Massimo Vignelli: Creator of Timeless Design and Fearless Critic of “Junk”

Posted inDesign Thinking
Thumbnail for Massimo Vignelli: Creator of Timeless Design and Fearless Critic of “Junk”

The design world mourns Massimo Vignelli, who died on Tuesday, May 27, at age 83. The Print community sends condolences to his wife and creative partner Lella Vignelli and their children Luca and Valentina.


Massimo Vignelli with the program, designed by Michael Bierut, for the Architectural League President’s Medal event, which he and his wife and partner Lella Vignelli, were awarded in 2011.

This post features images* of some of Vignelli’s most iconic work. The text looks back to the 1990s, to a debate that polarized the graphic design profession and that had its roots in a panel discussion on typography that took place in the offices of Print magazine and was reported in a 1991 issue. On that panel, Vignelli called Emigre magazine and Emigre fonts “garbage” and “an aberration of culture.” His comments set off a chain of attacks on both sides. For a good part of the ’90s, one could hardly open a design magazine without reading about “the prison of the grid,” as blamed on Vignelli and other Modernists, versus “the chaos of the new aesthetics,” as blamed on the designers of Emigre and others experimenting with deconstruction and unpredictability.

  1. Steven Heller pays tribute to Vignelli’s influence in newspaper design.

In 1996, while the debate raged, I sat down with Mr. Vignelli to delve into the reasoning, the specifics, behind his comments. Why, I asked, can’t we appreciate both schools of thought? As in painting or music, should there not be room for many styles, all of which are valid? And how, I wondered, would he respond to the criticisms of his work, the collateral damage of the debate?

As you’ll see, Massimo Vignelli was fearless. He spoke his mind about what he believed in. He didn’t mince words when it came to criticizing what he disliked. He even criticized his own clients, those who “tampered” with his work.

The following conversation, re-edited for Imprint, was published in the July 1996 issue of Print as “NO MORE WAR! Massimo Vignelli vs. The Renegades.”

Shapiro: Ever since you called Emigre “garbage” and “an aberration of culture,” you’ve gotten a reputation as someone who makes judgments about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ design based on style. Why can’t all of us appreciate many styles of design, just like we can enjoy listening to both Mozart and Coltraine?

Vignelli: Yes, but those are both good music. Then there is junk music, like radio jingles. And there is junk design. It is not a matter of style or taste. It is a matter of quality and non-quality.

How do you define “quality?”

Things that are done with knowledge. I am interested in work that is grounded in semiotics, the science or philosophy of communications. Semiotics has three levels: semantics, syntactics, and pragmatics. Semantics relates to how information is expressed. Syntactics relates to the structure, discipline, the coherence of elements, the continuity. I am also pragmatic. How is this perceived by the reader? Can he or she retrieve the information in the proper way?

Vignelli - 1986 Taylor's Flower Guide

Taylor’s Guides, designed by Vignelli in 1986 and published by Houghton Mifflin, is a series of eleven 400-page visual encyclopedias that provide horticultural information organized by plant group.


I personally find Taylor’s Guides to Gardening, which you designed, in which photographs of plants are arranged by color, size, light requirements, to be an excellent application of this.

The solution was in the problem itself. We’re always asking ourselves how we can solve the problem in the way that is the most clear, most beautiful, most timeless, most elegant. Actually, I’m tired of the words, “problem-solving.” There is no absolute reality. Only one’s interpretation of that reality. Therefore, my solution is my interpretation of the problem filtered through my culture, my education, my understanding, my sensibility.

To me, everything has a meaning. Typography is made of minor things, and unless you master the meanings of those things, you are illiterate. In later volumes in the Taylor’s series, the client tampered with the typography in ways that changed the visual language of the book. For example, they indented paragraphs that began with an initial cap. That is not the way these things should be! The initial cap should be flush left.

How can you say these aren’t matters of style or taste? Hasn’t Kit Hinrichs put initial caps in places that aren’t flush left?

Yes, but Kit does it in a masterly way. With a sense of scale, a sense of appropriateness. Everything is perfect. The difference is knowledge. Knowledge shows.

Vignelli - 1994 American Center in Paris

Vignelli’s 1994 identity and publications system for the American Center in Paris is featured in the AIGA Design Archives. Massimo and Lella Vignelli were awarded the AIGA Medal, the graphic design profession’s highest honor, in 1982.

This is a newsletter I designed for the American Center in Paris (above). Good doesn’t have to have exactly these elements. But it has to be logical. The information itself provides the graphics. This is what we call civilized graphics. The content, not the designer, is what is screaming for attention. Still, there is a lot of personal expression. On these we used black and red ink on fluorescent papers.

The people who criticize your work say that you give the same design — the heavy black rules, the red, black and yellow, the large Garamond Italic or Bodoni type going over the gutter — to every client.

It’s my handwriting, my language, my interpretation. I am interested in achieving a certain effect, such as words becoming images. Every time I do the layout [of large type going over the gutter], it may look the same, but it’s a little bit different, a little bit better.

Vignelli 1994 Guggenheim Museum Graphics Composite

According to the Guggenheim website, the first identity created specifically for the museum was designed by Vignelli to coincide with the 1992 reopening of the Frank Lloyd Wright building after a major renovation by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates. These collateral pieces were designed by Vignelli Associates in the 1990s.

Vignelli-large Bodoni

The scale may be different, the leading, the thicks and thins, exactly how the words break across the gutter. I’m not interested in change for the sake of change or novelty. I’m only interested in a projection of intelligence that comes through refinement.

If I spoke to Ivan Chermayeff about the same issue, he might say that say that the handwriting should reflect the client, not the designer.

Ours are both fine philosophies. American culture is young. It’s fascinated by diversity and novelty. European culture is fascinated by refinement. Obviously, I belong to European culture. We are continually refining language and the expression of it. I am very interested in the projection of intelligence that comes through refinement. I’m fascinated by new typefaces drawn from the past, such as our new Bodoni, which we did with Tom Carnase. We’re using it everywhere.


The Knoll International graphics program was designed by Vignelli in 1966.


You are known for doing everything with five type families: Bodoni, Century, Futura, Garamond …

… and Helvetica.


Issue #83 of Eye Magazine, 2012, paid tribute to Vignelli, then 81. A detail of the 45-year-old Knoll logo was featured on the cover.


Vignelli’s Stendig Calendar was designed in 1966 and immediately became part of the Museum of Modern Art Design Collection. It is still available through various retail and online outlets.

The five-family type mafia.

That’s a good one! Those are the typefaces with value.

In the last ten or fifteen years, in order to generate a new direction the young people threw away things that were good. If architecture had done this, we would have gone back to stilts and caves. The people who like Emigre say it’s great because they have no education or sense.

Could you be saying this because it’s so unlike your work?

No. Look at April Greiman’s work. It’s not like my work at all, but it is always exciting, always stimulating. Never gross or vulgar. I like the work of many younger designers. For example, Pippo Lionni, Leo Lionni’s son, who works in Paris, Willi Kunz, and of course Michael Bierut. Some typefaces being designed today are very elegant. The work of Adrian Frutiger is very fine. Typefaces designed by Frutiger in the last five to ten years have fantastic refinements. The Emigre typefaces have zero refinement, zero grace. I suppose they’re trying to come out with new expressions. But there is no need for any of them.

Does it matter to you that Emigre fonts were originally designed for output on a dot-matrix printer, pre-PostScript?

No, I don’t want to hear any rationalizations. It’s all baloney. You measure these things by the end result. None of these fonts have made any contribution to typography. They are commercial and irresponsible.

Do you use the word irresponsible because you think these fonts are cynically being foisted on a public that’s merely hungry for novelty?

No, these people are sincere in what they’re doing. They know their business very well. They do what they do for precise reasons. In the same way the writer of radio jingles is sincere about what he does. A whole generation of students and followers is being influenced by this kind of thing. Students today need more respect for the past. Many of them know nothing about philosophy, about European history before the French Revolution or after. They know nothing of the major events of the century. They have no early training, such as the Montessori system, in building structures and using color. Instead, their finger-paintings are put up on the refrigerator, and they’re led to believe that these smearings are great works of art, like abstract expressionism. In high school they make scrapbooks. In college or art school they start working on computers on day one and stay glued to the screen. We shouldn’t be surprised at what we see today: glorified infantilism. Look in Vogue and Vanity Fair and you see those scrapbook layouts everywhere. This is symptomatic of a culture in which everything, the whole environment, is falling apart.

You said that the people who like Emigre do so because they have no education. But Emigre is a publication for the highly educated. Its readers are literate — and passionate. The letters to the editor make me think they are back in 1968, trying to burn the barricades, tear down the walls of the establishment.

The renegades got organized. They have a voice, and it became a culture. Like the beat generation, they’ve destroyed more than they built. Emigre is an expression of an attempt to find a new direction. Some of the covers and layouts are not bad. But rather than come up with something of real complexity, elegance, and power — it could be something very provocative, which I would love to see — they came up with something shallow. There is nothing of value, either, especially in light of the pretentiousness of some of the text. It is cartoonish, with overtones of graffiti, an irresponsible manifestation of our time. People who make graffiti do not respect the rights of others and they pollute the environment. If this is what graphic design is, then I’m not a graphic designer any more! For years, I’ve been obsessed and offended by these people. I felt they were demeaning my profession. I have recently realized that they do not belong to my profession. And I do not belong to their profession. Everything they do is an accident, happenstance.

April Greiman has said that she built her career on accidents, that she’s subscribed creatively to the chance principle, like recapturing images that were created by accident on the computer or on video. She told me how she enlarged an airbrush gradation on the graphic paintbox in order to see its deeper structure, which she said was like discovering the DNA code.

Right. She is into deeper understanding. A methodology and a discipline. She doesn’t massacre type. Her work is the expression of her intelligence. You can never see ugly intelligence. Or, if it’s ugly, it’s not intelligence. Even the most controversial pictures by Mapplethorpe are extremely beautiful, although the subject matter can be offensive. You can tell quality by measuring it against things that have been done in the past.

Let’s say I showed you a piece of carved, 18th-century furniture, full of gold leaf and so forth. It’s not to your taste. Is it beautiful?

Beauty could include the rejection of established values.

Is this something like how certain paintings of Manet were rejected by the French Academy
— because only paintings such as those done by Ingres and David, which reflected a certain type of classical idealism or moral platitudes, were valued at the time?

Yes, Impressionism could have been considered ugly by people who had not developed the ability to look at a Manet and see it as beautiful. It’s true that I might not have developed an ability to look at some things that are designed today. I understand that these overlappings communicate to the generation that grew up with MTV. I don’t see it. For me, it is a mess. But the kids might be more comfortable.

Then are we talking about a generation gap or an absolute definition of intrinsic beauty?

We are talking about a schism rocking our profession! On the one side are the information architects, a term devised by Richard Saul Wurman, rooted in history and semiotics. On the other side are graphic designers rooted in advertising, pictorial arts, and trends. Personally I feel I no longer have anything to share with the so-called graphic designers of today. David Carson is a terrific artist, very exciting, very talented. But he uses letterforms like a painter, as found objects, not as typography. He could never do something like a price list.

I imagine David Carson will never want to, or have to, do a price list. Is what you are saying that you can make a price list into a thing of beauty? And that you are not embarrassed to admit it.

Price lists, train schedules, I’m not ashamed at all. In addition to semiotics, I’m interested in ambiguity. These things tell you what something costs, when the train leaves. Then you look at them again and see what is happening on another level.

Vignelli - 1966 NY MTA Subway Map_c

Vignelli’s New York City Subway Map was relased by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 1972. According to the New York Times, “Many riders found it the opposite of understandable. Rather than representing the subway lines as the spaghetti tangle they are, it showed them as uniform stripes of various colors running straight up and down or across at 45-degree angles — not unlike an engineer’s schematic diagram of the movement of electricity.” Although the map was replaced in 1979 with a more geographically faithful one, it earned its place in the MoMA Design Collection and was called “a nearly canonical piece of abstract graphic design” by architecture critic Paul Goldberger. In 2012, the MTA revived a digital version of the Vignelli design as “The Weekender.”

Vignelli 1988 Fodors Travel Guides

Fodors Travel Guides, 1988. In his book, ”Vignelli from A to Z,” (Images Publishing Group, 2007) Massimo Vignelli wrote in first-person style: ”Designing a book doesn’t mean freezing it into a rigid format. A successful grid is one that allows a designer to achieve a great variety of compositions within a consistent structure.’


The Audubon Field Guides series, Vignelli wrote, ”was conceived as a book of pocket-size format, with a plastic cover to make the book waterproof, and onion skin paper to make it light… this series has been a bestseller for many years, particularly for the advantages offered by its design concept.”


On the occasion of the 100th birthday of Bloomingdales department store in 1972, Vignelli was hired to redesign the logo and the packaging to replace a mishmash of sizes, shapes, colors and designs. From a 198o monograph on the history of Bloomingdales: “As a result of this redesign, today there are only six box shapes and sizes, all that seems to be needed to contain the merchandise.”


In addition to identity, print communications, books, and packaging, Vignelli was a designer of furniture, clothing, interiors and housewares. Heller plastic stacking dinnerware has produced and sold internationally since its 1972 launch. As described in the DWR catalog: “The genius of the design is in the way it stacks. Utilizing industrial production and materials, the plates and mugs are made with straight sides and a small lip on the bottom. Each one fits securely into the other, creating a straight, tall stack that maximizes storage space.”

Are you saying that you appreciate the innovators, not the imitators?

The innovators are few. The imitators are few. All they do is look at design annuals and copy.

For several years now I’ve been fighting the vulgarity, the sloppiness, the confusion. Today I’m taking a step to clarify the issue. The dictionary defines an architect as one who plans and achieves a difficult objective, such as the architect of a military victory. I applaud the person who designed the Nutrition Facts label that’s on every food package now being sold in the U.S. That is a masterpiece of information architecture, and quite a victory for social responsibility. It has nothing to do with painting or self-expression.

And here is a mailer I just received from the AIGA. I am ashamed that the American Institute of Graphic Arts, which ought to represent the highest level of our profession, has done something like this. Then I don’t belong! By dropping out I end the war. After all, you cannot tell someone what to paint or not. That is a matter of personal choice.

Are you going to start a new organization for information architects?

Maybe. We can start with Jim Cross, Kit Hinrichs, Michael Bierut. Let’s see what happens.


In March 2011, The Architectural League awarded its President’s Medal to Lella and Massimo Vignelli “in recognition of a body of work so influential in its breadth that it has shaped the very way we see the world.” Michael Bierut, a Pentagram partner and an Architectural League vice president who began his career 30 years ago at Vignelli Associates, designed this program (shown open in Massimo Vignelli’s portrait at the top of the post). It featured five different covers, each with a Vignelli quote set in Helvetica Medium in Vignelli’s trademark red-orange.

* most images in this post courtesy Beatriz Cifuentes, Vignelli Associates