High-profile criminals
A column by Erlhoff Michael
Sep 5, 2016
We are familiar with them primarily from TV series, since it is there that they most frequently appear where such series concern serial offenders (who are surprisingly infrequently women). They are known as “profilers”. They are the types who generally use paltry psychological knowledge and a basis of statistical data to design profiles of perps so that they can be caught all the more quickly by the other forces in the police. Occasionally, however, they are called upon to prevent heinous crimes. Currently, for example, these profilers are in great demand in light of chaotic terrorism. Likewise for prevention – only they frequently fail as a result of the truly chaotic situation.

The existence of this profession of drafting profiles in the context of crimes in any case goes back to a remarkable history. The word comes (as so often in our culture) from Latin, in which “filus” refers to a yarn or thread, from which the Italian word “profilare” developed, namely the action of tracing or outlining something. Initially it was fortresses and fortification systems that were originally supposed to have been conceived in this way, i.e. in line with military aspects. It was only at the end of the 16th and 17th centuries that this approach to defining something was transformed into the representation of the human head.

This may be familiar to some of you from the world of tourism, where artists sometimes offer to draw the outline of a person’s head for a certain sum of money; further back in time this was done similarly but instead of with a pen or a paintbrush a thread was used, which was stitched onto paper or textile or affixed in some other way. What may seem to be harmless fun for the memory of the person portrayed, however, unfortunately points to the malevolent legitimation of such acts. After all, the profile as a sketched outline of the human head invoked or itself developed an almost scientific justification: physiognomy.

The latter discipline refers to the purported ability to distinguish fundamental characteristics for the relevant psychological formation of the person identified through the shape of the head and particularly the face. One simply searched for indicators or claimed they were there in order to reveal the human being. Then, during the mid-18th century, this was once again given a radical spin by an alleged philosopher by the name of Lavater, as he now sorted the system into philological grids (“grid investigation”) and claimed to be able to thus draw clear conclusions about the relevant persons. He also invented the “endomorph” and the other types.
Now, before we civilized beings reject this idea out of hand, we might want to consider just how much such physiognomies continue to mislead us into prejudices. Even today, the “high brow” is considered intelligent, and the “low brow” thought foolish, while smaller ear lobes are a sign of deceitfulness and big eyes reveal a person’s openheartedness and reliability – and the list can be continued. In fact we all still judge people this way, albeit subconsciously. The always very insightful, but sadly now deceased designer Jörg Zintzmeyer once said very convincingly: “You never get a second chance for a first impression”.

All this is no different to what those profilers are still doing, albeit with the help of a great deal more data. Their task is to construct the mindset and character of the perps behind extremely heinous crimes and to develop possible scenarios for such crimes. Hence this profession takes note of appearance, clothing, language, word formations, friendships, correspondence or even what a person reads and has read, what he eats, what his parents and childhood were like and so on. Using all this data (digitalization now helps a great deal), somehow conceivable “pigeonholes” are created into which possible perps can be slotted, in order to subsequently search for such characters. In this way, the profilers are true philologists, indeed people who believe in the logic of derivation and in “knowledge” (it’s not for nothing that “ledge” is part of this word, since that which one purports to know must be categorized and sorted onto the right “shelf”).

The key trope in this process (which is actually very much bound up with the Anglo-Saxon notion of philosophy) is the construct of a “persona”. Originally this category was based on how one sounded, but now the idea is to assign the diversity of people and their forms of behavior to specific pigeonholes and on that basis purposefully try and track them down. Of course we all know the colloquial notion of “person” and use it to somehow neutralize the human being in question. In everyday life “person” denotes arbitrariness.

The situation is very different in police work, however, and remarkably also in marketing and design. In these three specialist areas “personas” abound constantly and so does the incorrect use of the plural. Such as: “Lisa, 23 years old, German, heavyset, likes dancing and particularly likes to buy shoes”, or “Kurt, 50 years old, Austrian, does a lot of sport and has a disability as a result”; or “Eva, 44 years old, Italian, likes cooking and eating, still reads books and dresses very well”, and so on. Of course other criteria are added too, and the profiling professionals attempt to pinpoint such profiles in psychological key words and to illustrate them too. Admittedly, in presentations and publications this all appears simply ridiculous. Especially since further processes are usually then triggered in which such “personas” appear, act and perhaps also link up with others.

This is all so laughable because these “pigeonholes” are created entirely helplessly in order to tear open some kind of commonplaces that were merely supposedly researched, from which perpetrator profiles can then be derived. And it is in these pigeonholes that the desperate hunt for the possibly guilty begins. All this revels in abstraction and in the comfort it affords us in the assurance that we actually already know everything and we can then simply begin the hot pursuit. – Just as a quick aside: All this undoubtedly also has a fair amount to do with racism and points back, for example, to that madness in the United States that causes the police to shoot and kill more people who appear to be from ethnic minorities than they do WASPs.

Admittedly all this is not new. But in light of a society that is evidently becoming ever more chaotic, in which the traditional notions of “target groups” have come unstuck, and neither sales nor criminality appear to be easily controllable, new paths are now presumably being quite desperately tried. And that’s how the criminological profilers are making it into marketing and design.

Or so promises the “Design Research & Design Strategy Conference” scheduled to take place on September 22, 2016, in Hamburg in the premises of “iF” (“iF” is a limited company that offers design prizes and is linked to the Hanover Messe exhibition center). It is initiated and supported by certain agencies such as “INDEED Innovation” and “mc markt-consult”.

The high point of this conference, and something that has been brought clearly to the fore in some of the publicity, is namely a real “profiler” from – and we are all familiar with this from the movies – the FBI. In real life, not a TV series, but live in Hamburg. Mark Safarik, criminal profiler for the FBI. He will give the keynote speech after the coffee break on the subject of “Using Criminal Profiling for Innovation Development”, and also leads the workshop “Profiling & Persona Development”. Of course, we should have realized, when marketing and design have run out of ideas, it’s time to bring in the police. Not just anyone from the police, but the most notorious from the country that loves order and loves its guns even more. It makes for great cinema.

So this is how, in this context, one can hunt down people, attempt to categorize them again and again in order to then capture them, contain them and to stuff them into cells in which they should then buy and think. With only bread and water any other even banal consumer good becomes a luxury.

Nevertheless, those who are organizing and supporting the event have grasped one small thing: When they are supposed to merely purchase and consume, people suddenly become perpetrators themselves. They are no longer mere target groups, which you can and should simply address, but become much more active figures. This is theoretically very insightful, in that it shows an ultimate understanding that the acts of purchasing and likewise consumption are examples of activities that are undertaken not passively but actively.
However, it’s simply stupid to then pursue these actors as perpetrators and if possible launch the manhunt for them in order merely to then be able to lynch them again. Nor does this benefit the company at all; at most, it benefits the relevant agencies who attempt to sell something like that profitably, and the FBI. Yet it does highlight the currently abominable helplessness even of the American police and the failures of those companies who wrongly suppose they can calculate everything in advance, the simply pathetic dimension of profiling. Given the social reality which, for a multitude of reasons, is becoming ever more chaotic and in which people may have an entirely different profile depending on the time of day – and in any case considering the extremely limited reach of such profile formations – all this is revealed to be utter folly, when what is really needed is an understanding of how to best deal with chaotic structures and intense confusion. The now solely religious delusion that there are certain guiding principles and definitions which emerge quite literally from some kind of end, has long been obsolete and grasps nothing. Instead, everyone (and this includes companies and, in any case, designers or even politicians and criminals) must learn to deal productively with uncertainties, errors and surprises and to embrace these, if the following word makes any sense, as a source of “innovation”.

Just a quick closing remark for the sake of preempting any misunderstanding: Of course it is pleasing to see how design research has largely developed very intelligently and that finally even companies (incidentally not yet the still very one-dimensionally thinking German Research Foundation/DFG) are picking up on the huge power and competence of design research. By way of a reminder: When, a little more than ten years ago, the “German Society for Design Theory and Research/DGTF” was founded, it caused a great deal of misunderstanding both in the business world and in the design scene itself. Now design research is gaining acceptance at an international level, but as so frequently happens in the process of recognition and general social dissemination, it is quickly being reconstructed into a mere tool, simplified and oriented towards rapid practical application.

This is regrettable for both sides. For business and for society, because only open and serious design research can really offer new and realistic insights and perspectives and can actually present this even, or indeed specifically, when this does not appear to be the case; for design research itself, its simple adoption as a mere auxiliary science is a tragedy, as this route of pallid absorption inevitably leads to a loss of expertise and pertinacity.

At the same time (and some in design research have still not lost justified self-confidence and corresponding foresight), it is through this research that fundamental insights can be and are being conveyed – for example living and acting with contradictions – not just for design, but likewise for the social mind and for business as a whole. After all, the result of serious research is very often contradictions and an understanding of how to deal with contradictions sensibly and productively. What’s required is really no longer the simple solutions – and nothing else but these are offered by such foolish profilers, albeit also with brutal consequences – but an insight into problems and the entirely new thoughts to be developed from this for a vibrant present and future.

Whereby, and I say this by way of a reminder, design research gains its particular quality from the fact that it always takes an interdisciplinary and very upfront approach, so that research into consumption can likewise be stimulated along with that into of new materials, media and new connections, into changed social correspondences and the analysis of social and thus also economic processes and social ties or even different genders and their demands. This always implies truly qualitative, open and entirely tangible research.
Profilers have absolutely nothing to do here, since outside the TV series they are mere failures, even if “Time Online” quoted the FBI as long ago as March 26, 2014, recommending we should learn how to succeed from the way they deal with hostages. So that’s the way to see yourself in the office, imprisoning the buyer. Or at least that’s how it is in Hollywood.

Michael Erlhoff

He is an author, design theorist, corporate consultant, curator and organizer; he has been, among other things, CEO of the German Design Council, Advisory Council member of documenta 8 and Founding Dean (and until 2013 professor at) of the Köln International School of Design/KISD. Erlhoff was founder of the Raymond Loewy Foundation, is a founding member of the German Society of Design Theory and Research and as a visiting professor heads projects and workshops at universities in Tokyo, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong, New York and Sydney. Starting this year, he has been honorary professor at the Braunschweig University of Art.