The Latest In Prison Education? Design Thinking

The MakeRight initiative teaches incarcerated people empathetic design with the aim of reducing recidivism.

From packaging that prevents shoplifting to furniture that guards against thieves, projects originating from the Design Against Crime Research Center (DACRC)–a program at Central Saint Martins in London–offer clever design ideas to protect against crime. Its latest project has grander ambitions: change the way offenders think, and perhaps curb law breaking as a byproduct.


The DACRC’s MakeRight initiative teaches prisoners design thinking. While many prison programs teach technical skills–and, historically, have exploited incarcerated individuals for labor–MakeRight is meant to yield empathy through design.

Design thinking is a process that involves defining a problem, researching and observing behavior, coming up with multiple solutions, refining the solutions, choosing a winner, prototyping the idea, and implementing it. While critical thinking breaks down ideas, design thinking builds them up and benefits from having as many diverse solutions as possible.

“At present, inmates who work for ‘prison industries’ across the globe do not learn new skills, just odd jobs,” Central Saint Martins professor and DACRC director Lorraine Gamman told Design Indaba. “They aren’t taught skills that could make them resilient in the workplace once they leave. This is because education and work are disconnected.”

In one of its first projects–run in collaboration with the National Institute of Design, a school in India–25 prisoners designed theft-proof bags, wallets, briefcases, and purses. They shared some of the (terrifying) tricks of their trade, like slashing back pockets so wallets slide right out, to inform the design of better products–in that case, a wallet with a thicker side so it catches on the pocket and doesn’t fall out.

“It is a very interesting concept where we can tap the artist inside a criminal’s mind and then turn it into a tool that could benefit them and the society they live in,” Pradyumna Vyas, a professor and director of the National Institute of Design, told Design Indaba. “It is a visualization of anti-crime design as restorative justice.”

While the MakeRight Initiative’s ambitions seem a little rosy–just how much empathy can you teach?–some of the most challenging social problems of the future will be solved, at least partially, through design, and we’ll need people to develop solutions. The aim is that people in prison who participate in the program gain the know-how to open their own businesses as consultants for designers or as producers of design themselves. The Bureau of Justice’s latest recidivism study dates from 2005 and found that two-thirds of prisoners were rearrested within three years. Some advocates argue that employment is key to reducing that percentage. Giving ex-convicts a competitive edge in the job market through design education certainly couldn’t hurt.


All Photos: Central Saint Martins

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.