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Cooper Hewitt's Design Competition - A Complete Guide

In the world of big data, a skill as important as reading and understanding data is the ability to use it for the good of society. As a high schooler, you will have access to all sorts of data and will be taught the skills required to interpret it and glean insights. However, if you’re looking for a way to become an entrepreneur and design solutions with it, to navigate it in novel ways, and find ways to create a powerful impact, you’re going to need determination, passion, and no small amount of opportunity and guidance. This is where the subject of today’s blog post, the Cooper Hewitt Design Competition, comes in. It is a prestigious competition that lies at the intersection of innovation, product design, art, and architecture, and one that you should be considering if you’re interested in any of these fields.


What is Cooper Hewitt’s Design Competition?


Cooper Hewitt’s Design Competition is a national design challenge for high schoolers hosted by Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. As a participant, you will be tasked with designing and sketching a novel solution to a real-world scenario using data, whether primary or secondary.


The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum launched this challenge in 2016, and since then it has proved a valuable platform to inculcate design thinking in high schoolers, empowering them to become changemakers through design. Each year, Cooper Hewitt’s Design Competition has encouraged participants to design for a more peaceful and just world, for a healthier world, or for greater inclusion - bringing the intersection of design thinking, social justice, and data analysis to high schoolers such as yourself.


Is it prestigious?


Despite its relative youth at only seven years old, Cooper Hewitt’s Design Competition is among the most prestigious of its kind in the country. Run by the 126-year-old Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, it benefits from the guidance and prestige of the faculty of the Parsons School of Design, and the networks and exposure built by the museum’s annual National Design Awards.


Its judges and mentors are from such vaunted institutions as the MIT Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism, UC Berkeley, Target, and Harvard along with a bevy of independent artists and designers.


The competition is also supported by industry giants like Adobe, Target, and eBay, with senior executives from these firms joining in as judges and/or mentors. With over 700 submissions coming in from across the country, securing a finalist spot or an honorable mention here will boost your profile significantly.


Who is eligible for the competition?


The eligibility criteria are simple and straightforward:

  • Be a current high school (grades 9-12) student.

  • Be at least 13 years old and no older than 19 years old.

  • Be a resident of the United States.

  • You may enter individually or form a team of up to 3 members.


How is the competition structured?


Cooper Hewitt’s Design Competition is divided into two Stages. The first stage involves the initial submission, whereas the second stage is for finalists to have virtual and in-person preparatory sessions before a final presentation.


Stage One works as follows:


  1. Create your design - This will need to be either a hand-drawn or digitally done sketch of your design idea that will need to be uploaded as a .jpg file (must be at least 8.5 x 11″ at 300 dpi). While you don’t need to be Michaelangelo, the sketch needs to be able to illustrate your design concept effectively.

  2. Describe your design - The entry form will consist of the below 4 questions that you will need to address when explaining your design:

    1. What information you’re presenting

    2. Where your data is sourced from

    3. What your design is and how to interpret and understand it

    4. How your design is impactful for users, how and for whom it can benefit

  3. Submit your design - The entry period for submission is typically from the first week of January to the 2nd week of February (January 3 - February 13 for 2023). If you’re working with a team, only one member will need to create an account and submit the entry for the team. You will also need to upload a copy of the signed parent/legal guardian consent form, one for each member if you’re in a team.


Your submission will be judged on the following criteria:

  • Innovation: How creative and original is the design?

  • Impact: Large or small, what is the impact of the design?

  • Relevance: How does the design use data to support a community?

  • Communication: How clear is the design idea from the sketch and question responses?


If you make the cut, announced in early April (April 6, 2023), you will move on as a Finalist for Stage Two. While the above criteria will still apply, Finalists will also be judged on the clarity of the final presentation and sportsmanship. Finalists will also receive specific Stage Two Brief Presentation Requirements.


Stage Two works as follows:


  1. Virtual mentor call - You or your team will be assigned a mentor by the Cooper Hewitt team and an hour-long call will be scheduled with them. This mentor will give you initial feedback and guidance for your idea to prepare you for the next step.

  2. Mentor weekend - You will be traveling to Cambridge, MA to attend this two-day event in May, to learn more about the design process, finalize designs, and review presentations before meeting with the judges. This is the last big opportunity you will have to garner crucial feedback and tips to fine-tune your design and get the plan in place to bring your presentation to life.

  3. Judging weekend - Finally, in mid June you will be virtually presenting your final design presentation to the judges, post which the winner will be announced!


You should thoroughly read the Rules and Conditions before applying.


Prizes and costs associated with the challenge


One of the most favorable aspects of Cooper Hewitt’s Design Competition is that there is no registration fee involved.


In terms of prizes, while Finalists as well as Honorable Mentions will be recognized in a special online exhibition on the Cooper Hewitt website, only the winner will receive the following prizes:

  • A custom design gift package from SHOP Cooper Hewitt worth $500

  • A complimentary Family Membership to Cooper Hewitt


Pros and Cons of Participating


Pros:


  1. You will learn a lot about design, innovation, and data - You will be analyzing data, innovating solutions to real-world problems, and then bringing the two together to create a transformative and impactful design and then presenting it to an expert audience. This comprehensive experience will teach you more than any classroom lecture would be able to on any of these topics.

  2. You will gain excellent exposure - You’ll be working with industry veterans and experts who will be giving you their dedicated time and expertise in Stage Two. This is the kind of exposure that’s invaluable for anyone interested in entrepreneurship and innovation.

  3. Your profile will get a significant boost - Cooper Hewitt’s Design Competition is one of the most prestigious design and innovation challenges in the country, whether you look at its institutional history, its partners and sponsors, or the resources and network it provides access to. If you make it as a finalist or get an honorable mention, you will be able to demonstrate to admissions officers or recruiters that you have already worked with industry leaders and earned their commendations.

  4. You will get the opportunity to build your idea - Finalists and winners are able to make use of the network, mentorship, and resources provided during the course of the competition to further develop their design ideas and bring them to life. Bella Jacobs, one of the finalists of the 2019 competition, went on to scale up her rainwater filtration and harvesting design idea and even returned to the 2022 competition as a mentor!

  5. There is a minimal cost of entry - Not only is there no registration fee, but Cooper Hewitt also pays for the travel, lodging, and activities of all finalists for Stage Two, greatly minimizing the entry cost for the competition.


Cons:


  1. You must be a US resident to apply - While there is no bar to international students technically, you absolutely have to be a US resident. If you’re not, tough luck.

  2. You will need to work hard to make the cut - The Cooper Hewitt Design Competition is highly competitive and selective. Of over 700 submissions, less than two dozen make it into the finalists and honorable mentions section. You and your team will need to pour in a serious effort to stand a solid chance at qualifying.

  3. You must be able to capitalize on the opportunities provided - This competition is different in that, despite its prestige and high stakes, there is only a negligible monetary reward. The biggest takeaway for finalists is the invaluable network, mentorship, and future opportunities. You need to be able to capitalize on these intangible resources to make the most of it.

  4. You need to be experienced with design - The intersection between art, architecture, data, and design means that you need to be experienced with bringing design solutions to life. The inherent complexity of the challenge subject, as well as the highly competitive nature of the event, means that this is not a competition suited to beginners.


5 Tips to Help You Win


If you’re all set on giving Cooper Hewitt’s Design Competition a shot, then keep the below tips in mind to maximize your chances of winning:


  1. Be thorough with your data - “Garbage in, garbage out” as the saying goes. Consider where your data is coming from, whether the source is trustworthy, how it was collected, how it was analyzed, and whether your interpretation and conclusions require more reinforcement. A good chunk of the scoring comes from the reliability of your data. Make sure this is ironclad.

  2. Go for clarity, not complexity of design - The competition rewards innovation and novelty, but neither mandates complexity. Often, clarity is the birthplace of innovation. Zero in on the specific challenge you want to solve and hunt for data around it. Once you have the necessary information in place, spend time processing it and be as clear as possible with each iteration on what you intend your design to accomplish. This will also help you with the next tip.

  3. Be clear on the story you want to tell - You can only explain something as well as you yourself understand it. Create a Storyboard for your design idea and spend time refining it so that someone who has no clue about your idea can look at it and understand exactly what you’re trying to say. This is arguably one of the most crucial things to focus on, as it is important both for your initial submission as well as for the final Stage Two presentation.

  4. Learn from others - There are a lot of resources provided by Cooper Hewitt to help you out, from recommended reading to previous competition entries. Go over them in detail to understand best practices as well as common pitfalls, and maybe get some inspiration or aha moments on the way.

  5. Consciously avoid biases - In a data-centric design challenge like this, HOW you approach something is as important as the what or why of it. Our thought processes and inherent biases are a product of who we are, and this competition is the perfect opportunity for you to self-reflect and deconstruct these biases to strengthen your approach, dispassionately and cohesively determining whether or not you have room for improvement. Some of the recommended readings from Cooper Hewitt, like Bruises - The Data We Don’t See and Data Vandals are excellent starting points.


Cooper Hewitt’s Design Competition is a prestigious, competitive but valuable opportunity for you to hone your skills at the intersection of design, data, innovation, and social justice. Regardless of whether you want to start your own business, work in the not-for-profit space, or learn to apply both art and data to designing solutions, this is a challenge that will have a lot to teach you.


Lumiere Research Scholar Program

If you’re looking for the opportunity to do in-depth research on various topics in data science, design, or innovation, you could also consider applying to one of the Lumiere Research Scholar Programs, selective online high school programs for students I founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.


Stephen is one of the founders of Lumiere and a Harvard College graduate. He founded Lumiere as a PhD student at Harvard Business School. Lumiere is a selective research program where students work 1-1 with a research mentor to develop an independent research paper.


Image Source: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

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