“The iPhone is the New Model T”—It Will Either Separate or Bring Us Together

For Centennial Voices, part of AIGA's Centennial celebration of the past, present and future of design, we've invited industry leaders to write short essays that spark conversations within the design community and beyond by sharing personal experiences, reflecting on design history, examining the practice today or imagining the role of designers in the years to come.

Information designer and educator John Caserta reflects on the past hundred years that led up to today’s most galvanizing design, and how we can use it to shape the hundred years to come.

In 2007, I left the solitude of a home practice and founded The Design Office, a shared workspace in downtown Providence, Rhode Island. I was looking for a community of like-minded, independent practitioners and wasn’t finding one through online groups and coffee-shop dates. And in the seven years since establishing the Office, there’s an identifiable community of designers. This community has been built through consistent physical interactions at the bookshelves, in the kitchen, around shared tables, with the tools and by doing the work itself—whether in collaboration or just in close proximity. For more than thirty members, The Design Office has been a place worth going to every morning.

If you were to look down from the third-floor window of The Design Office 100 years ago, you would have seen a lively street culture. People were everywhere: walking, riding streetcars, at newspaper stands, in bank lobbies, in open-air carriages and standing on the sidewalk talking (as evidenced by the photograph directly below from The Library of Congress). The Providence downtown of 1914 was a model of a thriving public space.

 Courtesy of The Library of Congress

The century that followed was the age of the automobile, which atomized the city center in favor of individual spaces. As I consider our field during AIGA’s centennial year, I believe the iPhone is the new Model T – an invention that promises great freedom, but often times separates us from those immediately around us. The car is a physical separator, and the smartphone is a temporal one: you’re no longer guaranteed a shared attention space when you’re inches away from someone.


Le Corbusier’s Contemporary City, 1922

Architects and politicians, seduced by the ideals of the automobile, gutted the infrastructure of many American cities in the 20th century. Seeing how difficult it‘s been to reinvigorate the public space in Providence, we designers need to take more than a celebratory or evolutionary view of the smartphone. It’s a device that can lead to many possible futures, most likely dystopic ones like those portrayed in Spike Jonze’s Her or Pixar’s Wall-E.

If critically engaged, the smartphone could facilitate authentic human connection in the same physical and attention space. There are many ways to initiate these connections: through speculative design, by reframing commissions, through pedagogy and by how we structure our work environments. We need design that gathers people. We need design that spurs discussion. We need design that encourages us to look in all directions – not just down.

If we become further individualized, how will we unite over the great challenges that will inevitably face our society? Common space does not need to look the same as it did 100 years ago, but it must exist somewhere. The interface design that’s most needed in the next century is the kind that brings people back together.

John Caserta is founder and director of The Design Office and the Head of the Graphic Design Department at The Rhode Island School of Design. john@thedesignoffice.org

About the Author:

John is an information designer, Assoc. Professor at RISD and founder/director of The Design Office