Massimo Vignelli

By Martin Kerem 05 / 10 / 2016

The life of a designer is a life of fight against the ugliness

Working firmly within the modernist tradition, Vignelli aimed for design that was “visually powerful, intellectually elegant, and above all timeless”—a slogan of sorts for his New York design studio, Vignelli Associates, which he founded in 1971 with his wife, Lella.

“If you can design one thing, you can design everything,” Vignelli had been known to say, and he lived by this maxim. He helped shape the visual and cultural landscape of the 20th century with work ranging from branding for the likes of American Airlines, IBM, and Bloomingdale’s, to housewares, signage, books, furniture, exhibitions, architecture graphics, and interiors.

As one of the most influential designers of the past century, Vignelli won some of the industry’s most prestigious awards, including the AIGA Gold Medal (1983, with Lella), the first Presidential Design Award, presented by President Ronald Reagan (1985), the National Arts Club Gold Medal for Design (2004), and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum (2005).

Born in pre-World War II Milan in 1931, the young Vignelli and his classmates would regularly have to leave school after hearing bomb alarms and run to a shelter. “I don’t know how I existed,” he told the Epoch Times in 2012 of his life before discovering design but “children grow up no matter what.” Vignelli also remarked on his luck, believing that if he had been born in the generation before or after his own, he would have either been part of the war or part of the national rebuilding effort, and not a designer.

Vignelli first became design obsessed as a teenager, after visiting the home of his mother’s interior designer friend. He’d never fully realized that most everything around him had been dreamt up by a human being, and became captivated by the idea. He started reading all the design books and magazines he could get his hands on, and sketching ideas for furniture he wanted in his room.

At age 16, he began studying and working in the office of a local architect. Since design schools didn’t exist at the time, at 18, he left Italy to study architecture at the Politecnico di Milano, then the Universita di Architettura in Venice. Soon, he was running in the same circles as architecture greats like Le Courbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto, and Charles Eames. In an interview with Bigthink, he called his young self an architecture “groupie.”

Vignelli met his future wife, Lella, at an architecture convention and they married in 1957. Three years later, they opened an “office of design and architecture” in Milan, designing for European firms like Pirelli, Rank Xerox, and Olivetti. The pair moved to New York City in 1965, and by 1971, they’d established Vignelli Associates.

He made his arrival in New York known in a big way, with his drastic redesign of the New York City subway map. After the map’s introduction by the MTA on August 7th, 1972, complaints from straphangers started flooding in—about stations that seemed misplaced, about its weirdly square-shaped rendering of Central Park, about water that was beige instead of blue. (Vignelli was strongly opposed to focus groups, and they’d released the map without prior consumer research.) Instead of striving for geographical accuracy, Vignelli had turned the labyrinthine tangle of subway lines into a neat, clear diagram. Color-coded lines ran at 45- or 90-degree angles, and each station was represented as a dot. Design geeks loved this elegant translation of a messy reality into a sleek “System Map,” as Vignelli called it. Michael Bierut, now a partner at Pentagram, remembers keeping a copy as a souvenir on a trip to the city. Though the MTA ultimately opted for a new design in 1979, Vignelli was tasked in 2011 to create an interactive interpretation his System Map for the MTA’s “Weekender” program.

Vignelli was as skilled at articulating his design philosophy as he was at actually designing—his aphorisms are as distilled and elegant as his visual work. “The correct shape is the shape of the object’s meaning,” he once said, describing his preference for a creative process that investigated its subject from the inside out. He wrote books aimed at sharing his wisdom with younger creatives, such as The Vignelli Canon(2009) and Vignelli A to Z (2007). Speaking to Debbie Millman for her book How to Think Like A Great Graphic Designer, he offered an eloquent explanation of what design, in its broadest sense, is really for:

It is to decrease the amount of vulgarity in the world. It is to make the world a better place to be. But everything is relative. There is a certain amount of latitude between what is good, what is elegant, and what is refined that can take many, many manifestations. It doesn’t have to be one style. We’re not talking about style, we’re talking about quality. Style is tangible, quality is intangible. I am talking about creating for everything that surrounds us a level of quality.

In his last, gravely ill days, Vignelli’s son, Luca, sent out an unusual and touching request: that anyone who had been influenced or inspired by his father’s work send him a letter. Designers from all over the world penned notes of appreciation, awe, and gratitude to the man who’s been called the “grandfather of graphic design,” and many posted those letters online as well, with the hashtag #dearmassimo. The outpouring of love from the design community is perhaps a stronger testament to Vignelli’s influence than even the most prestigious award.

Photo by John Madere