Remembering Massimo Vignelli’s Design Legacy

Starting by hand defines the method of the master craftsman of graphic design, Massimo Vignelli. January 10th would have marked the design icon’s 85th birthday. In Massimo’s honor, we look back at his method, as we remember his legacy.

It’s easy to give such advice as “If you can design one thing, you can design everything,” when you are already a master designer and craftsman, widely regarded as an influential leader in your creative field. Include designs for American Airlines, the NYC Subway Map, IBM, Bloomingdale’s, and an AIGA Gold Medal, you are getting positive reinforcement from a bona fide legend. The wisdom comes from Massimo Vignelli, whose career spanned nearly six decades with landmark works in book design, corporate identities, packaging design, interior design, poster art, architectural graphics, furniture and product design, and magazine layout. We guess Vignelli was right: in his case, if you design one thing, you do design everything.

Vignelli has said, “Design is a profession that takes care of everything around us. Politicians take care of the nation and fix things—at least they are supposed to. Architects take care of buildings. Designers take care of everything around us… This table, this chair, this lamp, this pen has been designed… I think that it is my responsibility to make the work better than it is.”

Since first entering the world of design as a profession in 1960 in Milan with the Vignelli Office for Design and Architecture, his work has been called “essential, intellectually elegant, strong, timeless.” By the time he opened Vignelli Associates with wife Lella in 1971 in New York City, he was already widely known as one of the world’s greatest design talents. Yet his minimal, smart, almost technocratic style (Vignelli would most likely say “appropriate, and pragmatically understandable”), is anything but the work of a machine or computer. Vignelli was an old-school craftsman, beginning each project by hand, sketching his layouts before considering a project’s final look. And some of his greatest craftwork comes in his book design projects.

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An ardent supporter of the grid, a structure on which all design should be based, Vignelli had a clear vision of how a specific look should be approached. “Nothing could be more useful to reach our intention than the Grid,” he wrote in The Vignelli Canon, a collection of the master’s tricks and tips on design. “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. For the design of a book the grid provides again structure and continuity from cover to cover.”

Vignelli explained his process, “One of the things that I design most of the time is books. The way I do them is take a sheet of paper, (and by hand) devise a grid, determine the position of the photographs. I try and position photographs with white space to give reverence around each picture. And not only do I draw the position of the picture and its proper dimension, but I draw every damn picture! I could do the  work with a computer these days, but I’m faster, and better, by hand.”

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His hands have designed hundreds of books over the years, including books published by leading art houses Rizzoli, Penguin, Aperture, and Pantheon, as well as leading institutions such as MoMA, MOCA, the Guggenheim, and New Museum. Even though what we see in the final published collection is what appears to be an unaffected, concise presentation, Vignelli has delicately drawn each page with a purpose and the unmatched scrutiny of the script-writer, director, and cinematographer of a film.

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Vignelli exclaimed, “That is why I love books! My (handmade) grid is not something you physically see. It’s just like underwear! You wear it but it’s not to be exposed. The grid is the underwear of the book!”

This article was written by Evan Pricco and originally published in Issue 01 of the Mohawk Maker Quarterly. The Mohawk Maker Quarterly is a vehicle to support a community of like-minded makers. Content focuses on stories of small manufacturers, artisans, printers, designers, and artists who are making their way in the midst of the digital revolution. Learn more about the quarterly here and sign up to receive future printed issues.

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