John Caserta
A reading and assignment given to graduate students at N.C. State in mid-March 2017. This page contains 440 words and is filed under teaching

Mumford in the 21st Century

The world of technics itself must be transformed: salvation lies, not in the pragmatic adaptation of the human personality to the machine, but in the readaptation of the machine, itself a product of life’s needs for order and organization, to the human personality. — page 14 of Art & Technics

Former New Yorker architecture critic Lewis Mumford gave a series of lectures in the early 1950s titled Art & Technics. His thesis should be clear from the quote above – the eloquence of his argument itself a testament to his humanist beliefs. His criticism remains prescient, even if the specifics have changed. I would like you to read the chapter (lecture) from the volume that covers the history of printing as a way to understand mechanization’s relationship to handwork. It is called “From Handicraft to Machine Art” and starts on page 59 of this pdf.

The chapter, I believe, is appropriate for graphic designers today, who find themselves buoyed by platforms of technology a layer above printing. The 21st century designer must broker the needs of the machine — or system of machines. But on what value system are these platforms built? That of the machine (efficiency, predictability, etc) or of the person (in an idealized state, perhaps)? What is defining our profession that we don’t get to question?

Venice, California

When in Venice, California recently, I feasted on the latest works of great architects – the Broad, in particular. Contrast these rare feats with the humdrum of new residential buildings, which could be described as UX Modernism (see figure 1) — highly predictable, quickly produced and made as palatable to all involved. I discovered that many of the homes were made by leaders of the tech sector nearby in Silicon Beach. Are the factors that create generic contemporary buildings not dissimilar from the factors that make for generic user interface design? Is custom, hand-made design, impossible to manage on a large scale? What is the role of the machines (codebases, templates, rate of change, etc) in how we design? Is the history of Graphic Design no one of the history of machines – a profession defined by its departure from manual lettering?

During my visit to your class, I would like to show you how I’ve attempted to hold onto humanist values in my own work. Following this show and tell, I’d like to discuss how Mumford’s lecture applies to your work in school and beyond (if it does). Where do human values play into design? How do they come in conflict with the values of machines — and, now, automation? Are you excited about the role of machines in your work?

Index of everything


Interim Dean of Architecture + Design and formerly Department Head of the Graphic Design Department at Rhode Island School of Design. Founded The Design Office, a workspace for designers, in 2007, and ran it until its closing in 2021. Hear an interview that covers my teaching and design career. Read an overview of my work from The Noun Project. This site is updated regularly and outputs to a book with Bindery. Get in touch via email.