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Across RCA Cafés leather made from waste coffee

Key details


  • 3 July 2024

Read time

  • 5 minutes

Each year students from across the Royal College of Art (RCA) take part in AcrossRCA. This College wide unit encourages collaboration across art and design disciplines. In teams, students respond to urgent contemporary themes. The results are now available to explore on the AcrossRCA website.

“The experience of AcrossRCA has to be one of the top highlights of my time at the RCA. The friendships, core skills, and introduction to new ideas and processes is something that will always stay with me.”

Eleanor Ross Creative Education MEd student

College-wide cross disciplinary collaboration

fabric tied around four packages

“We ask students to respond to, but not solve, large societal themes using their team-based interdisciplinary knowledge.”

Tom Sowden Assistant Dean, Education

AcrossRCA is an ambitious, interdisciplinary, collaborative, College-wide unit. It brings together students from all RCA MA programmes and is an elective option on all other taught programmes. Situated at the core of the RCA experience, AcrossRCA draws on expertise from within and beyond the institution. This provides a unique dimension to discipline-specific study.

“AcrossRCA is an open, ambiguous, and challenging unit without prescribed subject matter or briefs,” explained Tom Sowden, Assistant Dean, Education. “We ask students to respond to, but not solve, large societal themes using their team-based interdisciplinary knowledge. The unit focuses on collaboration. This enables students to form relationships outside of programmes, and develop the skills and networks that will allow them to thrive beyond graduation.”

Students work in teams spanning the RCA’s four Schools. This encourages a peer-focused cross-fertilisation of ideas. It also expands thinking beyond discourses in art, architecture, communication and design. In their teams, students respond to an urgent contemporary theme.

Discover AcrossRCA 2023–4

interactive installation

For 2023–24 the four AcrossRCA themes were ‘Being Digital’, ‘Caring Society’, ‘Climate Crisis’, and ‘Justice, Equality and Misinformation’. Within their chosen theme students identified their own critical questions. Together they then developed the process and skills needed to participate and respond. The resulting outcomes, processes and ideas can be discovered through the AcrossRCA website. The work ranges from prototypes, websites and speculative design proposals to films, publications, exhibitions and installations.

For example, PickPulse is an interactive installation that visualises decision fatigue caused by endless smartphone scrolling. The installation integrates Arduino with Bluetooth modules and a mobile application, employing a gesture recognition library to facilitate wireless control of servo motion through screen gestures. This innovative setup enables users to simulate skin creases and muscle tension in real-time. The team behind it come from Digital Direction MA, Textiles MA, Innovation Design Engineering MA and Visual Communication MA, exemplifying what can be achieved by combining diverse expertise.

Nurture Knot is a design for a postpartum care package for new mothers, created under the Caring Society theme by a team of students studying Design Products MA, Information Experience Design MA and Innovation Design Engineering MA. It blends nutrition and heritage, with tailored packages for different geographical regions and communities. The project was developed through engagement with peer, academic and cultural networks.

Text reads: this bin = 15 minutes of RCA coffee ground waste. Destined for landfill, rescued by students

In comparison, Across RCA Cafés is a project that took a hyper-local approach to the Climate Crisis theme. Using waste coffee grounds from the RCA’s cafés, the team developed a new leather-like material. They then used this to create a bin which physically manifests the impact of our consumption by highlighting how much waste is produced in just 15 minutes of making coffees.

Another provocative approach is IRL/URL, created in response to the theme Being Digital. The team made a physical print publication, which takes a humorous look at the ridiculousness of some online spaces. This project showed how producing an analogue satirical response can be more effective than any form of solution.

pile of large hard back faux leather covered books

New ideas and ways of working

For many students AcrossRCA is an opportunity to work with others from different backgrounds. Individual practices benefit from the cross pollination of ideas. The team projects spark new ideas and ways of working that feed into personal projects.

Creative Education MEd student, Eleanor Ross, chose to work on the Being Digital theme. She has a background in textile hand embroidery so wanted the challenge of working in a completely new way. Eleanor worked with peers from Contemporary Art Practice MA, Photography MA, Service Design MA and Visual Communication MA. Eleanor explained these different backgrounds, nationalities and skill sets made “a wonderfully diverse and truly transformative experience for each of us.” She added “The experience of AcrossRCA has to be one of the top highlights of my time at the RCA. The friendships, core skills, and introduction to new ideas and processes is something that will always stay with me.”

computer monitor

While the team all had different ideas in response to the theme, their initial friendship provided a strong foundation for collaboration. “We formed a friendship over mutual interests, laughs and hobbies” Eleanor recalled. “The small action of talking with each other during a break, sharing experiences and stories, helped build an open, trusting relationship between one another.”

The team created Decay: Monitors/Monoliths, a critical examination of the environmental and social challenges posed by our digital dependencies, while also offering a vision for a more responsible and conscious engagement with technology. Their outputs included: a short film documenting a dissection of a computer monitor, an interactive world map illustrating the global journey of tech waste, and a Top Trump game emphasising the environmental footprint of electronic parts. They also created an exhibition that blended digital and analogue elements in a multisensory exploration of the theme.

“What I have taken most from my AcrossRCA experience is trust” reflected Eleanor. “To trust the process, to have trust in other's ideas and perspectives, and to realise although something might not go the way you intend it, that isn't actually a bad thing. It's in those situations you learn and grow the most. I have gained so much confidence, not only within myself but also to apply my ideas to mediums and contexts I would never have thought possible previously.”

Top Trump cards laid out across a wooden table

Discover more

View the outcomes of the AcrossRCA 2023–4 projects on the AcrossRCA website.

AcrossRCA website

AcrossRCA is a College wide unit that encourages collaboration across art and design disciplines.

Discover more on the AcrossRCA webpage

Discover more about our Master's programmes through our programme finder.

Programme finder

The work of graduating students can be discovered at RCA2024, a series of exhibitions and events and activities, running from 20 June to 4 August 2024.