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Why inmates are good designers - interview with NICE Alumni Makeright

The project Makeright from London won the second prize of the NICE Award 2017. In the interview, the project responsibles Lorraine Gamman and Adam Thorpe report how they brought Design Thinking into prison.

© Makeright

Makeright uses a Design Thinking approach and develops anti-theft bags together with inmates. How was the idea for this project born?

Our work with the Socially Responsive Design and Innovation Hub at Central Saint Martins for over 10 years had drawn upon perpetrator techniques and knowledge gleaned from offenders to Design Against Crime. But we realised that this is not enough. Criminals are incredibly creative. An ATM distraction theft scam is a good piece of interaction design and a foil lined bag used for shop lifting a product design of sorts. Reducing opportunities for crime is a positive step but do not deter all those that are tempted to make a living from crime. Repeat offenders are part of the community/crime story too. So DACRC decided to address crime issues by involving inmates in delivering crime prevention through rehabilitative education... to draw on what we have called the “dark side of their creativity” (Gamman & Thorpe 2012) for positive ends to come up with new designs for products that protect users against crime and perhaps try and repair or make right past mistakes at the same time as finding ways to use their creativity in more constructive ways.

What kind of reactions do you get from the inmates?

It is best to let the inmate learners speak for themselves:

‘People show one another more respect. The atmosphere [in the Makeright Design Academy] is completely different to any other part of the prison [...] You can be who you are and not feel threatened’ Sam

'It helps broaden your mind [about the] things you want to do, even when you are released… jobs that you want to do, if you want to do courses like this or even go on to doing something else… [this] helps a lot. Think forward instead of going backwards.’ John

‘Yes, you are making an anti-theft bag but you are learning a lot of skills… and you are learning a lot of patience. Yes, a lot of patience! It’s giving me a purpose, a purpose to get on with life and focus on achieving stuff.’ Takka

We obtained the above comments because we made thirty interviews with inmates who attended Makeright (see: https://makerightorg.wordpress.com/interviews/).

In addition to making skills, inmates also told us that:

1. They found new ways of learning from the Makeright course

2. Makeright helped with development of cooperation and communication skills through working in groups.

3. Makeright design thinking approach helped some (though not all) with increased self-control and better problem-solving skills

4. Makeright helps develop skills to positively respond to criticism through learning how to iterate ideas visually more than once rather than giving or getting into a conflict, from the freedom of being able to have another go rather than being told first attempts were wrong.

5. By designing for others, inmates on Makeright said they learn a bit about the value of empathic understanding not just to design better products but also to aid better engagement with other inmates and perhaps eventually wider society.

Do you sell the bags? Where can we them and how do you want to scale up?

We sold the first range of bags via Sue Ryder charity shops in the UK (who receive profits). Able & Cole, an organic food supplier who gave us the lorry tarp we used to make the bags, were impressed with first range. They subsequently agreed to (i) fund us to supply bags to 70 Able & Cole customers before Christmas 2017 free of charge (see here: https://www.abelandcole.co.uk/blog/post/try-a-makeright-bag-for-us). Also, for their customers to (ii) share their user feedback some of which we are responding to in order to improve the designs. Abel & Cole also agreed when we were satisfied with the bags to (iii) sell the bags online via their website. We are currently finalising the improvements and hope to have them ready for sale via Able & Cole’s website in Summer 2018.

What impact did the NICE Award have on the project?

The NICE award has helped us to raise awareness for the project. The recognition for the project has encouraged and inspired the project team and partners and supports its credibility with those that are unfamiliar with the project. Specifically the award has enabled us to start a discussion with our partners about setting up Makeright as a formal charity. So instead of giving the profits from the bags to Sue Ryder, we hope in future to be able to use any profits for sales to give some loan support to returning citizens who contributed to Makeright in prison, and who might want to set up self-employed opportunities. It has also enabled us to explore alternative routes to market that may support ‘open’ manufacture of Makeright designs.

Is the idea transferable to other products and target groups? Why?

We hope so. There are many products inside and outside of the prison environment that inmates may co-design as ‘lead users’ but we want to sell the bags for 12 months and see what happens to be sure of “proof of concept”.

Makeright won the NICE Award 2017. Please find all winners here.