As a graduate student at The School of Visual Art’s MFA Products of Design program, I had the opportunity to embark on a one-year thesis exploration on a topic of my choosing. In a quest to become braver, riskier and bolder, I decided to study the creativity in being a criminal mastermind. At the completion of my Master’s Thesis, I produced a 25,000 word book detailing my process and projects. The book is available for purchase on Blurb.
When I refer to criminal masterminds, I am alluding to a romaticized sector of criminals whom I believe to be creative experts at breaking the rules. In crime films like The Italian Job (2003), the audience roots for a crew of criminals planning an intricate revenge heist to steal back gold. The stories of Frank Abagnale Jr., as told in Catch Me If You Can (2002), portray an amazing con-man and check forger. And it’s crazy how the godfathers of Italian mafias or oyabun (bosses) of the Japanese Yakuza can run large-scale illegal operations while managing to keep their businesses secret from authorities. In The Right Way to Do Wrong, magician Harry Houdini claimed, “Some of the brightest brains and keenest minds belong to professional criminals. They live by their wits and must needs keep those wits sharp and active.” It takes high levels of leadership, wisdom, and talent to manage large criminal enterprises. As terrifying as they may seem, criminals like these deserve praise for their ingenuity.
Through my journey, I started to argue that criminal masterminds are better at being creative than the majority of designers in today’s market. They are con artists who persuade victims into giving up money and valuables. They are craftsmen and tinkerers who decipher the mechanics of systems to break them. They are hackers who write inventive code to go around highly secured firewalls and cartel kingpins who can run a business as effectively as CEOs of major corporations. Although criminal masterminds have harmful intentions, they are uniquely creative because they engage in risk-taking and rule-breaking. In order to achieve critical and strategic design that betters society, designers cannot only employ traditional design thinking strategies — they must also employ a criminal mindset. If designers today want to do good, they must first learn how to be bad.