Apr 18 2012

Massimo And Lella Vignelli: Designs That Will Outlive Mankind

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There are two major things that had to be overcome in writing this spotlight on Massimo and Lella Vingnelli: One was how to approach the subjects in a different way as they’ve had so much written about them. Two, as with writing about other designers who are still living, one runs the risk of being told by them that the article is wrong or even worse, moronic. Admittedly, I’m more concerned about the first as the second is nothing new to my writing career.

As with my other spotlights on designers who greatly influenced or keep on influencing our industry, I’m interested in WHY they took the path that set them apart from other designers and HOW they can change the way designers think and create. It’s about inspiration. Their example is not one of purposeful self-important and self-initiated public relations – I refuse to write about those who practice such conceit to make up for lack of talent. It was pure talent and creativity that brought Vignelli Design into the public eye.

Pure Talent

“Pure,” as defined by the dictionary is:

  • Free from what vitiates, weakens, or pollutes.
  • Containing nothing that does not properly belong.
  • Being nonobjective and to be appraised on formal and technical qualities only.

“Pure talent?” That’s too abstract a concept. It’s Vignelli’s own words that best explains the success of his work: “We have to make a distinction between design and art. If you are an artist, you can do anything you want. It’s perfectly all right. Design serves a different purpose. If in the process of solving a problem you create a problem, obviously, you did not design.” (From an interview in Print magazine – 1991)


The Vignellis’ office in New York City. Simple, clean and… pure.


Massimo Vignelli at work. There’s something I don’t trust about a designer having an uncluttered desk! ;)

“Whatever we do, if not understood, fails to communicate and is wasted effort. We design things which we think are semantically correct and syntactically consistent but if, at the point of fruition, no one understands the result, or the meaning of all that effort, the entire work is useless. Sometimes it may need some explanation but it is better when not necessary. Any artifact should stand by itself in all its clarity. Otherwise, something really important has been missed.”

Vignelli was also driven by the notion of timelessness. On this he said: “You can reach timelessness if you look for the essence of things and not the appearance. The appearance is transitory — the appearance is fashion, the appearance is trendiness — but the essence is timeless.”

A Little History

Massimo Vignelli and his wife Lella, both designers, ran a successful design firm in Milan, Italy before coming to New York City in 1966 to start the New York branch of a new company, Unimark International. This quickly became one of the largest design firms in the world. When commuting back and forth became too much, they decided to make New York their home. In 1971, they founded Vignelli Associates.

It’s important to look at America at the time they arrived to make their mark on the design scene. The Vietnam War was in full swing and America was changing. It was the hippies vs. the conservative establishment, acid rock vs. bubblegum rock, and society was evolving. The Vignellis’ European sensibilities were to offer design America had not really experienced. Obviously it was successful and became a driving force in design that others would follow.

My First Exposure to Vignelli

Growing up in New York wasn’t easy. The subway map alone was a diagram of the human circulatory system, and as confusing to an adult as it was to me as a child. Foreign tourists and diehard New Yorkers alike all had to brave the death-inviting move of asking someone if they were on the correct train to their destination.

Vignelli’s now-classic New York City subway map was first introduced in 1972, following his work on the signage system in the late 1960s. Inspired by London’s Underground map (designed by Harry Beck in 1933—which was inspired by electrical circuit diagrams) Vignelli simplified New York’s complex, twisting, winding subway system into a clean graphic. “A different color for each line, a dot for every station. No dot, no station. Very simple. The whole map is designed on a 45/90 degrees grid with geographic distortions to accommodate the lines,” recalls Vignelli in his book, “From A to Z.”

It’s alleged that New Yorkers didn’t take to the design because it didn’t give an accurate representation of the distances the trains had to travel, borough to borough. The present map has returned to that pre-Vignelli jumble of veins and arteries; and despite the supposed dislike to Vignelli’s cleaner interpretation of the whole mess, other designers keep trying to reintroduce the same effective graphic that Vignelli had designed. Nothing is better then letting time vindicate your actions and beliefs!


A section of the 1979 subway map that replaced the Vignelli design, returning to the jumble of which Vignelli sought to make sense and order. Once again, people entered subway stations and were never seen again! Note how it includes surface streets, parks and sections of the continental shelf.


The 2011 map, returning to the idea that simple and clear is better. It stuck to the desire for realistic distances but got rid of the extraneous information that had nothing to do with the subway.

He is, however, still passionate about his design. “A diagram is a diagram. Don’t cheat me,” he is quoted as saying during an AIGA/NY event in 2010. Nothing burns the soul of a designer more than seeing a great design thrown away by non-creatives and those without the ability to understand how design affects people and products.

Listen to his thoughts about the map redesign and the problems he had to overcome…

In fact, if you look at the metro maps around the world, you’ll note that they all take inspiration from Vignelli’s design. I can only hope he smiles widely and thumbs his nose at his detractors.

Design Is Everything!

While other works by Vignelli may not be as public, you’ve probably seen and/or even lived with them, not knowing how this design team has affected you. Design is interesting because we use it everyday, in everything. To quote Vignelli from a 2007 article:

“Designers take care of everything around us. Everything that is around us, this table, this chair, this lamp, this pen has been designed. All of these things, everything has been designed by somebody.”

Have you flown anywhere lately? When you step aboard American Airlines, you are surrounded by Vignelli’s work. The 1967 redesign of the AA identity was pure Vignelli – simple, strong, functional and pleasing to the eye.

Do you eat? Could be you are using plates, glasses or mugs designed by Vignelli? The key to the design is usability. Plates, bowls, mugs and platters stack as opposed to the usual piling on as with most dish sets. It’s designed for function as well as form.


I don’t care how big your kitchen may be – these plates, bowls and platters are great design and real space savers!


The calendar designed by Vignelli has been around for longer than I can remember.

Crave any furniture designs lately? If not, you obviously haven’t seen any from the Vignellis. Anyone who appreciates great design will admire and almost certainly crave pieces either created by Vignelli or at least inspired by the duo.

“Here is an example of interaction between one field of design and another,” says Vignelli. “I call this the Bodoni Table, because the Bodoni typeface has big thick vertical strokes and very thin serifs, just as you see in this table.”

“This is a result of continuous cross-pollination between one experience and another. It is not true that if you’re a graphic designer, you can’t design furniture. You can design it, because design is one. The discipline of design is the same.”


Designed by Vignelli in the 1950s, this lamp is timeless. Function and form.

Print vs. Web

Naturally, like so many who have been in design for a time, Vignelli has an affinity for print. In a web culture, print, according to some, is a lost art and disappearing from our lives. Vignelli, among others, point to the permanence of print (as the couple’s personal library, pictured below, attests).

“We strongly believe in the permanence of the printed word as a witness to the culture of our time. Words and images interact to create feelings, to expand our perception, to enrich our knowledge.”

Of course, such passion for design understands web design and Vignelli has some advice that rings true…

Obviously, Massimo and Lella Vignelli look at all design challenges with the same dedication, and approach problem solving in the same logical way.

“Good design is a matter of discipline. It starts by looking at the problem and collecting all the available information about it. If you understand the problem, you have the solution. It’s really more about logic than imagination.” —New York Magazine Interview, 2007


A proposed redesign for The European Journal in 1978. Note how modern WordPress themes are similar in layout.

Another thought Mr. Vignelli has on print vs. web design is simple, yet all too true: “The computer is like a pencil. It is just a tool. The pencil is a submissive tool. Leave it there and the pencil is totally dead. It doesn’t offer anything; you have to guide it. But the computer is a seductive tool. It offers you incredible options, but your work can become a total disaster if you don’t have an idea to begin with.”

Lessons To Be Learned?

Like other designers who have practiced for decades, Massimo and Lella Vignelli offer lessons to all of us that we may not see right away. Let down your guard and preconceived notions on what is important in design and consider what the Vignellis have to teach us. The “WOW! Factor” we depend upon with computer programs and apps are no substitute for design basics. The basics are the foundation of all design.

I cheated the history of Vignelli Associates a bit for breavity at the beginning of this article. In an interview in Observatory, Mr. Vignelli relates the full story:

“We started the company with some friends here in the U.S., and we opened an office in New York. The person who was supposed to run the office got sick. I was in Milan at the time and I was commuting back and forth. I got tired of flying over twice a month, and so we decided to come over and run the office for a while and then go back. We’re still here after 40 years.”

This is a lesson in overcoming fear. Imagine moving to a new city, in a new country. What raw nerve that takes. I have several friends who moved from the U.S. to different countries in Europe and they were terrified. Excited but terrified.

The Vignellis accepted a challenge and met it head on with purpose, bravery and ended with great success. Should any simple design challenge frighten you? Not if you follow the design basics and build from there.


Massimo Vignelli with an uncut sheet of brochures, “Five Vignelli-isms” when he and Lella received The Architectural League President’s Medal “in recognition of a body of work so influential in its breadth that it has shaped the very way we see the world.” Note the advice in the Vignelli-isms!

Another admirable lesson is one that doesn’t come easy to most designers who do not wield the power Vignelli has. “I never work with middle management.” Says Vignelli. “Middle managers are dominated by fear of losing their job, and therefore they have no sense of risk. I always work with the top person, the president or the owner of a company. That’s it. Only the person at the top can take risk. He’s used to it. That is how he got to the position he is in. He understands what you are doing, and he doesn’t have to report to anybody. He makes his decision, and that’s the way it goes.”

How does one hope for the same power when starting out? The answer is you can’t, but you can try to seek out clients where you CAN work directly with the company owner as much as possible. You may be stuck with someone who says, “I’ll know what I like when I see it” but you may also find yourself working with someone who will trust your design ideas and give you free reign.

Mr. Vignelli, as all of the interviews with him seem to attest, worships purity in design (there’s that word again).  His focus is purposeful and without distraction of the thoughts too many designers have of how their design will be viewed by others. He knows his design is the best he can do and it leaves no doubts or regrets.

Sure with his career experience and decades of practice, he has nothing to doubt, but there’s a lesson for every designer no matter what level you’re at – focus on the design and not what peers will think. Please the client and yourself and in the end, your design will have the purity that will make it last.

So many designers yearn for recognition. They dream of being invited to the Oscars with all cameras turned to them while reporters announce that they have arrived and the crowd screams with admiration. Dream on, because it happens only to a small few. Those who have affected people’s everyday lives. Even then, they elicit recognition from the layperson of “oh, yes. He/she did that? I love his/her work.”

To reiterate a quote of mine that people tweeted all over the place, “people don’t remember the name of the designer – they remember the design and how it affected their life.” THAT is the purpose of design! Massimo and Lella Vignelli have done that and have been recognized through a real and deserved placement in design history. It is worth considering how they got there and what you can learn from their example.

(rb)

About the Author

Speider Schneider is a former member of The Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine, “among other professional embarrassments and failures.” He currently writes for local newspapers, blogs and other web content and has designed products for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, ESPN, Mattel, DC and Marvel Comics, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon among other notable companies. Speider is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild, co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee and a former board member of the Society of Illustrators. He also continues to speak at art schools across the United States on business and professional practices. Follow him on Twitter @speider.

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Comments and Discussions
  • Steven, 18 April 2012

    Really like to hear about designers that have changed or at least impacted our life. This is not just creating website or poster that will be forgotten within few weeks or few years, this is about the design that will stick for ages and still won’t feel outdated. Brilliant!

  • Jimmy, 19 April 2012

    This is such a great article and was an awakening read. I would love to see Noupe blog more about titans like the Vignelli’s that have had lifelong and meaningful contributions to the design community.

    His quote “We have to make a distinction between design and art. If you are an artist, you can do anything you want. It’s perfectly all right. Design serves a different purpose. If in the process of solving a problem you create a problem, obviously, you did not design.” absolutely blew my mind with numbing honesty.

    Study more about the greats, find out how they broke the mold, read more, facebook less.

    You’ll get it.

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