Winter 2004

Recalling the Vignelli experience

Design Is One

By Lella and Massimo Vignelli. <br>Images Publishing Group, $25

‘In the early 1950s,’ begins Massimo Vignelli in the first chapter of this visual monograph, ‘I was working as a part-time freelancer in the offices of some of the best Milanese architects, and I was exposed to the excitement of designing everything “from the spoon to the city”.’ So keen was his desire to ‘prevent bad design from taking place’ that when he and his partner (and wife) Lella came to the United States in 1957, they were determined to make ‘better design for a better world.’

Whether the world is better now is questionable, but the design world is decidedly better, partly due to the Vignellis’ talent and zeal. Their work has doubtless influenced many lives.

I first experienced it when, in 1966, the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) introduced new subway locator and train identification sign systems, created by Vignelli when he was a partner at Unimark. Helvetica replaced the chaotic typographic mélange in subway stations, and the train line numerals and letters became more human and colourful. In 1970 the MTA issued the classic Vignelli subway map, a simple grid with colour-coded bars. (A few years later the map was replaced by a more fragmented design.)

My second Vignelli experience came in the form of a weekly New York alternative newspaper The Herald, which Vignelli designed in 1971 on a strict six-column grid, and with only one typeface: ‘One size for text, two sizes for titles and italics for captions.’ At a time when mainstream newspapers were grey and the underground newspapers were chaotic, The Herald stood out for its clarity and readability.

The Herald and Vignelli’s other publication formats represent a vision (and a style) that is both consistent and fresh. The book proves that the criticism ‘much of their design looks the same’ is nonsense. Nevertheless the Vignellis’ type preferences are famously restricted. Vignelli was Mr Bodoni incarnate. Bodoni type was both an alternative to reckless typography and a signature for the Vignellis. It took an Italian to make the classical face a symbol of American modernity.

The Vignellis’ multi-dimensional and cross-disciplinary contributions are varied in both form and spirit. But if Massimo is more the formalist, Lella is more the spiritualist. Her jewellery design is sublime. Unlike in some Modernist monographs, the collected work in this one is not nostalgic. The descriptions are often too brief, however, and there remains a need for a good critical overview of their work.

The book also suffers from looking a little too much like a portfolio (which it is). Yet, taken individually, each object – whether three-dimensional or printed – is engaging for what it says about the Vignellis’ mission to make the world better. High-mindedness aside, what excites me about this book is not only the design, but also the introductory photographs that front each section, revealing how the Vignellis, like their work, have evolved elegantly over the past 50 years.

Steven Heller, design writer, New York

First published in Eye no. 54 vol. 14 2004

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.