The Daily Heller: Italy’s Milton is Named Ettore

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Ettore Vitale (b.1936) is a progressive, eclectic modern designer/illustrator from Romewho draws from the heritage of art andgraphic design. He mixes early and mid-century rational and late-century design thinking into work triggered by a critical mass of aesthetics and conceptional acuity that defines an Italian design spirit. And as Italy’s leading corporate and political identity designer, his various methods— and philosophies— transcend any parochial dogma of art and craft. The premier Italian design group AIAP recently published an inclusive monograph titled Ettore Vitale Segno Memroia Futuro (Signs, Memory, Future). I was asked to write an essay, but it turned into more of a conversation concerning his life’s work in general, and this monograph in particular. His responses to my questions enabled me to better understand Vitale’s unique conceptual approaches.

We began the dialog with his simple reply to my assertion of him: “I thank you for defining me as modern and eclectic, assuming that by eclectic, you mean someone with a wide variety of capabilities.” That is exactly what I meant, yet I wanted to know more about what makes Vitale’s work tick.

So, I asked him to characterize his essence of graphic design— what it means and where it derives from.

“It is hard for me to put it in so many words,” he responded, “but one thing I can definitely say is that I began my adventure in visual communications determined not to merely be a follower of what I saw around me, but to strive for something new, through an exploratory approach to graphics irrevocably linked to the leading role of the sign.” He added: “This might be my design philosophy, and over time it has given me a great deal of professional satisfaction, as shown by my long-term working relations with clients in politics, the public sector, and private enterprise.”

There are so many strands of 20th century corporate modernistic, emotionally expressionistic, and distinctly personal design. When I asked Vitale about his various influences, some of his responses were obvious, while others were not so clear. 

“When I was first drawn towards the graphic design profession, in the early ’60s of the last century, the focus was on the leading designers in the greater Milan area,” he acknowledged about the hub for Italian graphic design back then. “I would look at the works of Pino Tovaglia, Grignani, Bob Noorda, Munari, Steiner, and others, but I felt even more attracted to the Americans: Ben Shahn, Saul Bass, Milton Glaser (it was his work I studied most closely), as well as Paul Davis, Richard Hess, and Jasper Johns, to name just a few. I think this perspective of Italian graphic design juxtaposed against that of the United States contributed a lot to the development of my vision of graphic design.” To my eye, there is a pervasive strand of Push Pin Studios running through the work.

There is also, in addition to these influences, a very special quality underscoring Vitale’s work. Let us call it a kind of “magic” about being a designer. I wanted to know more about what it was.

“For me, the magic is the attraction I felt— and I was probably born with it— towards the ‘sign,’ which serves as the sole, unparalleled medium for communicating with the word,” he insisted. “At the start of [this] book, I told of the youthful emotions I first experienced at the sight of sparse, unadorned signs: magazine pages with nothing but lettering, or with black and white forms that only rendered the communication more incisive, more clear-cut. These initial sensations have always been a part of my intimate relationship with graphic design.”

Apparently, one of the goals of this book is to pass on his intense emotions to young people. One of those intensive interests is the corporate work that has helped pioneer in Italy. Given that he also does such fanciful drawing and illustration, I wanted to understand what is it about corporate design that he has long found so challenging.

“From the time I first entered the field of visual communication, I made it a point to avoid any forays into the world of advertising, turning down a good many offers to do just that, in order to focus on building coordinated images which, over time, would tell a story,” he explained with pride. “And those stories were developed by working side by side with the clients, getting to know what they were made of, what their needs were, how to go about constructing their identity, but without ever losing sight of the ‘overall project.’”

As a teacher, Vitale stresses this concept of the global project, which is also included in the book. “When we design, our points of reference are the client, on the one hand, and the overall project, on the other, but it is to the second that we owe our allegiance,” he said.

Global work has certain constrictions owing to the nature of industry. But Vitale’s work balances the corporate and expressive. Still, to this point, he noted that pinpointing his design “personality,” which I contend is important in his work “is a tough question.” Nonetheless, I probed him regarding how he would describe the personality or character that is common to all of his work.

“I have a hard time analyzing my work, trying to figure out what it all means,” he states modestly. “That is why the book includes excerpts from the writings of critics, colleagues, and journalists on my work, and on myself, with references to the full texts in the archives section. These include a particularly interesting analysis of my design projects published by Experimental Jetset in the book The Italian Avant-Garde 1968-1976. Their thoughts on my work can best be summed up with the term ‘socialism as a language,’ a concept that refers not only to my political communication projects, but to the entire body of my design work. In short, any sign striving for innovation carries within it the seeds of socialism, for the simple fact that it attempts to modify the existing situation.”

Being politically-minded myself, albeit in the American context, I am extremely fascinated by how Vitale navigates the political arena in Italy through the labyrinth of corporate roadblocks. I asked if he was especially proud of any particular work he’d done for the Italian Socialist Party.

“The chance to design political visual communications was a goal of mine, even as a young man,” he said about his social activism. “For quite some time, I was a committed contributor with my design work to the activities of the group that published the political and cultural periodical Manifesto, as well as those of the PdUP— Proletarian Unity Party— as well as the reviews Pace e Guerra (‘War and Peace’) and Muzak. This heightened visibility subsequently took concrete form with the design of the images of the Italian Socialist Party and of the UIL labour confederation.”

Vitale is most proud that he was able to contribute to those political forces in the form of new images, which a good many communications experts have confirmed were an innovation for Italian political graphics as a whole. “Demonstrating as much, I should point out, is the Gold Compass I was awarded by the ADI for my coordinated construction of the image of the Italian Socialist Party,” he beamed. “I was also nominated for a Gold Compass for my work for the Ninth Congress of the UIL Confederation.”

Vitale reasons that key to his practical and theoretical output is that, “throughout my extensive design activities, I have always been accompanied by the ‘sign,’ or the determination to key all my work on signs, so as to give each effort meaning. Developing, planning, and executing the visual communications requested by the client, but always making sure that the overall project has its meaning as well.”

Being a provincial American, I am not as well versed in the late 20th century pioneers as I would like to be. This delve into Vitale’s career is one step in my continued education, and learning his methods and beliefs has helped enormously. By way of conclusion, I was most impressed by his final statement to me: “By considering the signs produced by each of us as characteristic manifestations of our individuality, we arrive at a metaphor for awareness of the potential that each individual carries inside, at times without ever finding a way to express it, but which could allow them to make their mark in terms of exploration and innovation.”