John Caserta
Fall 2017 elective at Rhode Island School of Design, Graphic Design Department. This page contains 1,246 words and is filed under teaching

The Web & Democracy

Is the Internet making the world a better place or is it simply remaking the world – peacefully transferring capital from 20th century corporations to 21st century ones? If the digital space is becoming primary, then who is tending to the systems of self-government, defined so articulately in the age of Enlightenment?

This Web research elective asks students to design tools that further the public’s interest online. Can the Web – designed as an open and free medium – reinvigorate our investment in public space and the public good? Students will work together to engage politicians, non-profits, and fellow citizens in the pursuit of these questions.

Assignments will range from Web tools that serve democracy to civic fundraising to information dissemination. Class deliverables will be a combination of prototypes, presentations and coded mini-sites. Students will develop the parameters for the final project and work in teams. Outside collaborators and readings will enrich the conversation and the work. No previous web experience required, but Web Programming workshop strongly encouraged.

Course particulars

  • Fall 2017, Mondays, 8am—1pm, D.C. # 404
  • Instructor: John Caserta,
  • Office hours, Tue/Thur 9:30a-12p, D.C. # 704
  • GRAPH 3173, 3 credit elective
  • –

Learning Objectives

  • To put the Web in service of the common good instead of the marketplace
  • To gain skills in Sketch, HTML/CSS and user-centered design methods
  • To encourage better citizenry
  • To better understand how organizations work and who they serve
  • Be empowered to participate in the the web and in public


Outside class activities

  • Cynthia Smith, CooperHewitt Curator, at Better World By Design
  • Thursday, October 5, City Council Meeting at 7pm, City Hall
  • City Tree plantings, Saturdays in October, TBD

Key Bibliography

  • Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody
  • By The People, Building a Better America, CooperHewitt
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract
  • Bonnie Honig, Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair


  • How do people organize themselves?
  • Activity: What groups do you belong to?

Unit 1: What is public?

Every group shares objects, space, etc — a resource is called ‘public’ when it refers to something state-owned. How the group manages its resources and tends to what is common is critical to the vitality of the group. Democracy is an ideal system of government, but it is rarely justly applied. Who occupies public space in the U.S. has always been contentious. And how many of the institutions we deem public are still publicly owned and managed? This unit seeks to understand the state of our public possessions, in Providence specifically, and a desire to invest everyone within them. An abandonment of what is public is an abandonment of what holds the group together.

  • Where is the public? Lecture and city tour.
  • Assignment 1
  • Guests: Ryan Laughlin, Danny Chapman

Unit 2: From private to public

Capitalism and democracy are strange bedfellows. Capitalism collects wealth and power, with that power seeking growth at all costs. In this unit, we seek how to divert our consumptive and creative attention away from private interests to the common good – to public interests. What can be learned from the tremendous innovation being funded by the private sector? How might innovations meant for ease and commerce be diverted into the social good in the form of tools, systems, and the like?

Project Two

Visit the Providence City Council and propose a project based on the meeting. There are many things you could do (from augmented reality layers, to getting more people to attend, etc). Given the unit quesetion, consider how what the private sector has learned might work for the public.


Unit 3: Digital to physical

Can the Web, a “fast” medium (low effort, high volume), lead to “slower” more meaningful interactions/investments from constituents? In other words, how might the Web get someone off their screen and put their body alongside of others? Can the Web encourage participation from communities that tend to not participate in governance?

Unit 4: Discussion, Conversation and Debate

140 characters plus the like button have destroyed debate on the Internet. Early blogging felt more like publishing. How do we of differing opinions discuss now? How do you change someone’s mind? Can the Web facilitate this discussion, perhaps make the face-to-face discussion more palatable when it does happen. How do concerns over privacy affect free and open discussion?

Unit 5: Open Assignment

The class will hone in on three to four projects. Discuss/vote and work in teams to scope and execute the project. The project should address the basic question: how can the web ameliorate democracy: to inform people, to encourage elevated discussion, participation… all the issues we’ve discussed over the semester. We will also discuss how to put together projects from the semester into a website for distribution.

Class review on Week 12: Dec 4, 2017; Project delivery by Dec 11, 2017

Grading / Assessment

Grades from A to F will be given at the end of the semester with the below criteria. This course is a required course that is seeking a certain level of competency with typography. The criteria above is meant to assess as objectively as possible a student’s proficiency in typography.

  • Attendance (3rd absence fails the course)
  • Participation to website and in class
  • Motivation/Attitude
  • Craftsmanship
  • Depth of investigation
  • Risk taking
  • Teamwork and individual growth

Diversity / Civility / Citizenship

No learning can truly occur without accepting each other’s differences — those that we inherit and those that we choose. This course, this Department and this College thrive on self-expression. Students and faculty should feel comfortable using art and design as a means to understand themselves and their work. It is everyone’s responsibility to create an atmosphere of civility.

Additionally, work in Design Center. Contributing to studio culture is an important part of being part of a community. Figure out ways to show your work to your peers between classes, whether informally or at certain points. You will learn as much from each other as you will from your teachers — there are 15 of you after all!

Collaboration / Plagiarism / Appropriation

All work is built upon other work; whether explicitly or not. In this course, there will be opportunities to work with your classmates to build something that is shared. Particularly with many deadlines and when learning a new skill, other people’s work may offer a pathway forward. What you do with what you see is important and can be the difference between riffing, appropriating, copying and stealing. As a general rule of thumb, if you see something you are excited about (in class or outside), understand the context in which it was made. What was the design responding to, communicating, and to whom. A deeper understanding of other people’s work generally produces additional ideas, realizations and starts to “fork” the idea (thank you, Github). It’s rare that your design problem is exactly like someone else’s. It is rare that you share the same values, interests, skills, as someone else. Referencing another person’s work can make sense (logo parodies, etc) if that fits your concept. In a school environment it’s best to check in with your teacher to see how to best make your own work truly your own.

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.