A person’s health and well-being can certainly be affected by crime and safety issues. What does design have to say about this?

We spoke to Associate Professor Douglas Tomkin, Development Director of the Designing Out Crime Research Centre in Sydney (Australia) about how design is starting to play an ever-increasing role in solving some of the most tenacious problems affecting quality of life.

Q: Can you tell us how the Designing Out Crime Research Centre came to be?

I think it was about 2009, and the New South Wales Department of Justice reached out to all the universities in New South Wales saying essentially that they liked the idea of design helping to reduce crime, and they would like universities to put in bids to form a partnership. Myself and my colleague Kees Dorst put in an application, and we were chosen because we said we wanted to tackle it in a slightly different way. We didn’t want to just look at physical design outcomes, like products that help to reduce crime, such as a car that you can’t break into. We said we would much prefer to use the designing process in a broader way, maybe ending up with changes in systems or changes in the way people do things, not necessarily in a physical product. They quite liked that idea.

There are three parts to our work. One part is consultancy, another part is research, and then there’s the teaching. For the teaching, we choose a real-life project that a client has given us and we do a lot of preparation and research. With our help, the students do an intensive three or four weeks with that client, and then the Centre provides a report and solutions for the client at the end. It’s a very popular course that we do. We call it the Winter School.

Q: So the King’s Cross project was a Winter School project.

Yes, that was one of the first ones.

Q: King’s Cross is an area of Sydney known for frequent alcohol-related assaults and anti-social behaviour. In a previous article about the project, you said the breakthrough came when you realized 30 000 people go to King’s Cross every weekend, making it a sort of weekly music festival, and that this reframed the problem completely.

In terms of researching and reframing a problem, how do you know you have all the necessary data? How do you know which piece of information is most important?

Well, there’s no easy answer to that. When I was much younger I worked at the Royal College of Art in London under professor Bruce Archer, who was developing a new research method. At that point the belief was that you had to get every bit of information. We were designing a hospital bed*, and we spent years getting the information ready for that hospital bed. It’s just impractical.

The way the Centre does it is to try to pinpoint the people who are most concerned by the issue. In the King’s Cross project for example it was the police, the council, the retailers, the traffic people, the hospital who had to deal with the injuries, the people who went there. If you connect with them, if you can get those key people together and talk through their problems, the way they see it, you start to get what we call the paradoxes. There’s usually one or more paradoxes. That’s where you can’t see a possible solution. You have to reach that point where it seems like there is no solution. And then you can move on, and start looking at some of the positives, and build on those positives.

In the King’s Cross case you had a high percentage of people frequenting the area who were getting drunk, angry and violent. And there didn’t seem to be any sort of solution. But when you started looking at the positives, you saw that people were having a good time, and it was also good for local business, and you think, ‘Well how can we build on those positives?’

Our students went there at two or three in the morning, and after in a workshop, one of them said: “You know, it’s pretty much like when I went down to that music festival last summer. Lots of people at the festival were having a good time and getting a bit drunk, but it was all reasonably well managed. There were enough toilets, there were traffic control restrictions, there were people with free water, there were guides.” So we asked ourselves what would happen if we introduced that type of event management at King’s Cross on a Friday and Saturday night when it’s really busy. That was a breakthrough.

Q: What if that student had never said it reminded him of going to a concert?

Well, this was one of the very first ones we did, right? We were just developing how we would tackle a problem. We’ve now developed this nine-step process that leads people to come up with that reframe view. Ok, so that time it was slightly serendipitous, but, there had been a lot of pre-work, and we had the idea that you needed to get all these stakeholder views and you needed to find out where the paradox was. We knew you needed to somehow see the problem in a different way, but we didn’t have a proper structure to deal with it. Now we’ve got the structure.

Q: The Centre’s mandate is to “bring design innovation to complex crime and social problems.” What is the first step to achieving this?

We’ve called the first step archeology. It’s about understanding what’s gone before in some detail. Usually with complex problems there have been lots of different attempts to try to solve them, and you have to know what’s been tried and what’s worked and what hasn’t worked. This first step gives you a broad base of the issues that you’re dealing with.

And that’s why we have criminologists, an architect, a psychologist, and an urban planner in our team. They can see these issues not from a design perspective but from their own perspective. Once you start working together as a team, you start to know their tools and it really becomes quite powerful. It’s not quite co-design in the normal understanding of the word; it’s a strong multi-disciplinary approach with design method as the central element.

Q: As you say, the Centre brings together professionals from varied backgrounds (industrial design, architecture, criminology, psychology, philosophy, history, urban planning, sociology). Is this multidisciplinarity necessary to reframing the problem and finding innovative solutions?

It’s hard to say that it’s necessary… If you’re working with someone who comes from a different perspective, you’re learning from them. It’s the input that widens the frame. There’s this nice point in the process we call the fried egg. The yolk, the yellow bit, that’s the part that people tend to concentrate on in the problem. So with King’s Cross you’re looking at people drinking, you’re looking at all the little local things that are happening in that area, but if you start to look at the people on the fringe, you often find links that help you understand the problem more and find clues to solutions. In the case of King’s Cross, widening out might include the infrastructure of Sydney, it could be transport rail, it could be the residents who live nearby, it could be the cleaning department that has to clean up at the end of the day, etc. That widening out is a very useful design technique.

Q: So the people from the different areas help to widen that frame.

Yes, they help that. The more expertise, the more depth of understanding you can bring to a problem, the better, as long as you don’t let it…

Q: As long as you don’t get lost in the data? This brings to mind the hospital bed you mentioned earlier.

I know! I know! It was ridiculous. But, if you look at the history of design research, at that point in the 1960s, it was mainly people from an engineering background. They weren’t industrial designers because industrial design was really just beginning. They, the engineers, had a very systematic step-by-step process that was quite rigid in today’s terms. And Bruce Archer was one of the first people working on a process. When I was at Royal College of Art I worked on designing hospital equipment, terribly, terribly laboriously questioning doctors, nurses, taking lots of measurements. A lot of ergonomics was involved. It went on and on… I’ve got boxes and boxes of data, which formed the basis of the design of a standard hospital bed which then became the standard for the UK. It still is basically the standard. It was successful in many respects.

There’s some similarity between that and what we’re doing now. But you just can’t afford the resources to do what we did then.

Royal College of Art
King’s Fund bed: prototype tilted with measures, Kenneth Agnew photographic collection, Special Collections.

Q. You’re saying that this bed, which took more than two years of research, is still the standard in the UK, so  maybe that was the way to go about it?

No, no, that’s slightly jumping to conclusions. When I say that the bed is the standard, it’s the sort of basic standard. The ergonomics is pretty much the same, but the technology has changed. Height adjustment was critical, and it still is. You want a low bed for people who’ve just had an operation so they can get out of bed easily, but you need a high surface if a doctor’s going to look at you or perform something. So for a hospital bed, height adjustment is critical. In the early days, the way we got that height adjustment was actually with a car pump. You would press up and down on a pedal, but it was designed in a way that was fairly easy to do. Nowadays that’s all motorized. It’s done in different ways. But the basic stuff remains.

Now I think problems are a lot more complex. And not only more complex, but they can change very quickly, because the dynamics change. Either the social dynamic is different, or technology’s moved on, or there are different parameters. I don’t think you could use that technique these days, because if you had two years to design something, by the time you got to the end you’d have to start again.

Q. Who has the Centre worked with so far, and what kinds of problems are these clients looking to address?

It’s been very very busy. We’ve done more than 150 projects so far. We’ve done a lot of different work for counter-terrorism, for transport, for the housing department, a whole variety of different clients, which you will find, I think, in some of the case studies on our website. Some clients come to us from retail. For example, there’s a store here called Woolworth’s, which was having problems with theft, particularly in their cosmetics section. We ended up designing a new shelf for them.

Smart Retail Shelf

Q. Was the New South Wales Justice Department, co-founding partner of the Centre, ever a client? Or were they just a funding partner?

They’re the funding partner, 50/50 with University Technology Sydney (UTS). Because they’re justice, they tend to get all the latest statistics on crime. They know where the major problems might be occurring or building up and they’ll suggest to us that we work on certain areas with them, or for them. We work quite closely with them.

Q. Is there a project you’re particularly proud of?

The thing I’m most proud of is the work we’ve done in high security prisons on the Intensive Learning Centres (ILC). These centres are helping people who can’t read or write gain skills so that when they leave prison they’re in a better position to get work. This project was very much about how design, in the traditional sense, can have a huge impact. Prisons tend to be very stark places, where everything is bolted to the ground, with stainless steel toilets without seats, with small windows—horrible depressing places basically. When you talk to the people who operate these prisons, they say this is not intended as a punishment in itself. They say it’s just for ease of management. They see it from a risk management point of view. From a prisoner’s point of view, if you’re stuck in a place like that for years on end, it’s visually depressing and it’s one of those things that can have a huge effect on you.

Our concept was that the learning space had to be like an oasis inside the prison. We built this fabulous area with wooden decking, trees and plants, lovely indoor and outdoor teaching spaces, and a little running track around the outside. When the prisoners go from their stark environment into this nice light place, with all the latest teaching aids, their attitude changes enormously. The course completion rate has gone from something like 20% to about 95%.

Corrective Services Intensive Learning Centres

Q: In this case was there really any reframing to be done, or was it pretty obvious what needed to be done from the start?

The overseers—that’s the people who have to look after these prisoners and who are worried about them escaping or hitting each other—they tend to go out with a very harsh attitude: control, order, no latitude… The teachers on the other hand were finding it really hard to teach these people. They came from the outside, they came into the prisons as visitors and saw what wasn’t working. The key was to get them all together in a room for a whole day. This way we managed to get one of the top prison officials to agree to try our approach.

The interesting part of that story is that it’s not just the prisoners who feel happy. The overseers say the stress is all gone, their job is so much easier. The prisoners are so much easier to control in the ILC environment than they are in the other environment that now prison services is starting to think they might want to change the way the whole prison is designed. It’s extraordinary.

Q: How important is it to think about design as a tool to improve quality of life and well-being?

Well, I think it’s pretty important! In the past I designed toys and furniture and things—I spent 14 years running a design consultancy in Hong Kong—and it’s a very different approach to design. Very commercially operated, very traditional. I think the interesting thing now is that thanks to companies like Apple and various others, design is not just seen as an aesthetic thing. It’s being seen as much more complicated and it’s going beyond the product. In the case of Apple it’s a whole systems thing. We use the design process to work with government agencies and others to come up with different ways of tackling problems. Design research allows us to look at the way creativity works; creativity is no longer seen as just a bright idea that someone has. It comes from a more structured way of thinking and working, and that’s starting to spread throughout the community. I think design is starting to genuinely improve quality of life in lots of ways beyond having a lovely phone.

*The bed in question is known as the King’s Fund Bed.


About Douglas Tomkin

Douglas has worked as a designer and academic in Europe, South East Asia and Australia. The primary areas of his design involvement include consumer products, medical equipment, command and control furniture and interactive devices. His expertise extends to legal opinion on product related accidents and product copying. Prior to joining DOC Douglas was Head of School, Design at UTS. He has a strong interest in sustainable design issues.

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