Sunday, November 20, 2011

If Dieter Rams Did Security

You’ve probably never heard of Dieter Rams. He’s not a security guy and to the best of my knowledge he never worked for a humanitarian organization. But there's a good chance you know his work.

Rams was the head product designer for Braun from 1961 to 1995. He designed coffee makers, clocks, radios, razors, tooth brushes, and a host of other consumer products for the German company. His functional and aesthetic designs won him many awards and accolades. He also inspired several generations of industrial designers, including Apple’s Jonathan Ive, who credited Rams’ design philosophy for such iconic products as the iPod, iPhone, and post-1997 desktop and laptop Macintoshes.

Rams came up with 10 principles of good design that are widely taught in universities and are adhered to by product designers who appreciate his "less, but better" approach. Interestingly enough, these same principles can be applied outside of design to other disciplines - including humanitarian safety and security.

Here's my own take on adapting Rams' 10 principles for good design to the practice of NGO security (I’ve switched out the word “security” for his original “design" and added a bit of commentary).

Good security is innovative - Many NGOs fall victim to the “that’s the way we always do it around here” syndrome. Good security practitioners are intellectually curious, and look outside the humanitarian space, and even the broader security field, for new ways of better reducing risk. Innovation should constantly be sought, with an eye kept out for complacency so you can avoid it at all cost.

Good security makes a product useful - In this principle, Rams espoused that form follows function (usability should come before appearance). From a safety and security standpoint, this means ensuring that what you do is in fact useful for staff. All too often there's a tendency to implement policies and procedures, make recommendations, and give trainings without much thought given to the implications and whether it is indeed useful.

Good security is aesthetic - When it comes to safety and security, I don’t believe enough attention is paid to aesthetics. Simple things like using legible type faces and sizes in a report, minimizing the amount of text and number of bullet items in a PowerPoint presentation, ensuring a hazard warning in an office is large enough and easy to understand. You don't need to be an artist or graphic designer to think aesthetically; most everyone naturally recognizes good design. People appreciate aesthetics and it catches their attention; probably because there is so much bad design in the world.

Good security makes a product understandable - It’s essential that people know the reasons why security policies and procedures are put in place. If staff doesn't understand why you ask them to do something, there's less chance of compliance. There's also less of a chance of them creatively problem solving if they need to because they don't have a basic level of understanding about a threat or vulnerability.

Good security is unobtrusive - Ideally, safety and security should be part of an organization's culture and blend into the background. This principle also applies to maintaining a low profile for staff, vehicles, and office facilities in some contexts.

Good security is honest - Security for security's sake is not honest. For example, many security professionals feel that the TSA's airport passenger screening process does little to truly reduce a terrorist threat and is more "security theater" than anything else. Practicing good and honest security means always being frank and candid about issues with management and staff members.

Good security is long lasting - Good security seeks to be sustainable. That means weaving it throughout an organization's culture so safety and security practices aren't seen as separate but instead are viewed as part of the whole.

Good security is thorough down to the last detail - There’s an old Japanese saying that goes, “Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.” Pay attention to details! It's usually a cascading series of small events that eventually lead up to a serious incident.

Good security is environmentally friendly - I’ve only met a few security practitioners who think about environmental impact. People don't ask questions like: What’s the carbon footprint of international travel (can meetings or assessments be done virtually)? What happens to plastic water bottles after they’re used? Does it make more sense to use rechargeable batteries in a guard’s flashlight rather than disposable ones? Is a PDF version of a security manual just as effective as a printed one? Degrading the environment leads to human suffering. If you work for a humanitarian organization it doesn't make sense to be doing things that contribute to the problem.

Good security is as little security as possible - This principle has a Zen quality to it. You should be striving for Goldilocks "just right" security, which is just enough to get the job effectively done. It’s easy to go overboard (or underboard) on safety and security, depending on the situation, and you should always be mindful of that tendency.

For a great interview with Dieter Rams, not about security, including photos of his work, go here.



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