This is no time to call the ‘design police’

Originally published on spiked.

The magazine Design Week recently asked various designers what they think London mayor Boris Johnson’s design priorities should be. One respondent, David Kester, who is chief executive of the Design Council, summed up the way the British design establishment has jumped on the government’s narrowing political bandwagon. Kester thought the mayor should think beyond mere ‘buildings and buses’ and should instead focus on the capital’s ‘crunchy and inter-related social and economic challenges’. However, this wasn’t a call for design to help stave off the recession through the development of better products and services, but a plea for Johnson to ‘begin with one of his manifesto pledges and put London’s designers to work on innovative approaches to reducing youth crime’ (1).

Kester’s pronouncement coincided with UK home secretary Jacqui Smith’s announcement of a three-year, £1.6million funding package for the Design Council and other leading organisations and individuals to develop a number of crime-busting design schemes (2). Yet Britain is not in the middle of a crime wave. In fact, crime is generally on the decline. In London, for example, the Metropolitan Police’s own figures reveal that there has been a steady drop in crime rates for the past 10 years (3). It’s a similar picture across England and Wales. The British Crime Survey reports that ‘crime is now at the lowest ever level since the first results in 1981’ (4). While the media seem obsessed with murders of young people, especially in London, the UK still has one of the world’s lowest rates of youth homicide (5).

So why this investment of government money in crime-stopping design when crime seems to be in decline? One clue is that while actual crime is falling, our fear of criminality, and especially of anti-social behaviour, is on the rise (6). This anxiety is understandable since the current government has introduced a wealth of new measures, such as anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs), that have targeted the supposedly unruly element among young people, making every attempt to penalise and remove them from our streets and city centres (7).

It is also clear that the design establishment and government are keen not just to focus on problems such as robbery or theft of personal property. What the new raft of funding and initiatives indicate is that the real influence of ‘design thinking’ won’t necessarily be about making us, or our property, more secure. Instead, it appears that the greatest influence of design’s intervention around crime will be on changing individuals’ behaviour – not just the behaviour of criminals and victims, but of all of us.

At the launch of the new funding programme, Smith said: ‘I want to encourage architects, designers and industry to think about how innovative design solutions can help to reduce and even prevent crimes from occurring in the first place.’ She said the focus is going to be more about helping to ‘make spaces, places and gadgets safer’ (8). This means tackling bullying in schools, alcohol-related assaults in pubs and clubs, and even looking at how to redesign many problem areas and local communities to combat crime.

With the government taking the lead, designers, architects, urban planners and others are going to help redesign many public spaces in the hope of combating crime. But the effect of this will be to make ever more aspects of what we do in public a cause for suspicion, especially when many of these new ideas want to focus on prevention, not just the consequences of crime. This new collaboration between the design establishment (who should perhaps be known as the ‘design police’) and the government will undermine our freedom and any sense of perspective about crime and its causes.

The newly formed agenda for designing out crime centres on five key themes: schools, electronic products, housing, alcohol-related crime and business crime. On schools, Sir John Sorrell, chair of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) will lead an investigation into how design can help with issues such as bullying, fighting and petty theft. Designers looking at the housing theme will work out how to combat crime through developing anti-crime measures that are to be included in the planning and construction stages of housing development. These initiatives will be led by Ken Pease, a forensic psychologist. The alcohol-related theme, led by the Design Studies department at the Royal College of Art, will centre on reducing violent assaults and disorderly behaviour around pubs and clubs. The ‘hot’ themes of electronic products and business crime will also seek to reduce theft in a number of ways.

While you can’t blame the design establishment for chasing the government’s coin, the trouble is designers are uncritically peddling a dangerous government agenda where design will be employed to find more and more ways in which to target individuals’ behaviour. Using design to make products more secure is one thing, but on the whole, ‘design thinking’ will mean subtly trying to encourage people to change the way they go about their lives, whether they like it or not – and often without them even realising it is happening.

Putting the presumed needs and behaviours of criminals, abusers and victims at the heart of the design process means that our all of our interactions in public space become conceived as confrontations between potential perpetrators and victims of crime. According to this view, designers’ role is to manipulate our interactions in order to prevent problematic interactions. The influence may be subtle, but it will negatively affect spontaneous, interpersonal relations, and it will prevent us from choosing, of our own accord, how to behave in public space.

For example, Magnus Pettersen, a student at Central Saint Martins College in London, won an award for his innovative bike stand called BLABR. Not only does it encourage people to lock their bikes more securely, it also provides them with a seat so that the bike stand becomes a vantage point to ‘encourage natural surveillance and deter thieves from the area’ (9). The hope is that by placing the lock/seat design in a suitably busy public place, those sitting on it (presumably exhausted after their bike ride) will be the vigilant protectors, not only of their own bike, but of others’, too. However, there is no sign on BLABR asking them to do that. So whilst our bikes will be more secure, we also become unwitting participants in protecting the property of others. The clever bike stand/seat is one example of a design item which includes us in the fight against crime, ‘nudging’ our behaviour, and removing any notion of individual control over the problem or situation.

The Design Council has numerous other examples of such design ideas on its website presented as ‘evidence’ of the positive case for design intervention. Some items demonstrate good design practice, such as the redeveloping of car radios to make them much harder to steal. However, other examples are more difficult to admire. Much like BLABR, they demonstrate the duplicitous way in which we are expected to help fight crime. Firstly, this is done by getting individuals to accept more surveillance and to collaborate more closely with the police and the authorities. And secondly, there is an emphasis on people accepting the need to change their behaviour, typically through a set of subtle changes made to the environment and often done without them ever knowing about it.

One example is a public park in Hulme, Manchester, where local planners managed to defeat unsavoury criminal behaviour by completely re-landscaping the area, putting surveillance at the heart of all aspects of how the park would be used. This included repositioning housing to face the park, encouraging parking along the park’s perimeter fence, and installing low-height fencing and brick walls along with see-through railings to ensure that all areas of the park are visible.

Another example on the Design Council website is the story of how ‘one of Britain’s worst locals’ became one of the best. The Pear Tree pub in Wythenshawe had suffered from a long period of abuse by legions of drug dealers who used it to control their turf. Eventually, the local community demanded the pub back. Manchester Police’s crime reduction adviser proposed a number of actions, from changing the pub’s name to redeveloping its interior. This involved building an ‘open-plan layout with comprehensive (but discreet) CCTV coverage’ (10). A wealth of other measures were taken – from better lighting to asking customers to remove their hats (a common place to conceal drugs) and training staff to be attentive to moments of noise dispersal or calm (an apparent indication of a ‘lull before the storm’). The venue was eventually awarded ‘Secured by Design’ status.

On one level, the criminal problem appears to have been dealt with here, but the underlying causes remain. Furthermore, the residents or ‘users’ themselves are the ones expected to police the problem. Cases such as the Pear Tree pub might seem like positive achievements of individual empowerment, but in reality individual liberty has been systematically removed here. In most cases, people are not in control of the causes of, or solutions to, crime. The crime-stopping measures imposed through clever design won’t effect much more individual control, but they will perpetuate a climate of suspicion and mistrust as surveillance is turned into an everyday aspect of residents’ lives. Though this may not be the intention of the design establishment, it will be a real conequence.

We should welcome any new developments that make the things we use, buy or live in safer. But we should also be genuinely suspicious of any government-sponsored intervention that is intent on taking away our freedom to decide how we live and interact through subtle, but coercive measures to influence our behaviour. Contrary to the view of ‘design police’ promoters like Lorraine Gamman, director of the Design Against Crime Centre, design intervention will not ‘strengthen individual liberty and movement’ (11). It will do the very opposite while at the same time help to create an unhealthy climate of suspicion and mistrust.

There comes a point when attaching more and more security measures to your property ends up having the opposite effect, making you feel less safe and secure. It imprisons and isolates you more than making you feel free. That unfortunately will also be the consequence of the collusion between the design police and the government. Attempting to tackle crime by subtly changing our behaviour in various ways will not only add more regulation to our lives, it will also further alienate us from the causes of crime –  and from each other.


(1) Design Week, 20 November 2008

(2) See Design Week

(3) Crime figures, Metropolitan Police

(4) Crime in England and Wales, Home Office

(5) Why knife crime cuts us to the quick, by Mick Hume

(6) Crime in England and Wales, Home Office

(7) See, for example, Why we should swat the Mosquito, by Martyn Perks

(8) Designing out crime, Home Office

(9) Designing out crime: hot products, Design Council

(10) Design Against Crime, Design Council

(11) Design can cut crime, by Lorraine Gamman