Influence of Humanism on Design

Humanism is “any system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values, and dignity predominate”. It’s an ethical theory that places the importance of autonomy, reason, question, advancement, and fulfillment above the belief in God.[1] Classical architecture and philosophy in the era of religious importance was considered unacceptable because of pagan origins and rejection of faith-based logic. The Enlightenment period challenged religion in truth and thought, and there was a rediscovery of the classical with a focus on secularism, proportions, and experience: foundations of humanism.[2] Humans found a renewed confidence in determining truth for themselves through reason and science in lieu of supernaturalism.[3] Humanism can be found within design based on its beginnings on discovering proportions through the study of the human body, leading to ergonomic design. The philosophy also lead changes in design based on changes in human rights.

One of the first humanists in the early period of the movement was Palladio, who based his designs on the Vitruvian proportion of the human body. Vitruvius states “since nature has designed the human body so that its members are duly proportioned to the frame as a whole, [therefore] in perfect buildings, the different members must be in exact symmetrical relations to the whole general scheme.”[4] Palladio continued his values without regard for human needs however, designing “villas of a very similar type and morphology, which can be qualified as [an] exploration of the same building form,”[5] regardless of the requirements of programming. He also “tended to disregard the context in which is designs were placed.”[6] So despite designing based on human proportions, his designs would be considered unethical in today’s standards.

That is because humanism had largely shifted from proportion to human rights, especially through the industrial revolution. Industrialization was mostly focused on the increase of profit and commercialization with little regard to humanity and what betterment of mankind it could bring.[7] Ethical concerns for quality and standards of living began to impact design, as with industrialization came dehumanization. The Arts and Crafts movement came as a response with the idea that hand-made goods were made of better quality and more ethical due to craftsmanship removed the man from the factory, where the potential for death or injury was part of the job.[8]

Human rights concerns continue through today, as not every country values quality of life due to corruption, greed, and gluttony of their governments and the rich. Worker deaths continue today because of a profit-over-worker mentality, and there are still casualties within the construction industry. The construction’s ‘fatal four’ causes of death or injury can be prevented if architects and construction managers hold higher standards of protection when constructing their buildings. In 2015 there were 4,379 worker fatalities in the private industry, with 21.4% in construction, 364 of them were caused by falls.[9] OSHA is the leading Department of Labor organization that puts construction workers lives first, being an advocate for humanism in today’s society.

What humanism remains that focuses on the human proportion can be categorized through ergonomic design and universal design that pull human proportion and human concerns back into design. Universal design puts human proportion on an ethical scale, including principle seven, size and space for approach and use, that provides guidelines to “make reach all components comfortable for any seated or standing user” and “provide adequate space for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance”.[10] Architects are encouraged to incorporate universal design techniques in today’s designs, so that all persons of all shapes, sizes, colors, and abilities are able to navigate the built environment.

Bibliography / Footnotes:

[1] “humanism”. Unabridged. Random House, Inc. Web. <>.

[2] Kreis, Steven. “Renaissance Humanism.” The History Guide. Web. <>

[3] Edwords, Fred. “What Is Humanism?” American Humanist Association. American Humanist Association, n.d. Web. <>.

[4] Vitruvius, Pollio “On Symmetry: In Temples and in the Human Body.” The Ten Books on Architecture. Web. <>

[5] Mitrovic, Branko. Philosophy for Architects. New York, NY. Princeton Architectural Press. 2011

[6] Mitrovic, Branko. Philosophy for Architects. New York, NY.  Princeton Architectural Press. 2011

[7] Plowright, Philip. Module 9. Design Theory. Lawrence Technological University. Lecture. Web.

[8] Plowright, Philip. Module 9. Design Theory. Lawrence Technological University. Lecture. Web.

[9] OSHA. “Commonly Used Statistics.” OSHA. Occupational Safety and Health Administration | United States Department of Labor, 2016. Web. <>.

[10] Connell, Bettye R; Jones, Mike; et all. The Principles of Universal Design. The Center for Universal Design NC State University. 1997. Web <>

Class: Design Theory, Master of Architecture, Lawrence Technological University

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *