Massimo Vignelli, the multi-faceted designer and thinker, was the last of the great modernist designers. A utilitarian, design reactionary, and vocal critic of poor design, his views feel unfashionable today, yet, younger designers can learn much from the Canon.
I came to Vignelli early in my graphic design career and his Canon is a book I dip in and out. Even though I work primarily as a digital designer, his recommendations are still relevant.
There are many opinions in The Vignelli Canon, the little red book where Vignelli presents his life’s work through his design philosophy. There is a wealth of classic examples and the compression of over 50 years of design ideas and experience into 110 A5 pages is an amazing achievement. It’s a swift read and, as with Vignelli, ample white space. It is an insightful and highly practical read and can also be a little infuriating.
His socialist sounding pronouncements were a by-product of his Bauhaus inspired design education, and not to be seen as political or ideological Marxist in nature. As Quentin Newark says, “Vignelli was a non-doctrinaire instinctive follower of Utilitarianism.” He was inspired by a long line of 20th-century designers who thought they could change society through design. Like another iconic designer, Dieter Rams, they wanted to strip products of artifice and waste in favour of usability and function. Design is not about how something looks, it’s about how it works.
The Vignelli Canon is not a dry book, but full of his spirit and charisma. In tribute to his generosity, designer Michael Bierut said that he was, “warm, emotional, generous [ . . . ] and for me, there would only be one: my teacher, my mentor, my boss, my hero, my friend, Massimo Vignelli.” The beautiful minimalism of his work made a powerful influence on me and he has been an ever-present mentor, whatever the design fashion dictates.
He divided the Canon into two parts, elegantly named The Intangibles and The Tangibles.
Part one, titled The Intangibles, outlines his philosophy of design. The three philosophies that form the backbone of this section are Semantics, Syntactics, and Pragmatics.
Semantics is understanding the object in all aspects, and to “design something that has meaning, that is not arbitrary.” He says that “there are designers and marketing people who intentionally look down on the consumer with the notion that vulgarity has a definite appeal to the masses.”
Syntactics is the syntax of design, that provides “many components [ . . . ], overall structure, the grid, the typefaces, the text and headlines, the illustrations.”
Pragmatics is the usefulness of the object. “Any artefact should stand by itself in all its clarity.”
He writes in a spare and pithy style, full of aphorisms, such as “design is one — it is not many different ones”, and “modernism is not a style but the projection of an ideology encompassing awareness of the production process plus final destination of its products. Styles are just the opposite.”
Le Corbusier was his first formative influence, and Mies van der Rohe becoming his greatest teacher, which gives a clue to how Vignelli’s taste developed. He reserves the phrase ‘elegant mind’ for describing people and designers who bring excellence to their work, saying that “visual strength is an expression of intellectual elegance.” He uses the word “elegance” many times throughout the book, becoming a defining keyword for good design.
We need to arouse the awareness that every gesture of the present is a document for the future, and that our present will be measured only by these gestures.
He is very critical of marketing research in the last section of Intangibles. “To protect industries’ investments, they ask what they want instead of what they need. Market research reduces the fear of failure, a common ‘disease’ of companies.” He could certainly be contentious and was against focus groups and consumer research. He argued that focus groups with ‘housewives’ leads to devalued and uninspired products. I find it easy to disagree with him here, especially when he says things like “good design needs courage, not focus groups.”
The chief argument throughout The Intangibles is that a designer should be able to create anything, be it kitchen appliances, posters or signage, always using a process that can be focused on any solution.
Part two, titled The Tangibles, is a more practical discourse on the design method, with practical advice on the craft of design. He goes into remarkable detail, even going as far as explaining how he styles rules and borders on a page. It’s a small but fascinating glimpse into his everyday process.
In the section on paper sizes, he states in a combative way that the “US uses a basic letter size. It is the by-product of free enterprise, competition and waste.”
Grids were the bedrock of all designs for Vignelli and he was responsible for introducing the ‘grid’ to American designers. “The grid represents the basic structure of our graphic design, it helps to organise the content, it provides consistency, it gives an orderly look and it projects a level of intellectual elegance that we like to express.”
There are some superb examples of his grid being used in designing many variations of one basic company letterhead. His editorial layout sketches are stunning, laying out entire storyboards for book and magazines with enormous fidelity, reminding me of Ridley Scott’s perfectly realised film storyboards.
One of my favourite quotes is of contrasting type size when he says, “in a world where everybody screams, silence is noticeable”. Elegantly put. Vignelli in a sentence.
On typography, Vignelli was uncompromising. Typography is not “intended as an expression of the self, as a pretext for pictorial exercises”. There are only four typefaces that he sought to use; Century Expanded, Bodoni, Garamond, Helvetica, and believed the number of good typefaces to be limited. Without a doubt, Helvetica was his signature face.
This exactness feels like it was bordering on mania, and it was an impressive commitment to his vocation. He was more akin to a monk in his refusal to give into temptations of cheap commercialism. He could come across as arrogant, and dismissed designers who did not follow the tenants of modernism down to the perfectly spaced letter. This can be a surprising aspect of Vignelli’s personality.
In an essay called Kicking up a Little Dust, Keith Robertson talks about Vignelli’s criticism of the controversial design magazine, Emigre, where he accused the magazine and its creator, VanderLans, of “being an irresponsible aberration of culture.” That’s tough stuff and feels very personal. As VanderLans said, “the problem I have is when people talk about our work as being incorrect, as if there was never a place for it anywhere, I believe that is wrong. To me, it looks like the world of young designers, what they are thinking and what they are feeling, is passing Massimo Vignelli by.”
Vignelli openly disliked typographic experiments of designers like David Carson and Carlos Segura in the early 90s. Gary Hewitt retells a story of him being asked by a journalist what he thought of Carson. “Oh, I love him, he’s fantastic!” Massimo replied. Then the journalist asked him what he thought of Carson’s design work. “I love it, it’s fantastic. It’s not graphic design, but it’s fantastic!” Vignelli might have been opinionated, but at least he could show a sense of humour at times.
Wasn’t his criticism of this progressive younger generation unjust, especially since he had started out as a revolutionary of sorts? April Greiman, the pioneering digital designer said, “I think the reason Vignelli would be outraged is that the whole International Style represents a dinosaur that definitely wagging its tail for the last time.” Written over 25 years ago, modernism continues to have an enormous influence, for better or worse.
With so much criticism back and forth, it’s hard to square the image of a genteel and elegant man who could assault works of a younger generation. This shouldn’t colour our view of his legacy. Do we still see designers as some moral guardian like the modernist ideology had earnestly sought to create early in the 20th century? I’m not so sure now.
In the late 90s, as a surprise too many, he produced a direct-mail promotion for the typeface Filosofia. Zuzana Licko, co-creator of Emigre, wondered whether “Massimo’s willingness to collaborate on our announcement reflects Emigre’s ability to bridge different approaches.” Maybe he was mellowing.
Massimo Vignelli died in 2014, and it feels like he was one of the last of the great modernists that stretched from the beginnings of modern design to the digital age.
It is important to state that despite his conservatism, Vignelli was always open to new ideas and ways of thinking, and willing to challenge his own preconceptions and biases in order to create better work. He did so with a sense of caution and respect for the past, and he believed that designers should be careful not to throw out the champagne with the cork, when it came to traditional design principles.
Despite the things that I find frustrating about his outlook, The Canon is a stimulating read and an essential book for all designers to sit alongside The Elements of Style and Universal Principles of Design. It’s a wonderfully inspiring book and one I return to when I need some balance.
The Vignelli Canon is available to download on vignelli.com, but I recommend getting the beautifully designed and constructed paperback published by Lars Muller.