designed a masters thesis.
From 2015-2016, as a graduate student at The School of Visual Art’s MFA Products of Design program, I embarked 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. My research consisted of autobiographies of mafioso, books detailing grand diamond heists and a binge of great crime films.
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.
The best con men I wanted to learn from were the ones from movies. The Hollywood romanticism takes away from the harsh reality of con men being scammers, liars and assholes. They’re charming, persuasive, nonchalant and confident in their skills of stealth and trickery. Crime bosses hold an air of power and intimidation that sways people into doing deeds. Mobsters in films have an intense sense of honor towards their family and culture. They stick up for one another and boast their pride.
To take a look at the faces, characters, and personalities behind the film industry’s blockbuster heists, I designed a one day pop-up shop event called Masterminds: A Con Shop, where visitors can explore their own criminality and be rewarded for their misbehavior with gold and diamond pins relating to a scale of badassery. Visitors spilled stories of times they had cheated, forged, lied, or stolen things, but they had a kind of permission to do so since they were wearing movie-star face masks.
Since most criminal intention is about obtaining wealth through unethical practices, I wondered what couture brands might sell to high class criminals. Instead of selling shoes, handbags and jewelry, I designed weapons of crime through the lens of couture design. First there is the Prada Security Camera. High class criminals could flaunt their monitoring systems in their homes with glamour. Then I designed a Louis Vuitton knife as an aggressive accessory to carry around on daily commutes. I also thought about a Fendi gun and a Coco Chanel grenade as a way to embellish these violent tools. These tools begin to paint a hauntingly luxurious picture of a dystopia divided by class, corruption and anger.
Criminal masterminds are experts in tinkering and misusing everyday objects. In order to know how physical objects function, the masterminds first need to know how the objects were constructed. Then they can truly subvert the object’s original intention. Lockpicking would be the most common and obvious example of this. I imagined a lock pick puzzle box piggy bank for kids to learn lockpicking and to develop analog skills at a young age.
My puzzle box piggy bank is a blown up version of the pin, tumblers, and lock picks. It is a giant simplified wooden keyhole with hand held picks to push up wooden pins. The driver pins and key pins are two sets of wooden blocks, differing in size. Kids must drop the key pins into the shafts first and then drop the driver pins on top. This causes the puzzle box to lock. Kids use the picks to push up the key pins through the keyhole in order to get the gap between the key pins and driver pins to match the shear line. Once cleared, the plug can be turned and pulled out, revealing a secret compartment drawer.
Throughout my thesis, I wanted to create products for crime and stealth, being inspired from tools used by CIA agents, tricks of magicians and methods of the mafia. My rapid prototypes included creating my own secret code; making secret compartment stickers for hiding credit cards, keys and notes; sewing a security hood for obscuring surveillance cameras; and concepting online tools for encryption and anonymity in the digital world.