Creativity in Crime

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

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

When beginning a design project, it’s easy to focus on talking to, observing and designing around the experiences of the victims and also to look at official crime data to see which may be the most fruitful areas to tackle. However, I’m also intrigued by ‘anti-user’-centred design work. Here designers have to empathise with an ‘anti-user,’ or someone seeking to abuse the system you’re designing. The brief is to make a situation as un-appealing as possible for one user group, whilst not compromising the experience for legitimate users. 

At a recent conference I spoke with Thinking Spaces about their work with prisons. When interviewing inmates, they always found people who had committed complex heists and fraud the most interesting to talk to.

Spotting opportunities, thinking quickly and laterally, being able to see situations and analyse systems holistically in order to exploit, work around or disrupt them. These are important qualities in designers. In this context, ingenuity is often borne of necessity, restriction and observation.

A tutor once told me of a fantastic example of product design outsmarting a system. Their mother lived in a flat with a coin-operated electricity meter. This was checked every month to be emptied, but was always found to have no coins in it at all, despite energy being used. No trace of the meter being tampered with, and the system affirming that coins had been put in.

The flatmates had created a ice tray with pound coin sized holes. Put water in the holes, freeze it and pop out a handful of ice “slugs” (fake coins). They would drop them into the meter, where they would melt and evaporate. To absolve the guilty party in this article, know that the water company issued an ultimatum to share the secret and no action was taken.

After I was mugged one night, I had a hopeless series of experiences with Lewisham Police. Six weeks later, when traumatic memories of the eight faces that robbed me and roughed me up me had pretty much faded, I was finally invited in to flick through photos of convicted people in the local area. I couldn’t recognise anyone after such a long wait, but I did encounter an excellent example of playing the identification system.

‘Mug shots’ are so-called because the suspects being photographed used to gurn to distort their faces to avoid identification. That has long since been disallowed. While I flicked through the ID book, amongst hundreds of photographs of frowns and straight faces, I was taken aback. Someone was cheerily leaning towards the camera with a beaming smile, looking genuinely pleased to see the viewer. Chances are that when they did whatever landed them in this book, they probably weren’t wearing the same expression at the time.

As part of the ‘design out crime’ programme I would love to see a dedicated effort to bring all stakeholders into the fold, including harnessing the viewpoints and creative capabilities of people who have been found guilty of crimes in the past. I would recommend starting with investigating the motivations; the ratios of effort, reward and risk; the 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, which can spot flaws in systems and overcome biases and assumptions we don’t think to challenge and often overlook.

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