The notion of designing against crime raises important questions. Can design contribute to the safety of our society? Can design be used to combat crime? Is ‘designing out crime’ a realistic proposition at all?

Upon reflection, we’d have to say that not all kinds of crime are amenable to design intervention. But clever, simple and well-targeted design interventions can help both the reduction of risk and ‘target hardening’ (a criminology term), and discourage the opportunistic crime that riddles our public environment.

A defence against the dark art of ‘professional’, organised crime is probably more difficult, and is realistically beyond the scope of design interventions.

Yet the prevention of opportunistic crime is already a very worthwhile goal to pursue, because it is exactly this ‘small-time crime’ that poisons public life. It forces us to be on guard all the time when in a public space, and is at the root of warnings from our mothers about talking to strangers.

In this way it isolates us from others and makes us prone to loneliness. And it precludes the kind of meetings between total strangers that we need for a healthy society. We need to engage with one another to solve the formidable issues that our society faces.

Opportunistic crime is a very serious societal disease, eating away at our quality of life. But what is the role of design in creating a safer society? Let’s look at some inspiring case studies, such as those about urban crime hot spots and their design.

In the ‘Beacons’ project, an industrial design student from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands worked with the Rotterdam City Council to improve night safety in an area with a high concentration of restaurants and cafes.

Careful analysis by criminologists and designers showed that the most dangerous spots were in the quiet residential streets, and that most people who were robbed were actually a little lost and trying to get from one area of night activity to the other. Normal street lighting (floodlighting with natrium lights) only made the problem worse: the strong orange light blurred all the differences in colour,

making everything look the same, and made street signs difficult to find and read. Instead of these lights, the student put bright ‘beacons’ at eye level on important intersections and placed small ‘step lights’ in the footpath.

This dramatically improved the ability of the young crowd to find their way around, and crime in the area dropped dramatically. In the end, the new lighting was also more energy efficient than the old, giving the project an added eco-benefit.

The Tourist Traps project involved a large number of criminologists, urban planners and architects, who scrutinised the ‘tourist corridors’ of major cities in Europe like Barcelona and Rome. They found that there was a clear typology of scenarios (the ‘when’) in places where people were exceptionally prone to pick-pocketing and robbery.

An example is the scenario where a tourist, after having navigated dark little medieval streets, suddenly comes to a very light and big square, where they tend to stop to orient themselves. Their eyes aren’t attuned to the light conditions in the square, which makes them very vulnerable to attack.

Putting up big signs to point out the direction to major tourist attractions is the worst thing one could do in such a place.

Pointers should be small and closer to the middle of the square, so tourists naturally walk out of the danger zone and only stop when their eyes are used to the light conditions.

We could also look at what is stolen. These days the crime targets are the expensive electronic gizmos we walk around with: PDAs and mobile phones.

This is where clever designers are focusing on using the networked quality of mobile technology itself to thwart theft, sale and re-use. The approaches range from the sending of ‘text-message bombs’ (rendering stolen mobile phones and PDAs completely useless) and the localised sending of text messages around a crime scene (thus quickly finding possible witnesses) to the intelligent use of the GPS (location) and RFID (identity) information that is more and more being integrated in these sophisticated devices.

And then there is the avenue of using product design directly to develop countermeasures against crime as it happens. A relevant case study in this respect is the ‘Safety Catch’ project, in which industrial design students from Eindhoven University of Technology worked with the Dutch police on developing a rather fashionable bracelet that can send out a distress signal when broken.

In this clever design, the transmitter from the victim’s mobile phone is used to send the signal and receive any messages. The design project included not just the hardware and software of the bracelet but also the business plan for the partners involved (mobile phone companies, network providers, security firms, insurance companies, victims’ contacts) and the complete service design for the police department. This project is a good example of target hardening.

So, the use of criminological research and very detailed design studies as the basis on which to build a combination of exploratory research, experimental design and testing can lead to the development of exemplary designs, design methodologies, tools and resources for broad adoption and use.

This can only work when one adopts a ‘design-led approach’ where the process is driven by design from day one, first using these early designs to explore and map out the incredibly complex area of ‘designing out crime’, and to identify key opportunities for risk reduction and target hardening.

These experimental designs and creative opportunities should be presented constantly to panels of relevant specialists, including criminology researchers, community representatives (that is, people who live in crime-stricken areas), professional designers and industry partners who could eventually be interested in taking these ideas forward toward implementation.

Through these quick research-design-evaluate iterations, executed in a completely transparent relationship and in close cooperation with stakeholders from the criminology community, industry, government and society, real design directions and experimental solutions will very quickly emerge.

The establishment of a research centre presents a great opportunity for an all-encompassing approach to preventing crime, from the macro level of urban planning, the design of public spaces and architecture to the micro level of product design and visual communication.

This thorough, broad and yet detailed approach will help to prevent crime and have a direct impact on the quality of our environment. 

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