Vera Winthagen

Half the topics in the news are about fear, risk or unsafety, says intercultural designer Vera Winthagen. The conventional responses to issues ranging from bike theft to terrorist threats – security cameras, fences, tougher punishments – only contribute to a climate of fear. She advocates a more in-depth approach to crime prevention: design thinking.

Designing Out Crime (DOC) is the programme Winthagen heads at Eindhoven University of Technology. DOC looks for new solutions for old problems in society by taking the analysis deeper and wider and searching for the underlying causes of crime as a symptom. 

One of the successful ‘design thinking’ projects worldwide initiated by Sydney-based professor Kees Dorst, DOC looks at everything from urban planning to product design but steers clear of the conventional crime-fighting armoury.

Alongside her academic work, Winthagen brings the DOC mind-set to design in practice at the well-known Eindhoven design agency VanBerlo. “I’m the bridge between different ways of thinking and different worlds,” she says. “I’m a catalyst.”

Previously Winthagen worked at social and sustainable design cooperative Ideal&Co. She owns Enjoy the Difference, a fair trade label that designs and imports lifestyle products from Kenya, where Winthagen lived and worked. She studied at The Hague University of Applied Sciences and the celebrated Design Academy Eindhoven.

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Designing out Insecure Societies: Vera Winthagen at TEDxHagueAcademySalon

Vera Winthagen: design to cut crime


Stamping out crime? Vera Winthagen prefers a more constructive approach: Designing Out Crime. At the TEDxSalon on Secure Societies she’ll be talking about applying design thinking to crime prevention. Meet the first of four inspiring speakers.

Designing Out Crime (DOC) is the name of the programme Vera Winthagen heads at Eindhoven University of Technology, and the brainchild of Prof Kees Dorst of the DOC research centre in Sydney.

Eindhoven has a reputation as a design hotspot. It’s home not only to DOC, but also to the Dutch Design Week and the world-class Design Academy where Winthagen completed her studies. She went on to focus on designing for sustainability before specialising in intercultural design and changing behaviour – as in crime prevention.

But how do you cut crime just using design? What’s the trick?

“There’s no trick,” says Winthagen. “When people think of designers they think of people who come up with new solutions. But what we do is we investigate the problem – much better than most designers usually do. We make the problem bigger, more complex. We include more stakeholders and more factors that indirectly have to do with the problem.” (Article continues below video)

Designing out Insecure Societies: Vera Winthagen at TEDxHagueAcademySalon 

"I'm a catalyst"

She gives an example of a problem DOC set out to solve in Eindhoven: how can you make the city’s nightlife district safer for teenage girls? A close study revealed that this wasn’t the right question to ask. In fact safety wasn’t such a problem for girls – boys on a night out were four times as likely to get into trouble.

“What we do as designers is to look at the physical surroundings but also at people’s emotions, and that’s what we try to connect,” says Winthagen. Not that other designers don’t think about emotions, she adds. “But we go beyond that. We see the underlying values, the deeply felt beliefs.”

What DOC discovered was that the security problem for Eindhoven’s clubbing girls wasn’t on the street, but in the minds of parents. The real task was to put those minds at ease.

But how? Conventional crime prevention measures like security cameras actually have the opposite effect, she explains. They send a message that an area must be really dangerous. What was needed was to help the parents to let go and stop worrying. One design intervention DOC students came up with was a GPS tracker housed in girls’ bike keys. This allowed parents to keep tabs on their daughters’ whereabouts, thus increasing their sense of security.

At TEDxHagueAcademy, we’ll hear Winthagen’s ideas worth spreading on design as a tool to create a more secure society. “I’m a catalyst,” she says. “What I do is bridge the idea world with the physical world.”


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