Massimo Vignelli

Massimo Vignelli by Davide Bonazzi

Massimo [ma-see-mohVignelli [veen-yell-ee] (1931 – 2014) was an Italian graphic and industrial designer who worked in a number of areas including product packaging, housewares, furniture, public signage, and showrooms. He was the co-founder of Vignelli Associates, with his wife, Lella. His ethos was, ‘If you can design one thing, you can design everything,’ and this was reflected in the broad range of his work. Vignelli worked firmly within the Modernist tradition, and focused on simplicity through the use of basic geometric forms in all his work.

His educational background was in architecture, which he studied at the Politecnico di Milano and later at the Università di Architettura, Venice. From 1957 to 1960, he visited America on a fellowship, and returned to New York in 1966 to start the New York branch of a new company, Unimark International, which quickly became, in scope and personnel, one of the largest design firms in the world.

The firm went on to design many of the world’s most recognizable corporate identities, including that of American Airlines (which forced him to incorporate the eagle, Massimo was always quick to point out). Vignelli also designed the iconic signage for the New York City Subway system during this period, and the 1970s–80s map of the system. Contrary to news reports, Vignelli did not design the Washington Metro Map (designed by Lance Wyman and Bill Cannan), but he did create the signage and wayfinding system for the DC Metro and suggested it be named ‘Metro’ like many other capital city subways. Its original name was an amalgam of various states and transportation groups.

In 1971, Vignelli resigned from Unimark, in part because the design vision which he supported became diluted as the company diversified and increasingly stressed marketing, rather than design. Soon after, he and his wife founded Vignelli Associates. His clients included high-profile companies such as IBM, Knoll, and Bloomingdale’s. His former employee Michael Bierut wrote that ‘it seemed to me that the whole city of New York was a permanent Vignelli exhibition [around 1981]. To get to the office, I rode in a subway with Vignelli-designed signage, shared the sidewalk with people holding Vignelli-designed Bloomingdale’s shopping bags, walked by St. Peter’s Church with its Vignelli-designed pipe organ visible through the window. At Vignelli Associates, at 23 years old, I felt I was at the center of the universe.’

Vignelli participated in the ‘Stock Exchange of Visions’ project in 2007 (a gathering of visionaries from diverse nationalities and cultures, who hail from a wide range of specialties, to provide insight into their vision for the future), as well as publishing the book, ‘Vignelli: From A to Z,’ containing a series of essays describing the principles and concepts behind ‘all good design.’ It is alphabetically organized by topic, roughly approximating a similar course he taught at Harvard’s School of Design and Architecture.

Vignelli’s designs were famous for following a minimal aesthetic and a narrow range of typefaces that he considered to be perfect in their genre, including Bodoni, Helvetica, Garamond No. 3 and Century Expanded. He wrote that, ‘In the new computer age, the proliferation of typefaces and type manipulations represents a new level of visual pollution threatening our culture. Out of thousands of typefaces, all we need are a few basic ones, and trash the rest.’ Vignelli worked with filmmaker Gary Hustwit on the documentary ‘Helvetica,’ about the iconic typeface.

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