An interview with the modernist designer and founder of Vignelli Associates at Big Think.
Massimo Vignelli, born in Milan, studied architecture in Milan and Venice. He came to the United States from 1957 to 1960 on fellowships from Towle Silversmiths in Massachusetts and the Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago. In 1960, with Lella Vignelli, he established the Vignelli Office of Design and Architecture in Milan.
In 1965, Vignelli became co-founder and design director of Unimark International Corporation. With Lella Vignelli, he established the offices of Vignelli Associates in 1971, and Vignelli Designs in 1978. His work includes graphic and corporate identity programs, publication designs, architectural graphics, and exhibition, interior, furniture, and consumer product designs for many leading American and European companies and institutions.
Vignelli has had his work published and exhibited throughout the world and entered in the permanent collections of several museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum. He is a past president of the Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGl) and the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AlGA), a vice president of the Architectural League, and a member of the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA). His many awards and honors include the AIGA Gold Medal, the Presidential Design Award, and the National Arts Club Gold Medal for Design.
Massimo Vignelli: My name is Massimo Vignelli and I like to be known as a designer.
Question: How did you choose design as a career?
Massimo Vignelli: Yes. I started to begin to be interested in architecture and design when I was 14 years old, which was pretty early in life. And then I would start to look at architectural magazines and I eventually went to the school of architecture too, but one of the things I learned very early is that an architect should be able to design anything from a spoon to the city. That was a favorite phrase by Argo Flores, a Viennese architect around the turn of the century, the other century. And I was fascinated by that idea and then I’ve seen that that is true and the great architects like Flores and Hoffmann from Vienna, again were doing this kind of things. And since I was born and raised in Milan, architects in Milan, they were also doing all kinds of things. They were designing buildings and furniture and interiors and exhibitions and so on.
Then I shared an apartment with Max Huber, a famous graphic designer from Switzerland, and so I learned graphic design and I got fully in love with graphic design. And so I was doing the whole thing from graphics to architecture.
So I built a house at one point for a client and then I did exhibitions and then I started to do products and you know, that’s the way I started. And I like to try all the time to try different materials, different experiences, I was eager to try all kinds of things and I suppose that attitude has a left me after a long, long life of design anyhow. So that’s how I got interested in architecture and design. And naturally since I was very curious about the protagonist of the Modern movement in Europe at the time by the time I got to the University of Architecture I was about 20 years old, I had already met cursory all the major architects in Europe from Le Corbusier, to you name it, all the others, country by country, which was very exciting. You know, I was a kind of a groupie I would say.
And of course, I was reading all of the books of them and about what they had to say, and that gave me the critical strength or the critical background to approach architecture and design.
Question: How much of your work takes place on, and off, the computer?
Massimo Vignelli: Well, when I started was a completely different set of tools then than today. And I like to divide our profession into B.C. and A.C., just like history. So B.C. is Before Computer, A.C. is After the Computer. So before the computer was extremely and intensively manual. So of course I grew up with a pencil. A pencil was my computer at the time and so drawing, drawing, drawing and the tools of drawing where the usual ones and eventually then you graduated from the tools when the work increases and you start to draw by freehand as precise as possible and as accurate as possible, and I was pretty good at that. So, for me one inch was a particular length, you know, but in centimeters or inches, which is kind of important too because it gives you a very good sense of dimension and therefore a good sense of scale. Scale is extremely important, you know. Scale is not dimensions. Dimensions are physical and scales are mental. And so without a knowledge of one, you can’t get to the knowledge of the second one in a sense.
Then, there was a lot of glue, a lot of other materials, you know, pasting up and specifying type and losing type and was a very long and tedious process, Photostat machines and paste up again. Oh god, what a life. I spend two-thirds of my life on nothing, in a sense.
Then all of a sudden God sent this incredible thing, which is the computer, that’s the – it’s like God sending Jesus Christ, it’s that kind of a thing. I don’t believe in one or the other, but I can believe in the computer. And so that was the great redeemer. So throw away all other kinds of tools and all of a sudden you could do things that were taking a long time to do, all of a sudden you can do it and you can see while you’re doing it. So that is a very, very, very exciting thing. Not only that, but you could do things better than ever in history. You can also do things worse than in history, all the time. Most people do worse things than ever. But good guys then make better things than ever. And so that is a great tool to work. And this is what we use all the time.
Now, since I’m medieval, as you can see, then I still use my pencil, and I use the computer mostly for email and writing and things like that, and Googling, and blah, blah, blah, and checking the words, as you can imagine. Not being my first language, I have to check spelling all the time. And then I have people working with me which are very literate in the computer and so I can work behind them and say a little bigger, a little smaller, yeah, like this, yeah this is good, this is better. Yeah, try this, try that. It’s that kind of operation, which is very funny in a sense. You cannot play the piano by telling a pianist what to do, go a little more to the left or to the right. And the same is for the computer, really. You have to play yourself to get the most out of it. But you know, and it takes a long time to learn too. So, I don’t think I have the time in my head to really use it in a good way.
Question: Is there anything the computer can’t do for a designer?
Massimo Vignelli: Yeah, the computer is really like a pencil, you know. It used to be. The pencil can do anything you want to, but you have to do it, and the same is with the computer. It can do anything you want, but you have to do it. It’s a tool. And when it goes by itself, it’s a disaster because it’s a very seductive kind of tool. The pencil you leave it there, and it’s dead. It doesn’t do anything and it doesn’t move by itself. It doesn’t offer anything; it’s totally submissive to you. The computer needs…even by accident, offers incredible beautiful things that are very seductive. And if you forget about, or if you don’t have an idea to begin with, it is very easy to be seduced and that is not a good use of the computer. You know? So, that is the way it goes.
Question: What makes a design work?
Massimo Vignelli: Well, it should be visually powerful in the sense that I do not like design that is a flat tire, that has no tension, that has no guts, that has no expression. This doesn’t mean to be **** like this, it could be on the contrary, extremely elegant. And by that I mean, intellectually elegant. Not fashion elegant, not mores elegant, but intellectually elegant. That means a mind that has been cultivated and refined for quite a long time, you know. Reading the best kind of books and really understanding how the mind can be sublime. And another way intellectual elegance is exactly the opposite of intellectually vulgar, you know. And indeed, we are surrounded by a tremendous amount of vulgarity, therefore, it is a strive to – it is an effort to change that kind of situation, but it is very exciting because you have a sense of accomplishment. You know. And of course, you like to talk about it, you like to convince people and tell people how to get away from vulgar situations into something which is a little more elegant, a little more refined. And if you multiply, multiply, multiply, then the world is beginning to get better. It takes you a long time.
Then the third thing is, people are fascinated with trends. You know, trends are in the air, everybody likes to be trendy, to be up-to-date, you know. But what is up-to-date today is gone tomorrow. And if you are a responsible kind of a designer, you cannot design things that tomorrow are no good anymore. If you like cheating with your client and your public where you use it, whatever it might be. So, you like to design something that is going to last a long time. And so, you train yourself to be disciplined and you train yourself to stay away from trends. And in a sense you get automatically involving into the notion of timelessness, so it takes to last a long time. And my god, I can quote so many things. Let’s say American Airlines logo I’ve done. Look how many have been done since I done that one. I done that one 45 years ago, maybe even 50 years ago, and it’s still there. It’s the only one that’s never changed. And how you can change? How can you make it better? It’s very legible, there are no tricks, it’s half red, half blue. What is more American than that? You give me one and I’ll take a look. You know, the type is a type that will last forever. And it’s fine.
There are so many, the Bloomingdale logo, or the New York Subway, or you know, I mean, plenty, plenty, plenty of things which are – and objects that we have done, plates like the Heller plates. You know, generation after generation grew up by eating on those plates and they are still around today. Furniture that we have designed a long time ago are still there, and so on. So, it is great to design things that stay a long time. They have a long staying power. And when you look at the antiques, one, they have staying power. So, I kind of like the idea of designing things that in 100 years from now will be looked at with respect and not laughed about, in a sense.
Question: What aspects of contemporary design do you dislike?
Massimo Vignelli: Well, vulgarity is a real ubiquitous thing. You know, vulgarities on everything. On clothing today more than ever is on printed matter, kind of toonish kind of things, balloons, even the subway map has all those balloons. I mean, that’s very low, literally. **** there’s no need. You don’t talk down to people, you talk up to people, you know. So instead most of the people — most of the manufacturers they tend to design things to sell they are more interested in the money side than anything else. And greed is really the religion of vulgarity. And it’s that is that kind of greedy you know that everybody seems to have. I mean, as part of the culture, more here than any other place to a certain extent. Maybe because it offers more, maybe because there’s more buying power in the people, who knows? I don’t know why. But certainly is — and you know why else because it’s a very young country and hasn’t had the time to sift what is good from what is bad. But like everything that is young it’s fascinating.
Question: How did you create your iconic 1970s New York City subway map?
Massimo Vignelli: Well, number one, we like to design things which we have done before. So we have a challenge to make it better. The other thing, all the maps which were done at the time before our map were **** to a certain extent, but we’re talking a different – they were trying to be half geographic, half schematic, and so on, not a very clear idea. And so we started to took a precise very diagrammatic kind of an approach, a diagram based on a grade of 90 and 45 degrees, like the London map which was very 1931. You know, a long time ago. And we just did it. Every line had a color at the time, every station had a dot, no dot, no station, it’s very simple. But very simple however is a process of insisting, insisting, insisting until you get just the essentials. And all the trashy things are gone. And that is a process that is typical of our modes operandi, I mean what we do all that time sifting, sifting. Actually, I’m not a designer, I’m a sifter. I can sift everything, all the time. My sift level lines keep shaking all the time for everything that is around. And so that is the way the – then in 1979, they changed their nomenclatures, so the map that we had then was no good anymore for use. And so recently we redesigned the map according to the new nomenclatures, so that’s what we have done and it’s kind of nice. There’s so many museums I can’t believe it. And I hope we will do something with it soon. It’s a good map.
But most of the maps today, they are done this way, subway maps I mean, around the world. Paris has done a new one like this some time ago. Berlin, you name it, every major city uses diagrammatic map. It’s only New York, which is kind of special, it still has this sort of a hybrid between a map and a diagram, but not even a diagram and, not even a map, but however, the problem with the existing map is too much information it is 5 pounds into a 1 pound bag. And no wonder it breaks.
Question: What other New York City signage have you created?
Massimo Vignelli: Well, I mean we designed the signs for the historical district, the historical streets you know. And why we did that, you see again, you have to be aware of what is around. For instance, we could have done a completely new and different sign, but that would have been stupid. As a matter of fact somebody else did that kind of thing and I consider it a very stupid approach because then when it does it is who it adds to an already very busy clutter. So instead we took the existing signs and just change the color. You know, so it’s not so expensive that way, but also doesn’t add another layer to the already very busy urban clutter you know. So the problem of clutter is a big one of course as a designer and sifting, sifting, we tried to sift out as much as possible. And that kind of stuff.
Question: When you walk around New York, or the world, do you feel like you’ve designed the place?
Massimo Vignelli: Yeah. You know, you have to know that, like every good designer, you’ll have a twin brother that is called ego. And I go around with my ego all the time. And you should see how happy he is when he goes around in a most far away kind of place and all of a sudden maybe a truck that comes by with a logo that you have designed, or a book is on the window of a store, or someplace has the furniture that you have designed, or the airline that brings you there has that. So, it’s kind of funny. Yes, it is a lot of fun.
While it is a gratification, it’s a lifelong gratification. But as I said, it’s from my ego; to keep my ego happy. If the ego is not happy, you are in deep trouble, you know that?
Question: Why have you argued against the proliferation of new fonts?
Massimo Vignelli: Well you know, you have to know a little bit more about the history of typography, or type, and how it came about. You know, it was invented at the end of the 1400’s, you know, the Guttenbergs, so to speak, and then for 200 or 300 years, it went with very few different type faces. You know, very elegant, and that’s it. Some publisher had the type and printer and publisher was all one thing. And there were very few also because it was very difficult to cut type, you know, it was cut by hand and not tools besides the chisels, so to speak, and the type was this small, so it was a very refined kind of operation to do. And because it was refined, it was quite elegant. There was no room for vulgarity to get into it. So, the basic typefaces done in those years like Garamond, like Baskerville and **** and so on, ****. They were quite elegant – very elegant, actually, typefaces.
Then the Industrial Revolution comes about and then you can do the type in an industrial way and with the help of machines, and so on and so forth. And then because you could do it, people start to do it. The foundry started to do more type and therefore they had to sell it, to offer it. And they found the right victim in the advertising people, which they thought that they should use a different typeface for every different client. They should not have two clients with the same type. God. And so that went on and on and that became a business just wallpapers, you know, it became a business to make typefaces. And then because of that, you’ve got typeface designers, people who got into the business, they like it and the create nonsense type, things that were totally useless and things of that nature and on and on and on and on.
And so eventually, you understand, that the reason that there are a lot of typefaces is just because there’s a business, not a need. So, you begin to sift, sift, sift, sift, and you begin sifting to see which one are appropriate for one use or another and basically, as you know, the typefaces are divided into two categories, which are called serif, the one with the feet, and sans serif without the feet, the straight one. And between one family and the other family you begin to pick out the best, and at the end when you pick out the best, you wind up with about a half a dozen, or a little more of typefaces. And those are good, those are good for everything. Each one of those families are very large, you know, so they are of the same typeface you have are very thin or very big, they are straight or italic, which inclined, and things like that. So yes, there are only a good maybe a dozen. I’m very generous today since I think they – but there’s no more than a dozen, actually I don’t use much many more than three or four in my life. That is the thing.
However, exceptionally sometime I might use some other too. But not really much more than that a dozen of good typefaces and the rest you can really trash it from a design point of view. However, it’s a business that keeps a lot of people alive and what do you want to do, what would they do otherwise? So, let them do type if they like it. The only thing that is important to understand is when to use it and when not to use it, or what to use. And a good designer can come to it, you know. And they can really very well along with a few typefaces. Every good designer doesn’t use more than a few typefaces and when they’re less good, the number increase. And if they’re worse, then use all of them.
Question: Having starred in the documentary “Helvetica,” were you surprised by its success?
Massimo Vignelli: Yeah, definitely, I was surprised and very, very, very pleased too. But it’s incredible by how many people really liked the movie. People that had nothing to do with design, and how useful it has been. You have no idea the amount of people that mentioned this movie to me, everywhere in the world. I got email from everywhere in the world talking about it. I don’t say many things.
In the disc, if you get the disc, at the end there are extras, which are better then the whole movie, really. It was terrific. So, if you get the disc is fun. Any how, what is clear you see, Helvetica was born in 1957, around that time, you know, 1955, for the very precise reason I remember, before Helvetica, I was using similar typefaces and cutting together close, because we like the type to be closed. But typefaces, they came with shoulders at that time, and the great invention of Helvetica was to be make the shoulder very, very tight so you could put the type – and it’s the only type that had that, that’s why.
When we had that type that we could do that; that was B.C., Before Computer. Now with computer, you can even do that. You can do anything. But at the time, it had to be done by cutting. And so I lost a lot of type ****, a lot of letters by cutting and gluing and so on. But when Helvetica came about, that could be done fine and that is why it was so successful. And I started to use it and use it and the more you use it the more you learn how to use it, it’s just like a piano, the more you play it, the more you learn how to play it and the better player you become. And so it is with the type. And it is a great typeface, it will last forever. You know, there are others, some people like other variations of it. I’m happy with it. And I think it will last hundreds of years, you know. And there are people will write with this. Along with the **** along with the Garamond, along with the few of the great classic typefaces. And that’s it, until we **** those faces will be around, I guess.
Question: What is the distinction you make between dimension and scale?
Massimo Vignelli: Dimension is a measurable thing, entity, you know that long, six inches, 10 inches, 10 feet, whatever it might be. Scale is a mental – you can say that a lounger has scale, a building has scale, or an object has scale, or a page, or whatever if it’s just right. A scale is a relationship to the object and the space surrounding it. And that dialogue could be music, or it could be just noise. And that is why it is so important, the sense of scale. And the scale relates to everything. The thickness of a pipe, the thickness of a leg of the furniture. Even color could have a scale. Let’s say that if you paint a building shocking pink, that has no scale, it is just a huge mistake, but it’s not in the scale of the city to have things like that. You know. So, not only because it’s not appropriate, not only because it’s offensive to the environment, I mean but among them also because that quantity of that color in the urban scale, is out of scale.
But however, out of scale is also very fascinating thing. One of the greatest inventions of pop art was really to bring an object which was usually like this to make it huge. Oldenburg was really the great artist that did the best with that notion, you know. I mean we need also, **** we made a line of cosmetics in the shape of nuts and bolts and screws and things like that by just taking a real thing and making it big. The change in scale is a surprise sometimes that could be used in a good way, but again, you have to measure it and it should be appropriate. Appropriateness is not a very important issue, you know, the notion of appropriateness. That means to design things which are right for that destination, and not for another one. And so when we start, we always look for what is specific for that particular problem so that we can design in a most appropriate way as much as we can understand it, of course. But appropriateness is important, discipline is important, and ambiguity is important.
Ambiguity is not – ambiguity for us Italians is a positive thing. For the Anglo-Saxon it is a negative thing. You know. It’s a different culture. You know, you come up with a Vatican in your pocket, ambiguity becomes very natural. But for us, ambiguity is plurality of meanings and that is why it is exciting. In the Anglo-Saxon dictionary, so to speak, ambiguity instead has a negative connotation in the sense that ambiguity’s mellifluous, something that is neither here or there. And for us instead **** is a way of living. But it’s important in design too because then it gives another level of richness so that, yes, it is that thing and if you read it in a slightly different way, maybe it is something else too. And that might be – but it’s very, very dangerous as well. So, one has to train – it’s not for everybody.
Question: Are we currently in “postmodernism,” “post-postmodernism,” or “neo-modernism”?
Massimo Vignelli: I tell you, one of the greatest things about postmodernism is that it’s gone. You know. Postmodernism was the 15 minutes of celebrity for those that would have never had it otherwise. You know. When you think of Modernism as incredibly alive and just rooted in hundreds of years – in a sense, I think Modernism started during the Renaissance somehow. But really, the Modernism is more, really started, I would say, with the Enlightenment, you know, the Enlightenment, you know, 1750, 1770s, 1750, you know, around that time. Along with the Didierot and d’Alambert in a sense, with industrialization, basically the first sounds of industrialization. And Modernism is alive and well and a great – while postmodernist is gone, it has only one very good thing with it, is that somehow you restore interest in history. And that is very important. History, theory, and criticism are the most important aspects in the development of design. But Modernism is alive and well, as I say, and a lot of the young people are now working along the Modernist way. And there is no more post-modernism around, it’s really gone, gone, gone, gone, thank God.
But, of course, it’s not a style. What is in style is a bad thing. Modernism is an attitude, it’s not a style. Modernism is a discipline, not a style. Modernism is intelligent, not a style. And so, when you work along those lines, you are a Modernist designer, and that is what is good about it.
So that will last forever, by the way.
Question: What was Le Corbusier like?
Massimo Vignelli: Well, we were lucky enough to meet all the great masters of architecture and design from Le Corbusier to Mies van der Rohe, from Alvar Aalto to Charles Eames, and it is nice to know them. And if you aren’t stupid, they like you too. And parties, you know. Anyhow, Le Corbusier was well, was God at the time, you could imagine. I remember one time, we were traveling from Milan to Venice on a train, he was going to give a lecture in Venice, and he was traveling with a friend of mine, an architect friend, a very important architect at the time, and so, I could resist, I went to the same compartment where they were, you known, and I was doing an architectural magazine at the time, so just like you, I was very interested in interviewing the great master, you know. And I remember at one point he said, when I was sitting next to Le Corbusier, and he said, “Wow, this young man has a lot of heat.” It was summer. Maybe we were tight together, but he meant it as a kind of a – well, it was fun. And I have stories about every one of those big masters.
One night we had dinner, we had several dinners in Chicago with Mies van der Rohe because I was teaching at the Institute of Design in Chicago. And again, very exciting stories, I mean, he was a great storyteller, he would tell stories over the Barcelona Pavilion, how it came about and all the things that happened during the construction and a thousand of antidotes from every one of them. And it was fun. So, you know, as I say, I was a groupie, so this is why I am never annoyed when wherever I go to give lectures and I see youngsters coming around, you know they want a signature. And I understand that, I mean, I was doing the same thing. So, it’s fine. I am not annoyed by that at all. And I’m glad actually, I’m glad they have some examples, somebody in their mind that is, you know is a mentor. I mean, at the end of the day, that is the most gratifying thing.