Criminal Designerminds

The Design Council with help from Live|Work have been working on a project to ‘design out crime’. The site is filling up with examples of systems and product re-designs that have help make crime or theft more difficult or less appealing, summarised in this Pdf.

The project takes a number of approaches, from encouraging public vigilance to co-ordinating manufacturers to make products more difficult to sell on (Schools requested that equipment was made bright orange to stem a tide of thefts)

When beginning such a design process, it’s easy to talk to, observe and design around the experiences of the victims and also to look at the official data to see which may be the most fruitful areas to tackle. However, I’m intrigued by ‘anti-user-centred design’ instances like this, where designers have to make a situation as un-appealing or difficult as possible for one user group whilst not compromising the experience for legitimate users. So shouldn’t that user segment be included in the process?

At a recent conference I spoke with Thinking Spaces about their work with prisons. When interviewing inmates, they always found the armed robbers and fraudsters the most interesting to talk to.
Such criminals have the potential to be excellent designers. They can spot opportunities, think quickly and laterally and some have proven to be expert systems analysts and exploiters. Their ingenuity is often borne of necessity and from the ground up.

A fantastic example of product design involves an acquaintance’s mother, who lived in a flat with a coin-operated electricity meter that was checked every month to be emptied but was always found to have no coins in it at all, despite energy being used. The flatmates had created a ice tray with pound coin sized holes and were dropping these ice “slugs” (fake coins) into the meter, where they would melt and evaporate!

After a mugging, I had a hopeless series of experiences with Lewisham Police, and after six weeks I was finally invited in to identify any of the eight strangers I met late at night in a stressful circumstance. Needless to say I didn’t manage to recognise anyone, but I did encounter some excellent resourcefulness to play the identification system.

Mug shots are so-called because the suspects being photographed used to gurn to distort their faces to avoid identification. Amongst hundreds of photographs of frowns and straight faces I was taken aback by someone leaning towards the camera with a beaming smile! The chances are that if he had done anything wrong, he didn’t have quite so happy a demeanour at the time!

So if you truly want to attempt to ‘design out crime’ I’d recommend starting with those who have committed crimes to understand the motivations, drivers and barriers that can make the rest of us so unhappy, but also to harness the creativity and ingenuity of their unique and underestimated perspectives.