Design Slams: Bringing industry and innovation into the classroom

Why Design Slams?

Design Slams are a challenge of design, skill, and presentation. Design Slams introduce students to the design process and create an environment in which students look at problems differently, pursuing solutions based on quick, instinctual decisions.  Regardless of their level of design expertise, a Design Slam event gives students the opportunity to apply their design and technical skills and pitch their design idea to a panel of judges in a visible gathering that promotes student recognition, industry involvement, and innovation. It’s a great capstone project for students regardless of their design focus or experience.

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Judges examine student work.

I hosted the first ever Design Slam event in May 2015 at John Paul II Catholic Secondary School.  Twenty of my design students (grades 9 through 12) participated in six different challenges, focusing on concept sketching, site planning, industrial design, and animation. Students were challenged to create an original design using Autodesk software such as Sketchbook Pro, Fusion 360, Alias, AutoCAD and Mudbox, in a 90-minute time frame.  With a brief introduction to the design challenge and an overview of the design criteria, students were let loose to start the challenge. These young designers drew from classroom instruction and experience and the thrill of designing under pressure to showcase their design skills to industry judges, students, and parents in attendance. 

Students created designs in Sketchbook Pro, Fusion 360, Alias, AutoCAD and Mudbox.

Students pitched their design ideas to a panel of judges that included local industry designers, several of which were former John Paul II students and are now working design professionals.  The judges engaged with students, providing mentorship, exchanging feedback and alternate design perspectives.  

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Students and judges interacting.

It was a win-win evening for all involved, celebrating young talent in the design program at John Paul II Catholic Secondary School.


How do I host my own Design Slam?

A Design Slam requires little in the way of funding, but, as with any event, planning is the key to success. To make this process simple, Autodesk developed Design Slam resources on Design Academy to help teachers host a successful Design Slam event.

Here’s my checklist for getting started:

Planning and Logistics
Start to plan your design slam a few months prior to the event. Download and review the Design Slam resources available on Design Academy. The templates and planning documents are extremely helpful in getting organized and securing resources.  They include planning and budget templates, event signage, and outreach letters to help recruit industry professionals for judging. I had many student volunteers eager to help contribute to planning the event.

Define Design Challenges

Sample design challenges are included in the Design Slam resources. If these projects seem out of scope given your students’ ability, take a look at the 100+ projects on Design Academy, or create your own. The key is to make sure that your projects align with the technical knowledge and skills of your students.  I opted to design short, 90-minute projects, to create an environment of designing under pressure. However, a multi-day or week-long project can also be considered.

Engaging industry designers as judges and prize sponsors.

Engaging industry professionals is essential in bringing real world experience and feedback to your students.  Many design companies and professionals are interested in giving back to the community. Design Slams offer the perfect opportunity – without a long term time commitment. I always find industry to be eager to participate.

Students benefit from working with judges with real-world experience.

Developing event awareness and interest

Good things often go unnoticed. Don’t let this happen to your Design Slam event. I leveraged the John Paul II Design Slam to drive interest and course enrollment  in my design program.  Students were also eager in creating posters and showcasing the event on social media and on campus. Contacting local news stations can also bring success – events like Design Slams are ideal for showcasing collaboration between industry and education. My administration also appreciated the additional media coverage.

Playground for Innovation

Make sure to recognize all student outcomes. Make your event about fostering innovation, not competition.  Recognize all levels of excellence – creativity, technical skills, and presentation. 

Student design created in Mudbox.

Share your students’ work and design challenges

Lastly, have your students share their student work on Design Academy, under Portfolios. I found it to be a great way for students to gain exposure for their work and gain confidence!

Have fun!

Student model of headphones created in Fusion 360.


Host your own design slam