Massimo Vignelli — Milan (IT) 1931, New York (US) 2014. Illustration by Olli Österberg

Design is One

Forget about the professional that rejects Typography and considered only a few typefaces. Massimo Vignelli mind was much more than that and you'll be amused to discover.

It was a common night on Chiasso, the swiss-italian border, by the winter of 1960. The official on duty left the cozy guardhouse to check the documents of an Alfa Romeo Berlina 2000 coming down the slope.
The driver, Felice Nava, was an elegant milanese printer returning home after a day of work at Zurich — as he stated. 
Some hours later he made a call from his office in Milan:
— Massimo, it’s me, Nava.
— Ciao Felice, how was it this time?
— Done! I got wise. Distributed better the material. The load did not reviled me as before.
— Bravo! We have Helvetica then.

The story is true and so are actors. Nava was one of the great printers in Italy and Vignelli a prominent Designer by that time. After having his letterpress lead type blocks confiscated by the border police once, Nava finally made it and crossed the border bringing Neue Haas-Grotesk, a typeface that would impact Massimo Vignelli and his work forever.

The first time I heard about Massimo Vignelli I had a bad feeling about the guy, I confess. I was in college and when a teacher came up with the same old story of a designer standing against the use of too many fonts it just pissed me off. Instantly I pictured an old reactionary pop-star designer on my mind and that was it. Lucky me that ten years later, while living in Milan, I rediscovered the existence and presence of Vignelli's work. A timeless production that will keep echoing on our world, much after the silence of the voice in 2014.

By geographical reasons Vignelli’s design education had great influence from Swiss designers and the so called International Style. Born in Milan in 1931, he created graphic systems that had and still have a real utility for millions of people today. Since 16 years old, he started to collect a series of short internships with some of the best Italian architects and designers of that time: Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, Giulio Minoletti, Giancarlo De Carlo, Franco Albini, and Ignazio Gardella. Later his production and thoughts have contributed to promote the evolution of principles from the Modern Movement in the early 20th century. As himself stated, his design is “semantically correct, syntactically consistent, pragmatically understandable, visually powerful, intellectually elegant and, above all, timeless.”

Today when you consider his words and the society he was inserted is really interesting to see how beyond his time he was — fighting vulgarity and nonsense in Design. Even on his controversial speech about the use of "half a dozen typefaces" throughout his entire life, his point is clear. He always wanted to work with the best — not innovating for the sake of it. He said that if innovation was not enough to beat the old solutions we should go with the Good rather then the New. Can you disprove him? If yes, stop for a minute and consider the 90's operational systems and the birth of Desktop Publishing. With tons of new types and possibilities, can you remember timeless Designs with typefaces as Comic Sans, Impact or Zapfino?

In 2013, with 82 years, he gave a surprising interview to Debbie Millman on Design Matters and discussed the digital realm. He called himself an enthusiastic for the future of Design, praised e-publications and lamented it was too late for him to be part of it. He also highlighted the key aspects to produce a better professional: the study of Design History, Theory and Criticism. And we couldn't agree more :P

An overview of some Vignelli projects

To brighten up the narrative I've clipped some answers from a stunning interview to Nicola Matteo Munari at DesignCulture.

M: A project that you would like to realize.
A corporate identity for a country, for example Italy or Vatican City. I would go to the Pope and say: “Your Holiness, the logo is O.K., but everything else has to go!”

M: Draw a new font or use the existing ones?
There are two main font families: serif (elzevirs) and sans-serif (grotesks). In both families there are some (few) great typefaces, the rest is commercial production. Among the serifs we have Garamond, Bodoni, Baskerville, Century Expanded, and Clarendon. Among the sans we have Futura, Gill Sans, Helvetica, Univers, and Optima. Sometimes it is possible to use a font with a weird look, where not fundamentalists — but only to set a title or a logotype. There is no need to design a new font. What matters is the typographical structure, not the typeface!

M: Design, art, craft.
Design is not art. Design is utilitarian, art is useful but not utilitarian. Craftmanship is manual by nature, design is industrial by nature.

Almost all the topics from Vignelli’s Canon, a book explaining his ideas and processes, are primordial to our understanding and evolution as designers. You can read it completely here — for free.

Intangible elements of Design

Semantics (Meaning)

Unfortunately, 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, and therefore they supply the market with a continuous flow of crude and vulgar design. I consider this action criminal since it is producing visual pollution that is degrading our environment just like all other types of pollution.

Syntatics (Elements)

The consistency of a design is provided by the appropriate relationship of the various syntactical elements of the project: how type relates to grids and images from page to page throughout the whole project. Or, how type sizes relate to each other. Or, how pictures relate to each other and how the parts relate to the whole.


We like Design to be beyond fashionable modes and temporary fads. We like Design to be as timeless as possible. We despise the culture of obsolescence. We feel the moral imperative of designing things to last a long time.


The attention to details requires discipline. There is no room for sloppiness, for carelessness, for procrastination. Every detail is important because the end result is the sum of all the details involved in the creative process no matter what we are doing.


Appropriateness transcends any issue of style — there are many ways of solving a problem, many ways of doing, but the relevant thing is that, no matter what, the solution must be appropriate. I think that we have to listen to what a thing wants to be, rather then contrive it into an arbitrary confinement.


I have a positive interpretation of ambiguity, intended as a plurality of meanings, or the ability of conferring to an object or a design, the possibility of being read in different ways — each one complementary to the other to enrich the subject and give more depth. We often use this device to enhance the expression of the design and we treasure the end results.

Design is One

Design is one — it is not many different ones. The discipline of Design is one and can be applied to many different subjects, regardless of style. Design discipline is above and beyond any style. Very often people think that Design is a particular style. Nothing could be more wrong! Design is a discipline, a creative process with its own rules, controlling the consistency of its output toward its objective in the most direct and expressive way.

Visual Power

We say all the time that we like Design to be visually powerful. We cannot stand Design that is weak in concept, form, color, texture or any or all of them. We think good Design is always an expression of creative strength bringing forward clear concepts expressed in beautiful form and color, where every element expresses the content in the most forceful way.

Intellectual Elegance

For me, intellectual elegance is the sublime level of intelligence which has produced all the masterpieces in the history of mankind. It is the elegance we find in Greek statues, in Renaissance paintings, in the sublime writings of Goethe, and many great creative minds. It is the elegance of Architecture of any period, the Music of all times, the clarity of Science through the ages.


We are definitively against any fashion of design and any design fashion. We despise the culture of obsolescence, the culture of waste, the cult of the ephemeral. We detest the demand of temporary solutions, the waste of energies and capital for the sake of novelty.


As designers, we have three levels of responsibility: One — to ourselves, the integrity of the project and all its components. Two — to the Client, to solve the problem in a way that is economically sound and efficient. Three — to the public at large, the consumer, the user of the final design.


Perhaps, because I grew up in a country where history and vernacular architecture were part of culture of the territory and was protected, I considered established logos something to be equally protected. The notion of a logo equity has been with us from the very beginning of time. When we were asked to design a new logo for the FORD Motor Company, we proposed a light retouch of the old one which could be adjusted for contemporary applications.

Special Metropolitan Projects by Vignelli and Unimark (with him as a partner). New York, Milano, Roma and São Paulo

Tangible elements of Design


Nothing could be more useful to reach our intention than the Grid. The grid represents the basic structure of our graphic design, it helps to organize 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 infinite kinds of grids, but just one — the most appropriate — for any problem. Therefore, it becomes important to know which kind of grid is the most appropriate.


The advent of the computer generated the phenomena called desktop publishing. This enabled anyone who could type the freedom of using any available typeface and do any kind of distortion. It was a disaster of mega proportions. A cultural pollution of incomparable dimension. As I said, at the time, if all people doing desktop publishing were doctors we would all be dead! Typefaces experienced an incredible explosion. The computer allowed anybody to design new typefaces and that became one of the biggest visual pollution of all times. In order to draw attention to that issue I made an exhibition showing work that we had done over many years by using only four typefaces: Garamond, Bodoni, Century Expanded, and Helvetica. The aim of the exhibition was to show that a large variety of printed matter could be done with an economy of type with great results. In other words, is not the type but what you do with it that counts. The accent was on structure rather than type.
I still believe that most typefaces are designed for commercial reasons, just to make money or for identity purposes. In reality the number of good typefaces is rather limited and most of the new ones are elaborations on pre-existing faces. Personally, I can get along well with a half a dozen, to which I can add another half a dozen, but probably no more.

Contrasting Text Sizes

One of the most exciting elements of typography for me is the contrast of scale. I love the play between a very large type size for headlines versus a much smaller type size for the body text, with proper white space in between. White space for me is a very important element in graphic composition. It is really the white that makes the black sing. White, in typography, is what space is in Architecture. It is the articulation of space that gives Architecture the perfect pitch.


Ultimately the most important device is the management of the white space in the layouts. It is the white space that makes the layout sing. Bad layouts have no space left for breathing — every little space covered by a cacophony of type-sizes, images, and screaming titles.

Vignelli Quotes designed by Anthony Neil Dart

There’s much more to say about Massimo Vignelli’s work and life but his production may speak for himself. You can browse a little on the reference links bellow and discover even more.

I wrap up this article urging my colleagues designers to study Vignelli's ideas so we can all understand and admire his discipline and knowledge. The legacy of a man sometimes considered only for his polemic opinions but always consistent to the context and society he lived in. May us admire and celebrate his love and fight for the future of Good Design.

Deepen your knowledge of the history of Design and learn everything from the protagonists. Learn the theories that determined the development of Design. Develop a critical attitude and refine it continuously. Sieve and continuously assess everything surrounding you.