You’ve probably heard the reports, about how many times a day each of us appear on security cameras. Yes, they are definitely watching us, but are you paying any attention to them?
Probably not, why should you? They tend to be heavily industrialized design; function first, stand up to the elements, look authoritative, instill fear and/or security.
I suppose some are more attractive than others, perhaps they differ from one another in the way that mid-size cars do. Slight variations on a theme, none really stand out. None appear to embrace design beyond functionality.
But, no longer. Designers are always hungry for new challenges. Dutch Railways asked the Amsterdam-based design firm Fabrique to re-envision security cameras.
They’re modern, sleek, a clear departure from former authoritarian, big brother design. They might make you smile at their charm and wit, and perhaps even warmth. Like the little robot in the Pixar movie WALL-E.
And impressions have been changed.
With the new cameras in place, people feel 3% safer. They feel 22% less creepy. And find the new cameras drastically more beautiful.
Even the design community has responded enthusiastically.
Yes, it LOOKS a lot more friendly, but is it?
Yes, you can IMAGINE it is no longer a grumpy fat security guard watching your every move. You can IMAGINE that he has been replaced by a good, friendly and presumably much more handsome cop.
Have fun with your fantasy.
Design fulfills many functions, from pure aesthetic pleasure, to sheer functionality and everything in between. It solves problems, it makes things easier and clearer, it expresses a culture and a moment. It changes perceptions. Design and branding participate in this goal to change perceptions, we do that here everyday, or try. But we also strive to maintain a high degree of authenticity, and ensure that the brand reflects something genuine about our culture here at SAP.
And that’s what makes these cameras so unnerving, to me at least. Because they are ambiguous design that only inspires ambivalence. Former designs were indeed ugly, but they disclosed something ugly about the security state/culture we live in. And there is something beautiful in design that doesn’t mask this.
While the Fabrique design is undeniably cute and evokes warm emotional reactions, there is something sinister about this tactic. It is like if the National Security Administration adopted a teddy bear as a mascot. The design of the new cameras masks their intent. They may serve to change impressions of our security apparatus but do nothing to change the reality. And by not addressing our ambivalent relationship to security as a form of protection and simultaneously an invasion of our privacy by agencies with little responsibility to others than secret courts, the design is more than frivolous decorating; it becomes a tactic of the security apparatus itself.
I much prefer the work of FRONT404, a Dutch duo of artists consisting of Thomas voor ‘t Hekke and Bas van Oerle. On tuesday the 25th of June, surveillance cameras in the center of the city of Utrecht were decorated with colorful party hats to celebrate the 110th birthday of George Orwell. This intervention made the usually inconspicuous and ignored cameras into a poignant reminder of how often our activities are observed daily, and connected that to the prophetic vision of Big Brother in Orwell’s book 1984. The festive hats revealed how un-festive the whole security enterprise is.