards in Behance). These eight themes, Sustainability, Hacking a Product, Social Technology, Serious Play, Humanity, Finding and Solving Problems, Site Specific and Identity reflect the wide range of opportunities and responses that students encounter throughout their design studies at the Open University.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: